The organized American Jewish community reacted positively to the Paris climate agreement signed this month by almost 200 nations.
Elements of the community backing the agreement say the Dec. 12 deal, which aims to significantly curb carbon emissions to avert dangerous climate change, is only the beginning, and that Jewish individuals and institutions can help lead in the transition to a clean energy and climate resilient economy.
The pact, reached following two weeks of negotiations at the 21st Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21), aims to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, a more ambitious target than the original 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) goal at the start of the talks.
“Given the constrained reality of the conversation, especially in America in 2015, the Paris accord went about as far as we could have hoped,” said Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, chair of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL).
Although Dobb celebrated the achievement as a “ray of hope,” he warned that “energetic follow-up actions” are required.
“There’s still a huge gap between the commitments made in Paris and the scientifically driven need to reach sustainability for our descendants,” Dobb said.
The Reform movement commended the international climate agreement, with Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, calling the pact a “historic step in the global fight against climate change” that “if implemented, will have the effect of arresting the progression of climate change and mitigating its effects, particularly on the most vulnerable.”
Liya Rechtman, manager of COEJL, joined an interfaith delegation at the conference, held just outside Paris at Le Bourge. Traveling to France with Asma Mahdi, director of communications at Green Muslims, Rechtman said COP21 offered a chance for interfaith dialogue.
“We engaged in discussions on climate change mitigation as a tool for Jewish-Muslim peace-building and international security,” recalled Rechtman. “Especially coming to Paris immediately after the terrorist attacks there, the context for the talks was deeply influenced by the connection between climate change, poverty and security.”
While there, Rechtman realized the magnitude of tackling climate change, but found inspiration in the diverse groups gathered for a shared purpose.
“Climate change is perhaps the biggest challenge ever faced by humanity. Climate change is the future of our planet, and it requires people from all corners of the earth to take up the mantle of responsibility and do their part,” said Rechtman. “The Paris conference demonstrated to me that that was possible.”
Among the countries doing their part to solve global warming, said Jewish National Fund spokesman Adam Brill, is Israel, which is leading in the areas of forestry, water and renewable energy.
The Paris agreement devoted an entire section to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD). Trees sequester carbon, and Israel is the expert at countering deforestation with reforestation, Brill said, having entered the 21st century as the only country with more trees planted than from the previous century.
“We’ve planted 250 million trees in the last 100 years in Israel — trees from the north to the south that provide not only shade but of course air and the ability of people to enjoy green spaces,” Brill said. “When Jews settled in Israel/Palestine a hundred years ago there were no trees, it was just arid lands. So we’ve got to counter the effects that are taking place where the lands are going dry and barren and repopulate them with trees, and that’s what reforestation is all about.”
Brill also pointed to Israeli water innovations such as drip irrigation and the more than 250 JNF reservoirs across the country that store recycled and reused wastewater used for the agricultural sector.
JNF also works closely with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on developing solar technology and supports the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Initiative, which opened an off-grid hub last December that is “bringing folks together from all over Israel and the world to share technology and innovative practices to create new renewable energies and sources, whether it’s solar, whether it’s wind or hydro,” Brill said.
“Any agreement that brings people together to talk about how they can make the world a better place is wonderful,” said Brill. “JNF and Israel have led the way a long time now on various ways to make due with less and how to deal with the climate that we have. Whether it’s arid or dry or wet, we become masters of safeguarding it. So I think that folks should know that Israel is the place to go to for help and for so many different things, and I’m happy to see that people are getting together and discussing these important issues because we’ve only got one planet and we have to take care of it.”
The phrase “think globally, act locally” has been an important slogan used by the environmental community, and Jodi Rose puts it into practice as executive director of Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. While Rose said she is pleased about the Paris agreement, she is more concerned with the work cleaning up the air and water in Maryland and Washington.
The organization’s Trees for Sacred Places program has over the past two years planted 10,901 trees at congregations and faith-owned properties across Maryland, according to Rose. She also cited the growing number of congregations installing rooftop solar panels and faith leaders advocating in Annapolis for issues such as banning plastic bags.
Said Rose: “There’s so much we could still be doing at the local level and need to be and must be doing at the local level that will never get national headlines but makes all the difference in the world.”