Changing Our Climate: an Op-Ed by Rabbi Daniel Swartz

Our climate is changing – both literally and figuratively.  The list of weather events that may be linked to changes in the global climate is already long, and it keeps growing longer with each passing season.  Droughts, floods, record-breaking heat waves, fires, even monster snow storms are all signs that climate change is part of our present, not just our future.

But the “climate” is changing in other ways as well. Many have been focusing on negative changes – the climate of acrimony and vitriol in political discourse, or the still sour economic climate.  But there are some positive “climactic” changes as well.  For me, one of the most significant is the growing involvement of faith communities around the globe in addressing environmental concerns, including global climate change.
How is something that seems intensely scientific, like the changing composition of our atmosphere, or intensely political, like global treaties dealing with use of fossil fuels, a faith issue?  Prayers don’t yield scientific data – but once science tells us what IS happening, our faith traditions can help us figure out what we OUGHT to do about it.  And while even a close reading of such traditions won’t reveal a detailed energy policy, certain basic guiding principles are shared by many faith communities.
For example, our world is good – one might even say “very good” – and we are supposed to help tend it and protect it.  It is simple wrong to think selfishly only of ourselves and to ignore the needs of generations to come.  Making money should not be the ultimate goal of humanity – we are meant to look after each other, particularly those who need the most protection – the “widow, the orphan and the stranger” or the “least of these.” Finally, one can find even in quite ancient sources an understanding that it is better to prevent harm than to try to repair damage after it has occurred. 
Taken together, such principles do at the least suggest a course of action to address climate change.  Solutions that especially benefit the poor, like increasing energy efficiency and thus reducing the disproportionate burden from high energy costs that those in economic straights face, should be a top priority.  Even in the present political climate, it should be possible to forge tax incentives and the like to make our homes and businesses more energy efficient.
We also should take the needs of future generations into account by promoting clean and sustainable energy sources – which, as was noted in the State of the Union, also can be a wise investment in the future of our economy.  Last but certainly not least, attempts to strip EPA of its power to address CO2 emissions and thus protect public health and the environment from the various ravages of climate change is not only short-sighted, but could be viewed as immoral.
But does thinking of climate change from a faith and moral perspective actually make a difference?  After all, you don’t have to be religious to think that fairness is a good thing.  A faith perspective, however, brings not only a sense of moral authority to an issue – it also can move us beyond paralysis.  Looking at the scientific and political difficulties facing any attempts to address global climate change, one can feel downright depressed and overwhelmed – and so there is a natural tendency to want to ignore or deny the whole thing, to remain stuck with our head in the sand.  But understanding that we can bring our faith to bear on this issue first of all fills us with the added strength of knowing we are doing the right thing.  And because faith has so often triumphed against great odds – worse odds by far than those facing a lasting and just solution to climate change – we can begin to replace depression with hope, paralysis with sustained action for the good. 
That is why this weekend (February 11-13th) Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light is joining with IPL affiliates across the country in sponsoring a “preach-in” on climate change.  I’ll be addressing these concerns from a Jewish standpoint at Temple Hesed this Friday, and others across the state and nation will be doing so from a wide variety of other faith traditions.  Because we already know that the climate is changing – and we know what type of solutions are needed. The only question that remains is – do we have enough faith to make it into a change for the better?