We asked two members of our community to weigh in on who should be responsible for taking action on climate change. We want your opinion, too.
H.G. Wells said, “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle I no longer despair for the future of the human race.”
Wells lived in the golden age of bicycling, street cars and railroads in the late 19th century. But with the advent of the automobile, America handed over the keys to our transportation system to motorized vehicles and the fossil fuel industry. Deeply interconnected with housing, personal cars drove suburban sprawl – most of it systematically segregated by race and class via legal and fiscal instruments like zoning, redlining and discriminatory lending.
Of course, the car industry didn’t do this by itself. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 financially incentivized states to demolish urban communities of color in order to build fast roads for suburban commuters – Routes 6 and 10 through Olneyville in Providence are a perfect example.
All of this led to (many) people spreading out, living farther away from where they work, go to school, shop and socialize. The design of most American communities now revolves around the automobile – single family homes with two-car garages, minimum parking requirements for all types of buildings, nightmarish four-lane “stroads” (think Route 2 in Warwick), drive-thrus – on and on. Cities are choking on traffic, and commute times are ever-increasing.
Because this is about the climate crisis, I won’t even mention the public health and safety aspects of our land use, housing and transportation decisions. I will say that this has led us to a point where, according to the 2017 National Household Travel Survey, of the 46% of U.S. trips that were three miles or less, 77% were driven, 19% were walked, 2% used transit and only 1% were biked.
In Rhode Island, we are blessed with short distances. Admittedly, we are not blessed with a transportation system that allocates resources to maintaining the roads we have, let alone dedicated biking and walking infrastructure or high-frequency public transit. Which is why, according to a recent report by the Stockholm Environment Institute, Rhode Island’s transportation sector contributed 40% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. The report revealed that we have a 20-year window to make dramatic changes to our GHG emissions in order to avoid catastrophic climate consequences.
On transportation, it says, “The most effective approaches combine ‘soft’ educational and behavioral change campaigns with ‘hard’ structural reforms like zoning laws, carbon taxation, and major investments in pedestrian and bicycle facilities and public transportation.”
It’s time for Rhode Island to ride the winds of change. So, who is responsible?
First of all, the government. In Rhode Island, our Department of Transportation and Division of Statewide Planning (under the Department of Administration) are directly responsible for the policies, planning and projects that will begin to solve this massive, concrete problem. The Governor appoints the leaders of those departments. Unfortunately, the leadership at those agencies is still talking about spending $200 million to widen I-95.
Let’s be clear: just like power plants or oil pipelines, car infrastructure is fossil fuel infrastructure. And electric vehicles will not save us.
Without long-range planning for shorter commutes, densifying our suburbs, and investing heavily in non-car transportation options, we won’t see the greenhouse gas reductions we need. Some municipalities are starting to work on this, using the framework of transit-oriented development – high-density housing and commercial districts clustered around train stations.
Pawtucket is currently doing important work in this area, responding to the fact that millennials and other groups are rejecting the practice of sitting in traffic for hours to get to work. Similarly, Providence is about to release its ambitious Great Streets Initiative, which envisions a citywide network of urban trails for biking and rolling. The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s Transit Forward 2040 plan is also in development – a major step in improving our statewide public transit.
Although these problems are deeply systemic, there is an element of personal consumption here as well. Just like reducing our meat eating, composting, using reusable bags and bottles, and other environmentally conscious behaviors, decreasing the amount we drive is a fundamental way to be a steward of the planet.
Much better than individual choice, though, is collective action. Throughout the state and the country, organizations are working hard to address these issues through bicycling, walking, transit, smart growth and development, affordable housing, and more. There are so many ways to work on solutions, and bring your elected officials along for the ride.
Don’t hesitate to get in touch with me to find out how.
LIZA BURKIN is the project manager for a soon-to-be launched coalition called Our Streets PVD. Drop her a line at email@example.com for more information.
THE SCIENCE OF the climate crisis has been clear for decades, and the need for action has never been more urgent.
Reliable, peer-reviewed research shows that half of plant and animal species are at risk for extinction by the end of the century. Wildfires, droughts, hurricanes and floods will become more deadly and destructive. Millions of climate refugees will need safe haven in coming years. This is only the tip of the iceberg.
The simple answer is that everyone is responsible for taking action on the climate crisis. As residents of the United States, we have to be accountable for our country’s role in producing a huge percentage of the world’s pollution over the last 150 years, despite our relatively small share of the world’s population.
President Donald J. Trump’s withdrawal from the groundbreaking (though not nearly as ambitious as the problem requires) Paris Climate Accords and rollback of a significant number of environmental regulations (including clear air, water and wildlife protections) mark a new phase in the decades-old cynical and ultimately deadly assault by the fossil fuel and chemical companies. As the inaction continues, my generation and those to come will have to navigate a world – if we survive – that will be harsh and unforgiving. Readers in older age groups may not have to face the consequences themselves, but should have no doubt that rising seas and poisoned air and water will greatly impact their children and grandchildren.
The urgency to act on the climate crisis derives not only from moral, social and economic factors, but from Jewish ideals. We are instructed in Genesis (1:28-30), which we read in the Torah in recent weeks, to rule over the Earth and its animal and plant inhabitants. However, in the next few sentences, the other creatures of the world are given the green plants to eat. Who are we to take away from animals what has been given to them by the Creator? Are we the kind of rulers who leave their lands stripped of life, or are we protectors and promoters of growth and regeneration?
The Torah’s direction of “bal tashchit” or “do not destroy” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20) forbids us from cutting down the fruit trees of our enemies during wartime. How much more so should we be sure to not destroy our natural world during times of peace in our own backyard?
As the famous Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote, “Know the great reality, the richness of existence that you always encounter. Contemplate its grandeur, its beauty, its precision, its harmony. Be attached to the legions of living things who are constantly bringing forth everything beautiful.”
There are simple things that we can all do to help prevent the climate crisis from continuing to devolve into outright catastrophe. Eat less meat. Buy fewer things. Use fewer disposable items. Drive our cars less. Put solar panels on our roofs. However, this problem will continue to curse humankind and the planet until our economic system is dramatically altered.
We must vote for politicians who understand the scope of the problem and who do not take money from fossil fuel companies. We must advocate for environmental policies that help move us toward a carbon-neutral or carbon-negative economy. We must recognize and rectify the disproportionate impacts that fossil fuels have had on communities of color and low-income communities. We have very little time – scientists say 11 years – to avert the worst impacts. In my mind, there is nothing more Jewish than to stand up for the Earth at its time of greatest need.
To those in our own Rhode Island Jewish community, especially religious leaders, who deny that the climate crisis is real, I call on you to recognize your obligations to your children, to each other and to the world at large. To those who know that this is a real and urgent issue, and do not make it a centerpiece of their religious or spiritual practice, I say the same. As Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), which we recently read on Sukkot, says, “For in respect of the fate of man and the fate of beast, they have one and the same fate: as the one dies so dies the other; all share the same breath of life.” (3:19).
ADAM CABLE is a native Rhode Islander, clinical social worker and a member of the board of directors at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.