High Hopes –by Peter Eisenstadt

Do you remember the Kellogg-Briand Treaty? It was big news in 1928. A big pact signed in Paris, 62 nations came together, promising to outlaw war as a tactic of national policy. The signatories all pledged not to use war to resolve “disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which might arise among them.” A great idea, and a very popular one, worldwide, in the wake of World War I. Americans loved the idea as well—the Kellogg of the pact was Frank K. Kellogg, the US Secretary of State. The treaty passed the US Senate 85–1. Peace, it’s wonderful.

It didn’t work too well. The treaty didn’t have any enforcement mechanism, ignored things like colonialism, existing power inequalities between nations, and of course, within a few years you know what happened next. ‘

Do you remember the Tower of Babel? Sort of like the Kellogg-Briand Pact. All the people in the world got together and decided to build a big tower. God didn’t much like the idea, reasoning that if they could build a tower, then “nothing that they may propose will out of their reach.” Why this would be a bad thing, the Torah doesn’t say, but God made the tower builders speak different languages, and made it difficult, impossible really, for the world to come together for a common purpose. No big towers, no nothing. And so it has been ever since. And the Torah seems to agree that God made the nations to contend and quarrel, not to agree and work together. There aren’t a lot of international conferences in the Tanakh.

Looking at rabbinic midrash on the Tower of Babel, there are several pertinent stories. One comment is that the builders of the Tower of Babel had determined that every 1,656 years the firmament will topple, and they tried to build the tower, presumably one of four they planned, under each of the four corners of the sky. It is not surprising that for the generations after Noah, flood control was a major concern, and perhaps the rabbis are telling us that the Tower of Babel was in some ways the first international effort at addressing climate change. (By the way, the 1,656 figure is the rabbinic estimate of the elapsed time from Adam and Eve, counting all the begats, to the time of Noah.)

There is another story on why God stopped the building of the Tower. “The tower had seven levels on the east and seven levels on the west. The builders brought the bricks up on one side and came down on the other. If a man fell down and died no heed was given to him. But when a brick fell down, they stopped work and wept, saying ‘woe unto us! When will another be brought up in its stead?’” God was angry at the tower builders because they were more concerned with the bricks than with the people. They wanted to leave behind a great, noble, and lasting structure, and didn’t care that much about the people they were building it for. This is always a danger for builders, whether of giant towers or big treaties.

This brings us to the climate change pact in Paris, where 195 nations unanimously agreed to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, to try to prevent the average global temperature from rising more than a 1.5 degrees centigrade over the next century, and for the rich and poor nations, through various mechanisms to work towards this goal. The good news is that the pact was signed, and it is stronger than many people expected. The bad news is that it is toothless, lacks an enforcement mechanism, and is subject to the vagaries of 195 self-interested sovereign nations. And since there is no chance that the Republican-led senate would ever ratify it, it must remain a voluntary pact rather than a binding treaty. (The Republicans, not content with screwing up the United States, are now intent on doing the same to the entire world.)

The Climate Change pact now consists only of bricks. What’s lacking are the builders. The problem with climate change as a political issue, once you get past idiot Republican climate change deniers and the Koch brothers, is that not enough people really feel passionate about it, or feel that can devote themselves to something that will have a limited impact on their lives. Unlike the builders of the Tower of Babel, we can’t or won’t be bothered by something that might happen 1,656 years in the future. And this is the point. If the climate change is not going to end up like the Kellogg-Briand Pact, or the Tower of Babel, people will have to become passionately, vitally concerned with the future of the planet. Because all the diplomatic niceties and fine print won’t matter if people, around the world, don’t demand that their leaders adhere to the agreement. And perhaps, if all the people of the earth can come together, and find a common language and a shared commitment to save the planet, God, this time around, will smile with more favor at our venture, our collaboration with her to save her planet.