10/06/2010 06:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Don't Miss the Boat, California

Part 1 in a 4-part series examining the California Ballot Initiatives from a Jewish lens.

At the One Nation rally in Washington, D.C. on October 2, 2010, Marian Wright Edelman said that the primary lesson of Noah's Ark is simply this: "Don't miss the boat." Edelman's observation is particularly relevant to the questions posed by Proposition 23, the California initiative designed to defeat state-based climate change reform.

Last month, more than 14 million people were displaced by floods in Pakistan, fires burned in Russia as temperatures soared , and the media paid tribute to the lives and promise lost in Hurricane Katrina. As in Noah's time, we live perilously -- our existence on this fragile planet threatened by the shifting and intensifying weather patterns that accompany climate change. But imagine. Imagine you knew exactly what you could do to prepare and protect your family, community, country, and world from climate change. Imagine there was a blueprint for survival. What would you do?

In this week's parsha, we learn that Noah had a blueprint. Forewarned of the Flood, he planned ahead and began building an Ark to God's precise specifications. The entire 120 years it took to construct the Ark, Rashi tells us, represented an open invitation for humanity to turn away from acts of corruption and dishonest gain toward righteousness, compassion and justice. It has been more than 120 years since the start of the Industrial Revolution, long years of ill-gotten gains and time enough to create our own blueprint for redemption.

That is why so many of us rejoiced at the passage of California's Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, known as AB 32. AB 32 contains precise specifications needed to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, such as a trading system for emission permits, decreases in the carbon intensity of gasoline, and orders for utilities to generate more electricity from solar and other renewable sources. AB 32 has inspired a leading-edge "clean tech" industry that encompasses 12,000 companies, 500,000 jobs, and billions of dollars of private investment. In the last two years alone, the burgeoning green economy has been California's single largest source of job creation.

Given the gridlock in Washington, DC over federal climate change legislation, state action seems the surest way of building our Ark and inspiring others to do the same. And given the urgent need for action, one might question why anyone would want to delay that effort. Yet, that is exactly what we have in Proposition 23, an initiative on the November 2010 ballot that would delay implementation of AB 32 until California's unemployment rate drops to 5.5% for a full year, something that has happened only three times in the last thirty five years.

It comes as no surprise that out-of-state oil companies such as Valero, Tesoro, and Koch Industries are backing Proposition 23. The New Yorker describes the Koch Brothers as believers in "drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry -- especially environmental regulation." The University of Massachusetts at Amherst named Koch Industries one of the top ten air polluters in the nation and Greenpeace identified the company as a "kingpin of climate science denial." By funding efforts such as Proposition 23, Koch Industries and its corporate allies have sought to keep Americans addicted to dirty, costly, and dangerous fossil fuels.

The proponents of Proposition 23 say the measure is necessary to protect jobs and working people. But is that the truth? In California, climate change is contributing to rising sea levels, intensifying droughts, wildfires and rapidly melting snowpacks -- all of which necessitate costly government action. Wide swings in energy prices create uncertainty for businesses, which may discourage additional hiring. And without government regulations, working families will encounter higher energy prices and remain vulnerable to the health consequences of exposure to fossil fuels, consequences especially acute for those living in poor neighborhoods adjacent to ports and freeways.

Perhaps that is why the coalition against Proposition 23 includes such an unprecedented spectrum of allies, including business, labor, public health, environmental, transportation and religious groups, including many Jewish organizations, such as the Progressive Jewish Alliance , the Religious Action Center, the American Jewish Committee and social justice-oriented synagogues throughout the state.

The change we need will not materialize overnight, but if we -- like Noah -- keep building our Ark, decade after decade, our children and our children's children will reap the benefits of a greener world in which prosperity is more widely shared. Without AB 32, our emission of greenhouse gases will continue to disrupt ecosystems around the world, including our own. We who consume a disproportionate percentage of the Earth's resources must therefore begin to repair the damage and vote no on Proposition 23.

Anything less and we certainly will have missed the boat.

Elissa D. Barrett is the Executive Director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance and a leader in the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable. David Levitus is a member of PJA's LA Regional Council, a PJA Jeremiah Fellowship alumnus, and a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Southern California. PJA's voting recommendations on all the California propositions are available online.