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Jennie Rosenn
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Jewish institutions’ best tool for fighting climate change: their bank accounts

By vocally divesting from fossil fuels, US Jews can support clean energy and align finances with values
'Even as we work to cut our carbon footprints, our investments are financing Exxon’s and Chevron’s expansion in fossil fuels.' (iStock Getty Images)
'Even as we work to cut our carbon footprints, our investments are financing Exxon’s and Chevron’s expansion in fossil fuels.' (iStock Getty Images)

JTA — The last eight years have been the hottest in recorded history, causing untold damage across the world — and that destruction is not something that we can reverse with the flick of a switch. We can’t instantly turn back the floods in California nor solve its decade-long drought. We can’t immediately end the wildfires in Colorado, hurricanes in Florida or flash floods in the Northeast and California.

But the American Jewish community has an important role to play in addressing the underlying cause of these devastating events and avoiding an ever-increasing cascade of destruction and harm.

Many of us are members of Jewish organizations or congregations that, often unknowingly, support fossil fuel companies. Even as we work to cut our carbon footprints, our investments are financing Exxon’s and Chevron’s expansion in fossil fuels. A recent report by the organization I lead, Dayenu, found that a sample of major Jewish organizations had over $3 billion invested in fossil fuel companies. According to Fossil Free Funds and the EPA, that’s $3 billion invested in coal, oil and gas companies that extract and burn carbon responsible for the equivalent of running 561,276 cars on the road for a year.

By reallocating that money from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels to investing in clean energy, we can turn our communal assets from a net cost to the earth to a net gain for our future.

The way forward is clear. The world’s leading scientists tell us that to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, we must halve global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and end all climate pollution no later than 2050. Fossil fuels — coal, oil, and gas — are the leading contributors to climate change, responsible for 75% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydropower are already cheaper, more reliable, and more lucrative for investors — while creating millions of jobs.

The vast majority of American Jews support bold climate action. A 2014 study found that 8 out of 10 American Jews were concerned or alarmed about the climate crisis. Since then, climate has become a top concern for American Jews, consistently ranking as a priority issue for American Jewish voters, especially young people. Initiatives like the Jewish Climate Leadership Coalition are helping institutions cut their emissions, and there is growing interest in socially responsible and impact investing.

These steps show a commitment to taking action – but much more is needed to reach the scale necessary to confront climate change. Over the past few years, Brandeis, a university “animated by Jewish values, rooted in Jewish history and experience,” decided to turn concern into action.

Joining Harvard, Yale and other universities, Brandeis divested some $997 million from fossil fuel companies in 2018. But University President Ronald Liebowitz said a recent decision to further reduce exposure to fossil fuels and expand investments in clean energy helps move the university to further align with its Jewish values and become “a Brandeis that strives to reflect one of its highest values: using one’s talents to repair the world — in word and deed.”

It’s not just institutions of higher education. Thousands of other organizations have already moved their money from fossil fuels to clean energy investments. Sovereign states like Norway, major retirement plans like New York City’s pension funds, and numerous faith organizations have all moved their resources in ways designed to make them agents of a sustainable future.

Now Jewish organizations, institutions and communities can join them. As part of the report “With All Our Might: Bechol M’odecha: How the Jewish Community Can Invest in a Just, Livable Future,” Dayenu lays out a six-step Roadmap for Change to help the Jewish community better align its investments with its values. Beginning with Jewish learning, or reishit chochma (grounding), the steps guide institutional leaders through cheshbon (research investments), limmud (education), sicha (engagement), kavanah (making a plan) and kadima (moving your money).

Larger institutions will focus on their asset managers, while congregations and smaller organizations will focus on their banks. By advocating publicly and privately with both banks and asset managers — the two primary financiers of fossil fuel extraction — to reinvest their money, Jewish organizations can educate their communities about sustainability and finance. Vocally aligning their finances with their values, the Jewish community can help speed a movement away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy at the pace that we, and future generations, need to survive.

And, make no mistake, it’s a race against time. The International Energy Agency — the world’s most respected energy analysis group — says that to reach zero emissions by 2050, we need to invest $4 in clean energy for every $1 in fossil fuels every year for the next few decades. However, since the Paris Agreement was signed, asset managers and banks have put trillions of dollars into the fossil fuel industry. To win this race, we need to use the lever of private finance. Faced with pressure from whole sections of the public — including the Jewish community — companies like BlackRock, Citigroup, JPMorganChase and Vanguard could be persuaded to hasten the transition to clean energy.

The American Jewish community is well-positioned to take meaningful climate action. Like other faith traditions, we are well-organized, and our institutions have an estimated $100 billion of investment assets. Following Dayenu’s six-point roadmap, we can withhold the Jewish community’s financial support for dirty energy and instead invest in renewables. By raising our voices alongside the many investors who are calling for change, we can accelerate the transition to a clean energy future. As floods, fires, and heat waves come with alarmingly greater frequency and severity, we know we have no time to waste.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.

About the Author
Rabbi Jennie Rosenn is the Founder and CEO of Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action. Before founding Dayenu, Rabbi Rosenn served as vice president for community engagement at HIAS, where she built a robust Jewish movement responding to the global refugee crisis.