Local expert: mitigating climate change is way to practice tikkun olam

Gregg Garfin, Ph.D.

Climate change is happening in the Southwestern United States and across the globe, and Judaism gives us an incentive to address environmental problems, says Gregg Garfin, Ph.D., university director of the Southwest Climate Science Center at the University of Arizona. Garfin presented “The Changing Climate of Arizona and the Southwest: What’s Coming? What Can We Do?” to a group of 42 people at the Jewish Federation-Northwest on Nov. 14.

“We should use our brains and our hearts when dealing with these issues,” says Garfin. “Achieving environmental justice is to create tikkun olam [repair of the world] by taking opportunities for action, and there is guidance from the Torah and daily prayers.” He cites Leviticus 25:4 — “But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.” He interprets this as a guideline for how we should think about our relationship to all of creation, and how we manage our natural resources.

“Multiple times a day we recite the Shema which gives us the opportunity to think about the Oneness and how everything is interconnected,” Garfin says.  “When you study ecology and climatology you learn that we can’t think of our actions in isolation. If you tug on a string at one end of the system, it rattles things somewhere else.” Garfin is an associate professor and associate extension specialist at the UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment, and deputy director for science translation and outreach at the university’s Institute of the Environment.

The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2016, covering 10 years of the most significant risks worldwide, shows that environmental worries have been topping the charts in recent years. The report says failure to mitigate climate change and develop solutions may lead to biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, extreme weather events, water crises, food crises, and the spread of infectious diseases.

Focusing on the Southwest, Garfin says changes in weather patterns have been documented. Temperatures in Arizona show a multi-decade warming trend, with a similar trend in a six-state region in the Southwest. A 7- to 9-degree increase in average annual temperatures is predicted by the end of this century. It is also projected that Tucson will have an additional month of temperatures of 110 degrees and higher by the end of the century. Droughts would be longer and more intense.

In the Southwest, too little precipitation has often been followed by too much rain and flooding. Garfin says a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, but this does not necessarily mean an increase in precipitation. It can, however, lead to increasingly intense storms, and a higher possibility of flooding.

“In 2017 there have been weather and climate related disasters occurring at a record pace,” Garfin says. As of Oct. 6, there were 15 weather and climate disasters with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The disasters included hurricanes, tornadoes, storm surge, hail, flooding, drought, and severe fires. There have been 282 deaths. NOAA also reports that the five-year drought in California has resulted in the death of more than 100 million trees.

Long snow-free seasons and higher temperatures result in dry brush, grass and trees, downed tree limbs, and large numbers of dying trees, which heighten the chance of fire. Emphasizing the severity of fires since 1990, Garfin says that before 1990 fires commonly burned 20,000 to 30,000 acres, but recently there have been fires spreading over 460,000 to 500,000 acres.

“The health of a forest suffers greatly after a fire and the soil is stripped of nutrients,” Garfin says. “In some areas of severe burns we will not see Ponderosa pine trees and other native species in our lifetime.”

“Is it all doom or gloom?” Garfin asks. The answer is no. There are many studies being conducted, and all levels of government are looking for solutions.

“We cannot just depend on studying year-to-year trends because the past is no longer a guide to the future,” Garfin says. He explains that trends in temperature are different from simple variability.

Scientists are running models on super computers, he says, and “working with practitioners such as public health officials, water managers, fire managers and city planners to build trust to make better decisions,” says Garfin. “They are making their information easier for non-scientists to understand. These days, science students are being taught to build strong communication skills, and to work with journalists, to facilitate meetings, do more planning, and carefully document climate change.”

Garfin is a contributing author to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a report to Congress that will be coming out late in 2018. The report summarizes the impact of climate change on the United States now and in the future. Garfin says the public may make comments pertaining to the upcoming report until Jan. 31 by visiting the website globalchange.gov/notices.

Pima County and the City of Tucson have climate change resolutions to align with the Paris Accord, Garfin says, adding that other cities including Denver, Phoenix, Santa Fe, and Las Vegas have climate change plans and are not waiting for the federal government to act. The military is evaluating how climate change threatens national security. Local governments are evaluating issues such as population increases, land use, recycling, sustainable building methods, uses for storm water, water supplies and water conservation.

Individuals also can play their part in mitigating climate change and preparing for the future. Strategies include switching to energy-saving appliances and lights; walking, biking or using public transportation or driving a fuel-efficient vehicle; using low-flow toilets, faucets and showerheads; landscaping with drought and heat tolerant plants and planting desert-adapted trees for shading buildings; limiting the spread of disease by eliminating standing water where mosquitos breed; and staying up to date on the climate change information. Locally, you can join the fight to remove buffelgrass, an invasive species that outcompetes native plants and increases the risk of fire. These ideas are from the pamphlet, “10 Ways to Address and Adapt to Climate Change in Southern Arizona,” published by the University of Arizona Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions.

“We need to support each other and collaborate with organizations and the government,” says Garfin. “Big challenges need big solutions, and this will take many hands to find the answers.”

Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.