Whoever Saves the Whole World is Super Menschy
The Talmud teaches us: “Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world.” But lesser known is the teaching that directly follows: “That being said, whoever just goes ahead and saves the whole world is considered super menschy and highly to be fived.”
By this standard, Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust, is deserving of some major up-highs. Last month, she won a landmark climate case, Held v. Montana, arguing on behalf of a group of young Montanans that their state constitution does not permit the government to deliberately ignore the ongoing climate catastrophe. Her breakthrough could lay the groundwork for lawsuits in other states and perhaps in federal court; part of a larger legal battle to hold governments and fossil fuel companies accountable and force them to act.
The victory is long fought. Olson has been working on behalf of youth for years. In 2019, inspired by Olson’s work as lead counsel for Juliana v US, a.k.a. the Youth Climate Lawsuit,, I worked with a group of fellow Jews to support the case. We called in favors, raised money, relentlessly nudged, and ultimately created a viral video for NowThisNews featuring the young plaintiffs, a national signature campaign on behalf of the youth climate organization Zero Hour, and an amicus brief in the appeal filed on behalf of over 30,000 young people, demanding that their voices be heard.
Unfortunately, in the Juliana case, the children’s voices were not heard – their case was not made. Olson’s real challenge in both Juliana and Held was establishing “standing.” In Juliana, a divided federal appeals court ruled 2-1 that although the kids had a solid case on the merits – that the federal government has long known the harmful effects of greenhouse gas emissions on the environment and has not only failed to act, but has acted to allow and to increase those emissions – they nevertheless lacked standing to present their case because the courts could provide no remedy. Essentially, the judicial branch threw up its hands.
The dissent from Judge Josephine L. Stanton minced no words: “The government accepts as fact that the United States has reached a tipping point crying out for a concerted response — yet presses ahead toward calamity. It is as if an asteroid were barreling toward Earth and the government decided to shut down our only defenses.”
Olson has since amended the Juliana case and recently won the latest round in that litigation (another high five!) with the district court Judge Ann Aiken ruling that the kids can now, finally, proceed to trial. Unfortunately, Judge Aiken’s will not be the final word.
Meanwhile, in Montana, standing was established. And given the overwhelming evidence, it was an open and shut case. The judge’s findings of fact and law resoundingly affirmed that the Montana Constitution’s guarantee of “the right to a clean and healthful environment” includes the right of its citizens not to choke on wildfire smoke, flee from floodwaters, or die of heatstroke directly attributable to the state’s abject failure to acknowledge, much less address, climate impacts. These findings of fact will carry weight in other states with similar constitutional provisions – meaning this important work continues.
In originally granting the Juliana kids the right to prove their case, Judge Aiken wrote, “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” It is also fundamental to the teachings and practice of Judaism.
As the high holidays approach and we take stock of the year gone by and look forward to the new one, I hope we can all make the commitment to center the climate crisis as the defining challenge of our time – the only challenge that, if we don’t meet the moment, no other issue will matter at all. Let’s put the voices of these young people in all of our throats and scream for real solutions until we drown out the noise of the fossil-fuel funded deniers and save the planet for ourselves and our posterity.
For as that Talmudic passage concludes: “And finally, whoever has a chance to save the whole world and doesn’t…well, I mean, what a shmuck.”
Jonathan Bines is an Emmy-nominated comedy writer and part-time environmental activist living in Brooklyn. He is currently a staff writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live, and was previously a writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He has also written for many online and print publications, and is the co-writer of the film Today’s Special. Bines was the organizer of the “Join Juliana” campaign in support of the Juliana Youth Climate Lawsuit, which successfully filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of over 30,000 young people from around the world, arguing that their right to a climate capable of sustaining life is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Bines is also the founder of Reboot’s Plastover project, a commitment to eliminating single-use plastics during Passover.
Our Children’s Trust is a non-profit public interest law firm that provides strategic, campaign-based legal services to youth from diverse backgrounds to secure their legal rights to a safe climate. The organization works to protect the Earth’s climate system for present and future generations by representing young people in global legal efforts to secure their binding and enforceable legal rights to a healthy atmosphere and stable climate, based on the best available science. Our Children’s Trust supports youth clients and amplifies their voices before the third branch of government in a highly strategic legal campaign that includes targeted media, education, and public engagement work to support the youths’ legal actions. The legal work – guided by constitutional, public trust, human rights laws and the laws of nature – aims to ensure systemic and science-based climate recovery planning and remedies at federal, state, and global levels. Find out more and support the work here.
*Photo by Robin Loznak: Courtesy of Our Children’s Trust