Rabbi Jeffrey Newman

#2020Dontbelate: Faith Communities and Climate Change

Pentland Centre Champions Kristen Freile & Julius Kup write about the recent visit of Rabbi Jeffrey Newman to the Pentland Centre (Nov 2017)

Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, the Pentland Centre’s latest seminar guest, ignited a lively debate on the surprising link between religion and climate change. The Rabbi anticipated the crowd’s confusion by offering the question ‘’what does religion and climate change have in common?” He then built on this question with “how can faith communities have a large impact on peaking carbon emissions?” Anyone familiar with the UN Sustainable Development Goals will be aware that religion, and faith communities are not pivotal themes. Consequently, this talk addressed some unique and, in some respects, abstract themes, that the Rabbi eloquently put together. Rabbi Newman proclaims that religion can play a key role in enabling its followers to take necessary actions in climate change reduction.

Drawing upon Linda Woodhead and Antje Ankelén’s recent publication; ‘Four reasons why climate change can’t be solved without religion’, Rabbi Newman presented a strong argument. He began by first reminding us that throughout history religious institutions have instilled cultural integrity and morality onto their people in very profound and powerful ways. In the eyes of the public, climate change is viewed as a secular topic, but it is actually an inescapable ethical and moral issue. With its reach and influence, religion has the ability to inspire and galvanise their supporters into action in regards to the fight against climate change.

The second pivotal point Rabbi Newman raised, was that faith communities across the board have had a commonality of preaching about justice, and the importance of taking care of the vulnerable and marginalized. We know from scientific research that poorer communities and developing countries suffer more from climate change than their richer counterparts. A recent example of this that comes to mind, is the past hurricane season in the Caribbean which has been proved to be the most devastating season of all, and has brought countries such as Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic to their knees. We can already see the effects of climate change and it is already creating a justice issue, as the people who are most affected by it come from poorer backgrounds.

The third point Newman vocalized was that religions have for the most part of history held leadership roles in society at an international and national level. These religious leaders are respected and their followers carry a deep loyalty towards them. Newman built the argument, that if these leaders take visible and large actions regarding climate change discourse, then it could be possible to mobilise and educate the masses to come together to combat climate change.  

With the unique dynamics between religion and climate change eloquently explained by Newman, a key question that followed is whether the Jewish community is actually taking any actions in this area. Given the Jewish communities’ increasing power and knowledge in recent decades, Rabbi Newman voiced regret that they have so far largely failed to use their influence against global warming, while religious groups such as the Quakers strongly encourage climate action among their followers.

Besides stepping into dialogue with Abrahamic religions, one could clearly observe his enthusiasm for climate change discourse with faith communities of East Asia. In particular, he stressed the necessity for dialogue with China due to the country’s growing influence on financial markets. Rabbi Newman hopes that creating awareness of climate change in faith communities in the finance industry can spread the idea of value-driven investments. He underlined that such dialogue would not only make sense from an environmental perspective. Bringing together different faith communities would also increase positive interaction between people of different religious traditions. Such intrinsic benefits, Rabbi Newman proposes, make stimulating inter-faith climate dialogues therefore worthwhile even regardless of their climate impact.

Reflecting on the idea of intrinsic benefits, he advises the audience to have a look on the website ‘drawdown’ (http://www.drawdown.org/solutions). This website lists several so-called “no regrets” solutions that are primarily aimed at addressing ecological goals, but simultaneously contribute towards reaching societal objectives. Suggested solutions, for instance, include solar panels and wind turbines. Both technologies address environmental safeguarding and generate resilience for vulnerable populations.

Another main topic of the seminar discussion, particularly prompted by the audience, was the fact that there is quite a large and powerful Jewish population within the financial industry. The audience was curious as to how faith communities could drive sustainable change in investment decisions. One way to achieve this is to motivate investors to include environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors in their investment decisions. Faith communities can help in this area by urging their people to carry moral integrity in every decision they make, even in their place of work. By making climate change a moral and prevalent issue, people within faith communities may take stronger steps towards fighting climate change. But in this example, can moral force be more powerful than the motivation for financial gain?

The key is to inspire these faith communities, in whatever sector they work in, to treat climate change as a moral issue and a pressing dilemma. Rabbi Newman proposes that the “pressure points” for the Jewish community in particular, is the concern and love for one’s family and future generations. To see a visible change in the fight against climate change, we must extend this love and concern for our own family and community to the whole population and the generations ahead of us.