By: Rabbi Daniel Swartz, Executive Director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life
December gave us such an unprecedented spate of tornados, ice storms, and record breaking high temperatures that I wondered if the ghost of Irving Berlin was singing, “I’m having nightmares about an extreme weather Christmas.” While January temperatures have been less unusual, at least so far, it’s becoming increasingly clear that climate change isn’t a looming crisis — it’s already happening.
So what are we going to do about it? One important step would be strict standards on methane emissions. Methane is a “two-for” pollutant, leading to health problems as well as climate change. Indeed, ton for ton it traps about 30 times as much heat as carbon dioxide. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one-third of the warming from greenhouse gases occurring today is due to human-caused emissions of methane. In the U.S alone, the oil and gas industry releases 16 million metric tons of methane each year, with the same near-term climate impact as 350 coal plants. Thus, strong methane standards that prevent leaks and prohibit venting and flaring would have a significant, immediate impact on climate change.
Promoting health and stabilizing the climate should be reasons enough to enact strong protections from methane pollution. But, as a person of faith, I’m also concerned about the injustices that result from methane pollution. Methane pollution is a justice issue because it is has a disproportionate impact on communities of color. Studies have shown that African Americans are 75 percent more likely to live near toxic oil and gas facilities. Since methane pollution produces ground-level ozone, which contributes to asthma, it is no surprise that asthma rates are much higher among African American children in these communities. Reducing methane pollution would also reduce the emissions of volatile organic chemicals and toxic air pollution near oil and gas facilities. Given that more than 1.81 million Latinos live within one half mile of existing oil and gas facilities, strong standards would help reduce the health disparities Latinos face.
While climate change is global, it doesn’t affect everyone equally, which will lead to further injustices. The spread of wildfires especially impacts the lives of people who can’t afford to rebuild their homes. Heat waves are uncomfortable for everyone — but for the elderly, the very young, and those too poor to have air conditioning, they can be fatal. Droughts raise food prices for everyone — but again, those who can barely afford food in any case will suffer the most.
Justice also demands that protective standards incorporate community monitoring that allows frontline communities, those most directly affected by the oil and gas industry, to engage with industry and regulators with accurate, transparent information. To be most effective, community monitoring should include educating community members and clear, effective procedures for community members to file reports and complaints.
Of course, strong standards would not only protect people but also the rest of God’s creation. Accelerating climate change threatens the health not only of individual species, but also that of entire ecosystems. If we want to bequeath a healthy planet to our children, we need to act now — and eliminating methane pollution is one of the most immediate steps we can take.
Most faiths, including my own, hold that each human is worthy and deserves to have their basic needs met, including the need for clean air and clean water. We seek to live in a world where all people are not only surviving, but thriving. I hope you will join with me in urging the Environmental Protection Agency to enact robust methane pollution standards on new and existing sources of methane emissions, protecting the health of all Americans and giving us a chance at stabilizing our climate and future.
Published in the Scranton Times: February 6, 2022