Faith and climate change

A conference in Israel focuses on how religions can play a role in protecting the environment

During a breakaway session of the Interfaith Climate Change and Renewable Energy conference in Jerusalem, African seminarian students, instructors and rabbinical students discuss ways of including environmental awareness in their curriculum so that it can become a part of their and their parishioner (photo credit: Courtesy)
During a breakaway session of the Interfaith Climate Change and Renewable Energy conference in Jerusalem, African seminarian students, instructors and rabbinical students discuss ways of including environmental awareness in their curriculum so that it can become a part of their and their parishioner
(photo credit: Courtesy)
THE CLIMATE crisis the world is facing today is not one created by technology but rather one of values, said Prof. Alon Tal, the head of the Department of Public Policy of Tel Aviv University, who is originally from the US. A founder of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and a cofounder of Ecopeace, Tal is a member of Kibbutz Ketura located in the Arava.
Tal was speaking at a recent conference, which brought together religious leaders and other peoples of faith, as well as those who consider themselves secular, to discuss how faith can be used to encourage actions to counter climate change and specifically support the use of renewable energy. Faith and belief have a critical role to play in motivating people to transform their behavior to one that protects rather than harms the environment, he said.
Though some environmental issues, such as the hole in the ozone and slaughter of whales, have been successfully handled, climate change has been a tough one to tackle, despite the fact that the vast majority of scientists and politicians have acknowledged the problem, he said. Indeed, Tal said, carbon global emissions actually have risen by nearly 50 percent between 1990 and 2010. “Religious leaders need to make a choice,” Tal said. “I believe that religions could truly become a force for sustainability and offer humanity critical insights as to how an Almighty God, who cares for his creation, might want us to behave.”
The conference was held at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem and was sponsored by the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, the Swedish Theological Institute and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. It focused on religious imperatives for promoting environmentally sustainable practices and renewable energy use.
Rabbi Yonatan Neril, founder of the Inter faith Center for Sustainable Development and originally from the US, noted that according to a Pew study, 85 percent of people say they identify with a religion.
“Religious traditions have powerful things to say about the importance of using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. The Lubavicher Rebbe said in 1981 that the United States should switch to solar energy, by building solar fields in the southwestern US. More recently Pope Francis, in his Encyclical letter “ Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home,” also talked about the importance of deploying renewable energy,” said Neril, who hopes to spearhead the involvement of Palestinian and Israeli religious leaders in the regional environmental issues such as water scarcity in the Jordan Valley and the harnessing of clean energy of the sun and wind.
Though there is no special religious teaching concerning renewable energy in Catholic tradition, the concept of the creation is very important for Christianity, said Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
“All that which God created was good. Man is the first among his creations and God said he is to have dominion over what he created but in the context of harmony of what he created,” said Pizzaballa.
He noted that while fossil fuels exploit the earth in a sinful way renewable energy such as solar power are respectful of harmony in creation.
With some 150 participants of the three Abrahamic faiths, the conference aimed to bring religion into play for the environment – not an easy task in a region where religion has more often than not been a force for separation rather than cooperation, and where many people live under poverty and hardship.
Tahani Aba Daqqa, former Minister of Culture of the Palestinian Authority, said it is hard to discuss detrimental environmental effects of using the diesel fuel needed to run generators to produce electricity in Gaza when people only have three hours of government provided electricity a day.
Still, said Tareq Abu Hamed, director of the Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, there are no borders when it comes to environmental problems. Untreated sewage from Gaza pollutes e astern Mediterranean shores up to Ashkelon because there is not enough electricity for the sewage treatment plant in Gaza. This, in turn, forced the desalination plant in Ashkelon to close down temporarily.
“Nature knows no boundaries,” he said. “No one can solve their ecological problems alone.”
Tal noted that the Syrian crisis can largely be traced back to environmental changes affecting rainfall in the country , which saw a surge of farmers coming into the large cities seeking work as their crops failed.
“What we saw was 2 million refugees going into Jordan as climate refugees,” he said.
A large portion of the attendees were foreign born, and many English-speakers among them, perhaps an indication that environmental issues are still in their infancy in the region. One has only to go to supermarkets frequented by ultra-Orthodox Jews on a Friday or holiday eve and see the amounts of disposable plates and cups piled into shopping carts to realize that environmental awareness and the connection with caring for God’s creation has yet to become a point of dialogue in some religious communities.
Pizzaballa noted that in his diocese in Jordan most of the Latin Patriarchate schools are hooked up to solar panels for electricity – and they are hoping that schools in the Palestinian territories will soon follow suit. But he said, this was done more out of necessity than out of environmental concern.
“I am not sure the parish priests are thinking of the environment. They are thinking of the electricity bill,” said Pizzaballa.
In Islam, human beings are the only creatures to whom God has given the power of choice, said Yasmin Barhum, a facilitator at Living in the Levant, which aims to present Islam and the Arab population of Israel to non-Muslims based in the village of Ein Rafah outside of Jerusalem. And with that choice comes responsibility and accountability, she said.
“Islam gives me a good path to find balance and harmony,” said Barhum, who is originally from England and is active in connecting her faith to her concern for the environment. “There is one basic principle. Treat your brother as you would want to be treated yourself, and that counts for animals and the environment. Water is described as the source of all life. I am a Muslim and look to the Koran and find examples of environmental relationships. We must choose a way of life that is least harmful and inshallah will also lead to God’s reward on the Day of Judgement. We believe that when all this ends we will be held accountable (for our deeds) and will judged accordingly.”
She noted that in Jordan there is already a mosque which is completely solar -powered. In a breakout session, African seminarians from the Salesian Pontifical University Jerusalem campus discussed the difficulty of approaching environmental issues when many of their parishioners are facing basic issues such as lack of food.
The conference took place two months before Pope Francis is scheduled to relaunch his groundbreaking encyclical Laudato Si on ecology, climate change and care for creation in Rome. He is expected to make the encyclical more actionable. The Dalai Lama has also come out strongly calling for more action on environmental issues.
At the same time, said Pizzaballa, the Catholic world is not monolithic and just because the pope issues an encyclical does not mean that all 1.5 million Catholics of the world will fall behind him, although the Pope’s words have opened the way to understanding environmental issues in a religious context.
“People have to care for our common home,” said Pizzaballa.
Catholics are influenced by the environment in which they live, so while Catholics living in Israel are exposed to more ideas of environmental responsibility, in the Palestinian territories Catholics along with other Palestinians are still facing more day-to-day struggles, and so are less able to focus on those issues.
“The religious community has to ask our selves what are we doing about this. Religion is frankly so far behind,” said Rabbi Yedidya Sinclair, a rabbinic scholar originally from the US, who was among the speakers at the conference.
Still, religion can play a major role in motivating people toward taking action also on environmental issues, said Dr. Anton Khalilieh, an ecophysiologist from Beit Jalla who attended the conference.
“Religion has been used and abused in many things in life. So now religion can be used to change human behavior. People have been using religion for bad (purposes).
We need to make a switch and use religion in a different way,” he said. “We are doing something but not enough. We are facing a lot of obstacles and people are just worrying about finding food for their children. Without a stable political situation we can’t move on the environment.”