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Our Jewish obligation to make an impact on climate change

When the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit convenes this Tuesday in New York City, the international community will have an opportunity to build a more sustainable and just future by making a meaningful impact in the global effort to address climate change.
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September 19, 2014

When the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit convenes this Tuesday in New York City, the international community will have an opportunity to build a more sustainable and just future by making a meaningful impact in the global effort to address climate change. Advocates and policymakers have a rare chance, under the world’s scrutiny, to advance a collective response to what is not only an environmental, economic, security and health challenge, but a moral imperative as well.

As Reform Jews, we have for decades proudly and forcefully lifted our collective voice on the dangers of neglecting our climate. We have advocated for greater investment in renewable energy, sought the protection of endangered species, and prioritized measures in support of cleaner air, land and water. Across North America, many of our synagogues are engaged in creative and impactful greening initiatives and our congregants do the same in their homes.  We do all this striving to heed God’s call (Genesis 2:15) to be diligent stewards of the earth, “to till and to tend” as Adam and Eve were instructed to do in the Garden of Eden.

At the same time, we must tend to more than just the earth that sustains us through its provision of shelter and food. We must also tend to the well being of humanity and in particular those who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. After all, the Book of Proverbs (31:9) instructs us in the clearest of terms to “champion the poor and the needy.” Working towards viable environmental measures that will shield marginalized peoples disproportionately affected by climate change including children, the economically disadvantaged, people with disabilities, the sick and others, fulfills both of these fundamentally Jewish obligations.

Environmental measures that curb the future impacts of climate change without simultaneously addressing the very real effects poor and vulnerable populations are already experiencing – from droughts to wild fires to flooding to the spread of disease – are simply insufficient. That is why it is heartening to know that among the “Action Areas” where the Summit will focus on substantive changes to be made is “Resilience,” which involves creating a plan to reinforce disaster risk areas by increasing the allocation of funds, creating incentives for investment, keeping those populations informed, and ensuring their structural safety. This is a vital pillar in the effort to address climate change and its impact.

It is particularly timely that the UN Summit comes this week as Jews worldwide prepare for the start of the New Year 5775. The High Holiday of Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of God’s creation of the world. Though God created the earth, it is the responsibility of each of us to sustain for the next generation.  Our sages teach us: “See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah).

The time for a concerted and impactful international response to the crisis of climate change is past due. Climate change is a reality we already live with, as all those who have suffered at home and worldwide from extreme weather events can attest. Yet we know that it can and likely will get worse thanks to rising sea levels, loss of crops, and increased spread of disease. That is why this week’s UN Summit must lead to a coordinated global commitment to addressing what is truly a life or death matter for our earth and its inhabitants. Together, we can ensure that our earth begins to heal and that children, the poor, disenfranchised, the elderly, the sick, the disabled, and all who are vulnerable are lifted up as we work to address and adapt to the perils of climate change.

Barbara Weinstein is Director of the Commission on Social Action, and Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), the Reform Jewish voice for social justice in Washington, D.C.

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