09/16/2013 06:19 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

The Meaning of This Hour: Confronting the Coming Cataclysm of Global Climate Change

In March 1938, Abraham Joshua Heschel delivered a speech to a conference of Quakers in Frankfort called "The Meaning of this Hour." (The talk later was expanded and published in 1943.)

Heschel had been living in Berlin for some years, earning his Ph.D. and a liberal rabbinic ordination. (He already had gotten a traditional ordination when he was a teenager in Warsaw.) During his years there, he was a witness to rise of Nazism even while he taught and began to publish his work.

In 1938, it was clear to many people that war in Europe was coming. The Anschluss, the Nazi takeover of Austria, like Heschel's talk, took place in March of that year. Heschel was arrested in October 1938 and deported to Poland. Six weeks before the invasion of Poland, in September 1939, Heschel was able to get to England and from there to the United States.

In a 1965 speech called "No Religion is an Island," Heschel referred to himself as "a brand plucked from the fire in which my people was burned to death." (He was alluding to Chapter 3 in the book of Zechariah. There, the high priest, Joshua, who had been born during the exile in Babylon and was one of the first to return to Judea, was called by God "a brand plucked from the fire.")

Heschel warned of the coming cataclysm in vivid and forceful language, evoking images of the demonic. He said, "At no time has the earth been so soaked with blood. Fellowmen turned out to be evil ghosts, monstrous and weird." He asked the question, "Who is responsible?" We are, he said, by not fighting for "right, for justice, for goodness." He said that we should be ashamed, and after the war, when the full horror of the Holocaust was revealed, he said that we should not ask "Where was God?" but "Where was man?"

While we are not facing another world war and I usually am loath to reference the Holocaust when dealing with contemporary issues, I could not but be struck by the urgency of Heschel's speech when I think about the looming disaster of climate change. The meaning of this hour is that we are continuing to argue about the fact of climate change when it is already happening, and millions of people already are feeling its effects. Droughts, floods, increases in forest fires, stronger earthquakes, seas rising, and thousands of scientific indicators seem not to move us. Several years ago, CARE published a report on climate refugees that conservatively estimated that by 2050 there would be 250 million climate change refugees. A long-lasting drought in the Middle East was one of the factors that precipitated the civil war in Syria. That is just one more example of how climate change has and will cause unrest, strife, and war.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a coalition of thousands of scientists worldwide, has been tracking and evaluating the research on climate change since 1988. Its fifth assessment report will be issued later this month. A draft of that report, leaked to reporters last month, says that it is "extremely likely" that human actions are the cause of most of the temperature increases of the last 60 years. ("Extremely likely" is what scientists say when mean that something is 99 percent certain.) According to the report: "There is high confidence that this has warmed the ocean, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea level and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century."

And things could get much worse. If carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases continue to be emitted into the atmosphere at present rates, global temperatures will rise by more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit. This would cause large scale melting of ice, more extreme heat waves and flooding, disruptions in the world food supply, and the massive extinction of plant and animals species.

Because it is a collective group of scientists that operates under the auspices of the United Nations, the IPCC always has been conservative in its assessments. Many climate scientists believe that the situation is even worse than reported; some believe that we may be too late to avoid a catastrophic global climate change. To some extent they are right. Even if we were to eliminate all the carbon emissions today, the CO2 already in the atmosphere will continue to have an effect for hundreds of years. But we can stop the situation from getting worse.

In the published version of his speech, Heschel wrote, "The Almighty has not created the universe that we may have opportunities to satisfy our greed, envy and ambition. We have not survived that we may waste our years in vulgar vanities." These words can easily be applied to our lack of action on climate change.

We often think that it is all a matter of technology; that we can somehow come up with some gadget that will make all the CO2 go away without our having to change anything about the way we live. But in fact the only way to prevent a disaster for future generations is to phase out carbon-based energy as quickly as possible. And to do that, we need to act now.

In the haftarah for Yom Kippur morning, we read Isaiah 57:14-58:14. In this passage the prophet says that people don't understand why God has not forgiven them, even though they have fasted. God replies that their ritual is hypocritical, because even while they fasted they have acted immorally by oppressing their workers. A true fast, says God, must be one that accompanies justice and the care of the poor and powerless. Only then will God answer, Here I am, when you call.

Climate change is one of the greatest moral disasters of human history, because the people who will suffer the most have been the least responsible for its cause. Those of us in the developed countries somehow think that we will escape its results, turning away from the hundreds of millions who will be caught in the whirlwind of misery that is coming.

The meaning of this hour is that we must recognize what we are doing, admit our fault, and bring about the changes necessary to prevent further damage.

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the "fierce urgency of now." Once again, that is the meaning of this hour.

(This was originally published in the New Jersey Jewish Standard)