Climate hero David Miron-Wapner is a native of Los Angeles who made aliyah to Israel decades ago. Like his late father, the famous Judge Wapner of the People’s Court, David is an attorney professionally, and active in Jewish causes. However, David is more of a hidden gem – bringing forward his inclination and passion as a leading environmentalist.
David was part of the founding team of the US-Israel Science and Technology Commission, established by the late Prime Minister Rabin and former President Clinton in 1993. First, he directed the Commission’s task force on Environment, Energy and Agriculture, and later served as executive director for 12 years. They supported good-for-humankind projects in solar energy, sustainable aquaculture and cutting-edge biotechnology.
David was part of the founding team of BrightSource Energy, a world-leading solar energy company; served as board chair of the Heschel Center for Sustainability; president of Jerusalem’s leading Reform synagogue, Kehilat Kol Haneshama, board member of Pinat Shorashim, an educational ecology park at Kibbutz Gezer, and served on the board of the Jewish National Fund for eight years. Since 2013, he has served as the board chair of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. In that capacity he chaired four interfaith panels at the UN climate conference in Sharm El Sheik, Egypt in 2022. He lives with his wife Edna in Jerusalem. Basically, he’s a massive mensch and good-deed doer.
David is on the front lines in the critical work of social justice. His first job after a BA in Sociology from UC Berkeley in 1973, was as a community organizer for the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. Even then it became clear to him that the poor and marginalized suffered more from environmental harm, air pollution, toxic waste, and food insecurity, than anyone else.
I was fortunate to meet David through the Jewish Funders Network Green Funders Forum. I know you will enjoy hearing about what he’s done, and what you can take away from his experiences to help you in your own climate goals and impact.
JLM: How did you get interested in working on climate issues?
David Miron-Wapner: I recall first hearing about the “greenhouse effect” when I studied Environmental Law in the mid 1970’s. Long a follower of environmental trends, it seemed to me at the time just one more in the growing list of detrimental human impacts on the natural world. After all, I had grown up in the heavily polluted urban sprawl of Los Angeles. The warnings of catastrophe and the scenarios that are unfolding now were included in the earliest scientific reports, though even those most aware of the extent of human caused environmental degradation missed some of those key messages. Little or no concerted action on climate was taken, other than to allow accelerated extraction and use of coal, oil and gas.
Intensive government regulations and advances in technology allowed Los Angeles to “resolve” the problem of chronic air pollution by the mid 1980’s. Most of us assumed that the same could and would be done with a warming planet. At first the greenhouse effect seemed to be just another in the long and mounting list of environmental ills caused by our modern lifestyle, the greed-based industrial economy, and a penchant for short-term thinking. Clearly in hindsight, especially considering the conspiratorial retrograde actions of the fossil fuel industries and the narrow interests of the nation-states system of international relations, we were dead wrong.
Climate change has proven to be very different than the air pollution of my youth in Los Angeles. Even through the 1990’s, it appeared to be a seemingly distant, unseen, future event that would leave us all plenty of time to adapt. Fast forward to our current reality, climate change is here and now and everywhere. Extreme weather events, from hurricanes and typhoons, to heat waves, wildfires, droughts and floods characterize a non-linear pattern of wild spikes and swings. The weird weather we are all experiencing portends a future of increasing uncertainty and disruption.
Climate change is the defining challenge of our time; it is a force multiplier. As such it makes every other “wicked problem” facing humanity, from poverty and food security to loss of biodiversity and access to clean water, all the more intractable.
Is this connected to your Jewish involvement and identity? If so, in what way?
In 2006, I co-founded the Jewish Climate Initiative with the intention of finding in our long religious heritage some guiding wisdom. We published a Holy Land Declaration and along with Hazon, with a grant from the Alliance of Religion for Conservation, a plan for the Jewish people to confront the climate crisis. By that time, I had come to see the failure of all governments to act on behalf of all inhabitants of the Earth. The private sector, business and industry, whose time horizons tend toward quarterly profits were wedded to “business as usual” including the ever more intensive use of fossil fuel. Civil society had won some spirited mostly local battles, pushed legislation and judicial remedies, but singularly failed to win over majorities due to tactics that tended toward the self-righteous and preachy. The moment demanded a paradigm shift in humanity’s attitude and behavior. Climate change will be slowed, and its impacts mitigated only if our core values lead us to adopt new ways of being in relation to our created world.
As a deeply spiritual person, I fervently believe we humans are part of, not separate from creation, as well as being its steward. I hold fast to the hope that in the face of uncertainty and fear, human society can still collectively summon the will to survive climate change. Religion has historically played a key role in defining a vision of hope and possibility, yet it has largely been silent on climate. As a Jew and a Zionist Israeli, I pray for our survival as a unique people, intact as a nation among the nations of a progressive, evolving, enlightened human civilization.
Each of us bears responsibility for our predicament. So too we have the capacity to engage in the prophetic vison of tikkun olam, literally repair of a broken world. Will we, all of humanity hear the word from on high? Can we summon the will, the desire to actually repent for the damage we have wrought? All of us sense that something very fundamental is wrong. We have the power within us to make it right, and though perhaps not just like it was before, but survivable, nonetheless.
What advice do you give for others who want to make a difference?
Thinking that the future will be like the past is an illusion. Humanity has disrupted the Earth’s purposeful life support systems threatening the basis for our modern, comfortable civilization. No country, no people remain protected in our increasingly and intensely interconnected world.
It is difficult to fight the despair associated with the knowledge of the enormity of the challenge we face. I hold on to hope by engaging in action. My advice to others is simple: become aware of the issues, appreciate the consequences of your lifestyle choices, and do whatever you can. None of us can repair our broken world alone; together we can forge alliances of hope and resilience.
Today, I am proud to serve as the Board Chair of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (www.interfaithsustain.com). ICSD reveals the connection between religion and ecology and mobilizes faith communities to act. ICSD works on a global basis, with current engagement in Africa, the Middle East, North America, and Europe.
At COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh, ICSD was responsible for more faith-based press conferences than any other organization. As we were in proximity to Mt. Sinai, we partnered with others to articulate at the summit of the historical place of revelation and inspiration, 10 Spiritual Principles for Climate Justice and Repentance. Our partners included Gigawatt Global, and its CEO, Yosef Abramowitz; Peace Department; and the Elijah Interfaith Institute.
Can you tell us about something that you and/or ICSD find exciting about what you are doing and where and how others can help?
ICSD is working to bring religion to bear in addressing the myriad ecological crises. Faith traditions and institutions can help cultivate humility, conscious relationships, long-term thinking, and moderated consumption. A sustainable, thriving, and spiritually aware society can realize the prophetic vision of a new harmonious life in balance with the Earth.
ICSD has published Eco Bible in two volumes as the first ecological commentary on the Hebrew Bible. It offers a rich repository of insights, drawing from both rabbinic commentary and current scientific, ecological understanding revealing deep, faith-based teachings on ecological sustainability.
We are also engaged with our social business partner, Gigawatt Global, and in cooperation with faith institutions in southern Africa to deploy renewable energy projects to bring electricity to those most impacted by the impacts of climate change to which they have contributed the least.
I am particularly excited by what ICSD has been able to do in the run up to the next COP28 in Dubai later this year. Acting as a catalyst, ICSD is partnering with the UN Environment Program’s Faith for the Earth Initiative, the Muslim Council of Elders, the World Council of Churches, the Episcopal Diocese of California and others to establish a first-ever, Faith Pavilion at COP28. We seek to have the religions and faith traditions of the world serve as a counterweight to the inordinate influence of the fossil fuel industry on the ability of the nations of the world to reach bold and decisive action to finally act in the best interests of humanity.