Why I’m flying to tell the UN we’re waking up to climate change

Chimney spewing out smoke. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Author: Martin Abegglen
Chimney spewing out smoke. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Author: Martin Abegglen https://www.flickr.com/photos/twicepix/6539553399/

I will soon be flying to Katowice in Poland for the next major intergovernmental conference (COP24) on climate change. It’s a nonsense.

‘Flying’ to a climate change conference – knowing that aviation is a major contributor to carbon emissions – is a startling contradiction.

If I care that much about climate change, should I not go? Or should I go by train, a much more environmentally-friendly mode of transport? Should I try to offset the damage by planting trees, even though planting a million trees will not solve the problem, since the carbon will be emitted anyway? If I fly after all that, it means it must be worthwhile, right? Wrong!

I fear it will be far from worthwhile. The Conference is for two full weeks, arranged by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). Entry is by pass, which I have only for the first week, and the real meetings are for governmental representatives who will be working hard following up on the Paris agreements of 2015.

There will be 20,000 people there from all over the world and I won’t know a soul, and to save money I’m staying 15 km from Katowice, so I’ll have to travel around Poland in winter, most likely in the extreme cold, which scares me.

So why am I going at all? The idea of attending the UNFCC in Poland seized hold of me at an interfaith meeting where I learnt that there were always representatives of the main faiths at these gatherings “to bear witness”. This year it seemed particularly essential that there be Jewish representation, since Katowice is only 25 miles from Auschwitz.

My concerns for the past 20 years have been about planetary resources, especially climate change and the associated issues such as migration, water and food scarcity and refugees. The Jewish community in the UK is slowly waking up to these concerns.

In January, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg launched Ecosynagogue, which now includes 20 synagogues from all denominations and is growing fast.

Rabbi Mark Goldsmith is leading a group looking at how Jewish investors and businesses can engage with renewables and disinvest from fossil fuels.

Synagogues are working with North London Citizens and Barnet Council on issues such as energy and air pollution.

Tim Crosland, a Jewish barrister, is leading an organisation called Plan B Earth, supporting climate litigation and holding governments to account.

And most recently, charities such as Tzedek, World Jewish Relief, United Synagogue, Mitzvah Day, Olam and others formed a pressure group called ‘Jewish Action on Climate Change’ to partner the InterFaith and Climate Coalition.

I hope to represent all these initiatives at COP24 and make the point that a growing number of British Jews are joining together, deeply concerned about what we are doing to our planet now and the ills we are storing up for hundreds of millions of people, including our children and all future generations.

I do not seek to link the deliberate and merciless genocide of Jews homosexuals, Roma and others with issues of climate change, but the phrase ‘what did you do when you knew’ is of critical importance to me; what did you do when you knew the earth was unraveling? We Jews know only too well about the bystander. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. Such knowledge influences my efforts in this current profound challenge.

I will be there on Sunday 9 December, which will be Chanukah, the festival of light in the darkness, commemorating the victory of the few against the many. A small group of us from several faith backgrounds will – together, in tears – light candles at Auschwitz for the eighth night, using olive oil or bees wax or some other non-fossil fuel.

In that place, at that time, there will be prayers to be offered and much to reflect upon. The journey will be worth all the effort, for that alone.

About the Author
Rabbi Jeffrey Newman is Emeritus Rabbi of Finchley Reform Synagogue
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