Yonatan Neril
Yonatan Neril
Founder and director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

Mobilizing Faith Communities on Climate Change

Photo Credit: Parmarth Niketan
Photo Credit: Parmarth Niketan

More than 50 years into the modern environmental movement, the primary efforts to limit climate change focus on developing new technology and mustering political will.  Those topics will lead discussions at the 26th United Nations climate conference (known as COP26) for world leaders in Glasgow.

Technological and political advancements have the potential to achieve some meaningful climate action, but a full transformation of humankind’s treatment of the earth depends on a third factor: moral responsibility driven by faith.

Climate change is, undoubtedly, a catastrophic ecological crisis. But what if the deeper causes of the crisis relate to religion and spirituality?

For people of faith, a belief in Divine creation brings with it a sense seeded with a sense of responsibility. Life can exist not despite human action, but because God gives humans what they need to overcome their worst impulses.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Orthodox theologian who lived in Germany in the 1800s, taught that the ideal of the Torah “awaits the generation which will finally have become matured for its ideals to be made into reality.” A healthy planet on which life can prosper is possible, if people are faithful to make it so.

More than 80 percent of all people on earth affiliate with a religion. Every major belief system shares a sense that we need to respect and protect nature. Yet people are making the earth steadily less habitable for plants, animals and humans.

Photo by Hermann Traub

As people of faith, we have failed to apply our most fundamental principles in service of solving the direst existential threat in human history. If people of faith take seriously our mandate to protect the earth, they can play a pivotal role in driving climate action. Here’s how:

First, faith-based values can be used to persuade people to consume in moderation. When people find truer satisfaction in spirituality, community and family, we can bring consciousness to our consumption. To achieve a sustainable planet, we must learn to live and thrive at higher levels of spiritual awareness and maturity.

Second, people of faith must use the long-term thinking and foresight that is fundamental to our faith as guides for our practical behavior. The rabbis of the Talmud asked, “Who is the wise person? The person who can see the effect of their actions.”

Religious people must put both their present survival and the future of their children and grandchildren above the current “prize” of expanding our lifestyles. Spiritual awareness helps them transcend the immediate, recognizing the link between our actions and larger problems. They can begin to cultivate the foresight and concern that leads to change.

Image by Valiphotos from Pixabay

Finally, religion shows people how to embrace the hope that faith brings to life. Terror, anger and despair can lead to a sense that any effort to restore balance and sustainability to the planet is futile. Yet Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt’l, wrote “Hope at its ultimate is the belief…that God has given us the means to save us from ourselves.”

The practice of these values can transform entire communities. Imagine the assets of churches, synagogues, mosques and temples all reimagined through a sustainability lens: Solar panels on rooftops, electricity-powered transport fleets, soup kitchens and other food programs optimized to limit waste – it’s all possible.

Resources for these changes exist. The Faith and Sustainability initiative at World Resources Institute introduces faith-based organizations to the use of  Science-Based Targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Through that process, religious organizations can assess their assets and practices like for-profit companies do and take appropriate steps that could influence the behavior of their members.

Photo by Gigawatt Global

The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development published Eco Bible, an ecological commentary on the Torah, which shows how the Bible and its great scholars embrace care for God’s creation as a fundamental and living message.

London-based Eco Synagogue offers an assessment tool, called an environmental audit, that helps synagogues identify ways they can become more sustainable, and offers plans for doing so. Faith Plans, a joint initiative of FaithInvest and the World Wildlife Fund, helps religious organizations take practical steps to pursue climate action.

Major crises tend to push people to houses of worship. Religious organizations and communities that honestly assess their own impact on the earth will show how people can take practical steps to reverse humanity’s ongoing overconsumption. Together, they can build movements toward responsible sustainability.

Religious leaders can help people by illuminating a path toward hope that God’s ideals are possible here on earth. This, too, is sustainability – a sustainable hope that will carry people forward as they restore the earth to what it once was, and what it can become.

Co-authored by Esben Lunde Larsen, Director, Faith and Sustainability at World Resources Institute

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and its Jewish Eco Seminars branch. Raised in California, Yonatan completed an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University with a global environmental focus , and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He speaks internationally on religion and the environment, and co-organized twelve interfaith environmental conferences in Israel and the U.S. He is the lead author and general editor of three books on Jewish environmental ethics, including Eco Bible, a bestseller in several Amazon Kindle categories. He lives with his wife, Shana and their two children in Jerusalem.
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