Climate change is often viewed as a political problem. But in reality, it is a scientific issue, and perhaps equally as important, it is a moral and spiritual issue.
How are religious communities responding? Today we are talking to three people involved in various religious environmental organizations, each representing a different faith community – Asher from the Green Muslims, Cassandra Carmichael from the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, and Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb from the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.
In responding to the climate crisis, the commonalities between these three religious traditions are clear. Each mandates care for the Earth and care for the poor, who will be affected first and hardest. The Earth is not a merely a gift to be used as we will – rather, it comes with great responsibility. We are stewards of this Earth.
In the Qur’an it’s clear the dictate that we have as Muslims to care for our environment and the word that is used is Khalifa – that literally translates into Steward. So we feel that in the heart of Islam there’s a dictate for us to care for the earth.
– Soltan Bryce
Each part of our world, of our ecosystem, from the smallest mosquito to the largest elephant, are interconnected. In the end, the entire globe is affected. Changes to one of them will affect everything.
It hits you – as we say in the Yiddish – in the kishkas. In the guts. It’s much more personal when you can begin to realize that we are part of an interdependent web of creation and not simply in the environment or part of an ecosystem.
– Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
But beyond this, these religious traditions offer something else – hope. Dealing with climate change may seem unsurmountable. It is a problem that no one person can solve, that no one treaty can cure. Instead, we have to come together, nation standing with nation, people joining forces regardless of creed, background, or economic standing. Working together, we begin to see past the differences that divide us. Oddly, perhaps it is overcoming the issue of climate change that will, in the end, bring us together.SUBSCRIBE!
Elizabeth Fernandez (host): Although it’s frequently portrayed as such, climate change should not be a political issue. It is a scientific issue, and perhaps equally important, it is a moral and spiritual issue. It’s an issue that we will have to work together on, independent of nation, political affiliation, and background. With increasing frequency, we see world religious leaders, religious groups, and individuals taking a stance on climate change, stating that we have to take responsibility for our actions on the environment, and offering spiritual guidance in doing so. Today, we are talking to three people from three such groups – Soltan Bryce from the Green Muslims, Casandra Carmichael from the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, and Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb from the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. So everyone, welcome to the podcast.
All: Good to be here. Yes, thank you for having us.
EF: So maybe quickly we can introduce your organizations individually and what your roll is within them. So Soltan, why don’t we start with you.
Soltan Bryce: Sure. I am the director of development with Green Muslims. We are a faith based organization that is all about Muslims living in the environmental spirit of Islam. We are based in DC, and currently we an all volunteer board, and we’re really excited to be in this space. We’ve been around for about 10 years and got our 501(c)(3) in 2015.
EF: Ok, great. Casandra, how about you?
Casandra Carmichael: Yes, thank you. I’m Casandra Carmichael, I’m the executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, which is an alliance of major Judeo-Christian institutions in the United States. The focus of this partnership is to address environmental issues from a place of faith.
EF: Ok, great. And then Fred?
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb: Hi. So I’m a full time pulpit rabbi in the Washington DC area – Adat Shalom in Bethesda – and the past chair of Interfaith Power and Light locally, which helped get the DC green Muslims going. I’m now a member of the board of Casandra’s group – NRPE – and I’m the volunteer chair Coalition of the Environment and Jewish Life, which works with this alphabet soup of national Jewish community agencies to mobilize around green concerns.
EF: Ok. So first of all how do you know that climate change is something that’s really happening and how do we know that as people, most likely we have a hand what’s happening in our environment today?
SB: Well, there’s an overwhelming body of science that you can refer to, or additionally look at the real life experiences of people who are in places where we’re seeing unprecedented natural disasters or resource constraints that cause humanitarian issues. So many things fall under the category of climate change and that’s something that green Muslims we try to take a broad view on.
EF: So as our environment is changing, people say the world is getting warmer. But what does this actually mean? What kind of things do we expect from climate change? How about you Fred?
RFSD: Well it’s often said that we shouldn’t frame it as global warming, so much as global weirding. The warmth is true – on average, a degree of Celsius already and the potential to climb catastrophically. And for lots of us, especially in northern latitudes, that sounds good! But in fact the level of confusion that that sows into what had been semi-predictable patterns overtime of climate on which we rely. For example, rainfall patterns which then drive either successful harvests or droughts. And we see that much more in poorer or conflict ridden parts of the Earth which are among the first to be destabilized by climate change in the extreme. It’s also more extreme in certain pockets, the Arctic for example, with massive dislocation for native people, and we’re seeing that in many spots. There’s a public health concern reaching the level of crisis because just as song birds arrive earlier and trees bloom earlier we have new vectors for infectious disease we have not seen before. This is a social justice issue, a public health issue, and political stability issue as well as environmental and human rights issue.
EF: Right. In trying to do something about climate change an important part of this is of course the Paris Agreement. So for people who may not know a lot about the Paris Agreement, Cassandra do you have a summary about what the Paris agreement is?
CC: Well the Paris agreement is an agreement between countries around the world to address climate change in their own backyards and come together as a global community to try to get to global emissions down. And I will say that the Paris Treaty is one mechanism to get us where we’re going to go. There are multitude of policies and actions that we need to take. We don’t just need to hinge upon one particular solution as the end all be all.
EF: The the goal is to keep the global temperature rise below 2°C. And people say, “Oh, 2°C doesn’t actually sound like much if you think about the difference”. What does this mean? Why is that 2° so important?
SB: You know, 2°C can mean make it or break it for any specific ecosystem that’s within on effected region.
RFSD: In many places the rainfall pattern are shifting, even in some of the biodiversity hotspots. Rainforests in the equatorial regions as well. Of course coral reefs are among the most critical of which are bleaching because the a combination of ocean acidification, which is also being driven by climate change, as well as the rising temperatures themselves. So there are lots of feedback mechanisms which is part of the reason while 2° is important. It is worth noting that the Paris agreement strove to give nations extra credit for moving towards 1.5°C, because even with 2° we’re playing with fire. Literally and figuratively.
EF: You bring up a good point, it’s not just temperature, it’s also all these interconnected things. The environment is very complex system. How do you think that climate change is also a moral and religious problem?
CC: So I would say that I am less of environmental expert and more coming at this from a strong place of faith, and listening to what the scientific community is telling us and translating that into how does it relate to our faith. And I think that there is a very strong moral component to address climate change. You mentioned there are particular areas that may be feeling climate change more than others, and I would argue that it’s like unraveling one string on a tapestry – if you pull one string out it changes the entire picture. And so while there may be some regions that might get hit first and hardest, it has impacts for us as a global community, And particularly those of us that live at the “margins”. People with less means to adapt. They are going to be hit first and worst. And so for us, from a community of faith and particularly from the Judeo-Christian perspective, we are asked, called, part of our teachings guide us towards caring towards the Christian term “the least of these” – those who do not have the ability necessarily to thrive without some assistance.
EF: So a lot of people say, “Yes climate change is affecting the poor more.” How is this happening? Maybe not just our own country but in the world in general?
RFSD: So the least among these – particular concern for those who need help the most. And let’s remind ourselves that the global poor are those who did the least to contribute to this – who can’t at least say I built up the wealth of my household or my society or my bank account because of some of these unintentional ruinous practices of the last century and a half. These are people who did the least to contribute partly because poor people tend to be disproportionately located in areas – both equatorial regions, and coastal areas where sea level rise is a huge issue. And neighborhoods – like we saw the Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans – why was there a color line and income line among the primary victims of the hurricane? Because that’s the history that we can’t ignore – the social, racism, other concerns. We call that environmental justice when we look at the two together, and from a religious perspective we cannot possibly separate them. The other reason is what we call adaptation – the question of how resilient are people – what kind of networks do they have, what access do they have? So wealthier people can afford to pay higher food prices in times of famine. They can afford to have a vehicle with gas in it get away from the coastal area and time of flood or hurricane. Poor people don’t have those advantages, so there is a massive social justice element to the entire climate question.
EF: What do your various holy scriptures say about stewardship to the earth and why it’s important to take care of the planet?
SB: In the Qur’an it’s clear the dictate that we have as Muslims to care for our environment and the word that is used is Khalifa – that literally translates into Steward. So we feel that in the heart of Islam there’s a dictate for us to care for the earth and to be part of seeing the people who live on the earth too as part and parcel of what we do as Muslims. There’s a very clear in direction for us in terms of how we do it in terms of caring for one another and focusing on what those who cannot help themselves or for those who have the least.
CC: And I can talk on a little bit of it at NRPE’s perspective which is Judeo-Christian, but I will leave it to Fred who is so eloquent on this topic to talk more about the Jewish tradition. NRPE and its partners focus on the stewardship aspect when it comes to environmental concerns but coupling that with caring for people – we don’t separate the two. You can’t care for God’s earth without also caring for its people and you can’t care for God’s people without caring for God’s earth. And when we look at scriptures from a Christian standpoint – there is a passage in Genesis that talks about tending the garden… many people know about the story of Noah where he came in and was asked to save all the animals and put them on the ark 2 x 2 so creating another stewardship vehicle metaphorically. So that sort of an example of the stewardship, but that’s overlayed and interwoven with the caring for people – the social justice aspect and particular the caring for the marginalized communities. There’s a scripture in Matthew that talks about caring for the least of these.
RFSD: Similarly theologian Martin Buber – early to mid-20th century wrote – Finally love of the creator and love of that which God has created are one and the same. So really echoing what the others have said that you cannot claim to love God, you cannot be in relationship with ultimacy, you cannot be a person of faith and ignore the real cries, the groaning of creation. In Jewish terms when we address religion first we separate law and teaching or legend. On the legal side there’s profound Jewish tradition about not wasting called Bal tashchit – that you can’t wantonly destroy anything. Even in the Talmud they talk about using the best available technology. Know what kind of lamp you’re burning because oil or naphtha you have to do different things based on the fuel to minimize the pollution of the waste. And if we have that already in the year 400, then in the year 2016 we should be mandating better mileage from out fleet. That sort of a thing. And on the theological side, we talked about creation, revelation, and redemption. So creation is obvious, Stewardship comes directly out of Genesis chapters 1 and two where in chapter 2 verse 15 God tells the first few human about the relationship to the first ecosystem – to serve the land and to guard it. The only thing that we’re precluded from right there in the second chapter of our holy book is to let it get worse on our watch, in that sense we’re collectively falling down. Revelation of course is scripture and all of those teaching and redemption we look forward to the moment where people don’t have the kind of anxieties that they do now, so redemption is the ultimate messianic question for many of us. But in real time it’s redemption from the social ills, the redemption from the vulnerability and we’ve already addressed all of those social issues from various angles, which are calling out from us to extend our circles of compassion and concern ever wider.
EF: Well those are all great examples. And Cassandra I saw that you wrote something that was a really nice example. It gave the example of Noah in the ark and God told Noah that he had to build the ark, but he didn’t give Noah the ark.
CC: Yeah I’m a big Noah fan – and love that story because there’s so much metaphor in it and so much for us to draw from it – particularly in addition to God did not provide Noah the ark – God also is very clear that it was all the creatures were going on the ark and that Noah was not to determine or put value on one or the other and that they all went in. I’m sure that there were some that Noah did not want to share space with. Again it goes back to the same thing. If you got rid of all the mosquitoes – which I would probably vote for – I would vote the mosquitoes out of the arc. But we don’t know what impacts taking one species out has on the rest of the creatures that are in our metaphorical ark now.
EF: And I think that the people who are climate change deniers pre se – a lot of them are reluctant to accept climate change because it’s scary. It’s really scary to think that were affecting the earth on this scale. But I think that but also accepting responsibility – that’s the first step – and it could be a very positive thing because then we realize that our actions have consequences and then we can actually do something.
RFSD: Empowerment is such a critical question and hope is very closely related to faith which is a religious question. It’s also a question of the moment – those of us to wake up in the morning thinking about the future of life on this planet, particularly those at the margins. This is a very scary time. We questions whether the US will even uphold the UN framework for climate change the Parish agreement etc.. But there are many sources of hope from our traditions, and the one I want to offer that is most compelling and important is to take the long view. We live in a society that is so often driven by quarterly profit reports when it comes to industries or markets or two-year electoral cycles when it comes to our democracy, but our scriptures speak about the third, fourth, seventh, thousand generation, which begins to approach not just human time but geological time or theological time. We need to take long view. Judaism talks about “from generation to generation”. We’ve been through a lot of challenging four year cycles in the past – every year that we delay means more suffering, means more preventable deaths from the ravages of climate change. Means more lost species. There’s plenty of mourn, but we can’t afford to mourn too much because we also need to organize.
EF: Working quickly and working now is a good thing. So Sultan, what do you think that we can do as individuals? A lot of people want to know what can we do right now to make our world a better place, make the environment a better place. So do you have any suggestions for these people?
SB: Yeah. One thing I think that Fred and Cassandra both said it is so wonderfully about the impact of climate change on our world at large and talking about the margins and the least as a broader group of people, and I think exactly to double down on that and say climate change is a spiritual issue and it’s a theological issue and a scientific issue, but at the heart of it’s a humanitarian issue. We’re really concerned about as Muslims and in the Green Muslim framework is how is this affecting our neighbors and the people we live with on specific regional and local scales. So when you ask about what we can do – well what can you do support your neighbor who are living with less than you or dealing with issues that you might have to deal with? So whenever I’m asked that question the first thing I think about is what someone else have that stake that you might not have an how can you leverage that power or privilege to make up for the difference? So from what can you do about it perspective education is clearly the first step. Our approach at Green Muslims is three-fold – education, advocacy, and reflection. The reflection piece is really important where is it that we’re standing as individuals in our assessment of our own effects on the earth, affect on our neighbors,. The next is educating – what are you learning about our impact on the earth it how can you share that with people like you who are community with you, and finally advocacy which moves into action. In the DC area there are plenty of places to get involved with in the three tier line and we encourage and welcome people to join us in our Green Muslim events and the great work that folks on the line are doing.
EF: And Cassandra, what do you think about as a globe and as a nation, especially now that we have a new assortment of political leaders from the president down to our congressmen or senators, what you think that we can do all together?
CC: Well I think that’s a great question, and there’s not one easy answer because our nation is made up of people in communities and cities and states. It’s not just – okay we decide to look at Congress to pass comprehensive climate change legislation or we need to ensure and encourage and prod present elect Trump into taking on climate change as a major issue. If any one of those things happened it wouldn’t solve everything. Or we need to push the clean power plan through and make sure that it’s still intact – that’s not going to solve all the problems. So there needs to be a multi-prong approach which also starts in everybody’s individual life. And I would say you can’t have one without the other. We need to have individuals and families taking action in their own homes. And I agree about education, but I also think that people need to feel empowered, as Fred was saying about taking action – and it doesn’t have to be a prescribed action. I’m not going to sit here, Elizabeth and tell you “What you need to do drive 20 miles a week and only eat carrots”. It is not for me to determine what you’re going to do. You need to look at your own life and get in touch with your own higher power and your spiritual nature and see what is feasible for you to do so that you will have a reduced carbon footprint and contribute to the overall effort that is underway to really address this. And then in addition communities and cities and states need to take on action that we as people have a voice of that process and we need to speak up and advocate for climate change solutions and policies at the local, state, and national level. As I mentioned earlier, this is not a quick one easy flip the switch solution. This is we all have to pull together in the same boat, rowing in the same direction, and we all have our particular piece of the pie, or piece of the oar to determine where we are going.
RFSD: I would just add just add it’s not the question of individual actions or social collective – one drives the other. Even if we “only ate carrots” or certainly eating lower on the food chain, the less meat we eat, makes a huge difference actually – but all of the private virtues that we can do to lower carbon footprint help, but they help very incrementally. The bigger way that they help is by raising awareness and deepening our own passion – as Soltan said, the reflection side. And you reflect, and you take seriously in your own life and then you put yourself out there. You make it a priority in your activism, in your philanthropy, in your public education etc, and eventually that’s how we drive change. The political system is responsive to the passions of people, and when presented with the facts, people get it and understand that this is a top tier concern that will define the reality for our grandchildren and all the energy that we put into making the world better place for those who follow us needs to include climate awareness. We can get there, but it’s is going to take that combination of personal action to reduce our own footprint and deepen our own passion, and organizing at the collective and political levels.
EF: I think it’s nice that when we look at our religious traditions in the lens of the climate change we have a lot of commonality. We are all seen as stewards of the earth. How do you think that we can all work together as a diverse human family of all different backgrounds and nations or religious traditions to make this world a better place?
RFSD: I’ll give one small and concrete example. our synagogue help pioneer with Interfaith Power and Light and the National Wildlife Federation – the idea of re-wilding little pockets of grass that are anywhere on our church, mosque, ashram, synagogue properties. And when you think about the large metro area like Washington and you take literally the birds eye view then imagine if there were devotees of nature with the passion of theology behind them who are creating these little pockets of wild – of resilience against a changing climate and doing so at intervals. I love the image that a hummingbird could have breakfast at synagogue, lunch at church, afternoon tea at the gurdwara, and dinner at the mosque. This is becoming a reality as we work together locally. The fact that that we and people in our communities know each other and we’ve had our Christian and Muslim groups come to our synagogue to see what EPA Energy Star facility and solar panels and how that works are beginning to replicate that in their own communities but also environment becomes one of the ways that we can overcome those painful divisions in our society and have people encounter one another and be there then to stand in solidarity with one another when any of us are threatened.
EF: Very well said.
SB: Agreed. Specific to what Fred just mentioned, we partner with the EPA which has a really strong faith forward program to work with houses of worship or other gathering spaces to help them become more energy efficient. You said a phrase earlier than I wanted to come back to because it’s the best way I think to define or describe the environment and climate change – and that it’s a complex system and if you really break that down and you think about how complex systems are approached or discussed from a framework perspective. That’s really apt and I think in the best case scenario in terms of working together across all of humankind – you know – where we can double down on the intersections of those complexities – there’s often places that have a multitude of benefits. There are strong cases for partnership across faith traditions, or industry and government, or academia. There’s places where we benefit from each other if we approach it from a complex systems perspective. l think that that is one really cool thing about focusing on climate change is there’s an ability to really intersect across different communities in groups however they organize themselves.
CC: I really like that not only talking about intersection and partnership but in some ways climate change is asking us, calling on us to be in community in a way that we haven’t been before because only at that point will we really be able to “solve the issue of climate change”. I think the religious community in general has the opportunity to serve as a model for both action in their own places of worship and also in how they partner with the rest of the world.
RFSD: I just want to add the power of addressing this from a religious perspective. Science and religion at best go hand-in-hand. Religion and faith need not be blind – in fact we want to use all our senses to celebrate the creator and creation. So there’s something about the power of language. To invite folks not to bifurcate between their religious identity – where they go for worship if at all and their identity as people in the world including as citizens, as voters, as consumers, and to remember the power of using religious language. Soltan just talked about complex systems, which is absolutely true and we need to honor the complexity. We talked about ecosystems which of course are a classic example but there’s a really resonant phrase that often comes up in religious environmental work which is a synonym – to speak of the interdependent web of creation that is the same thing but it hits you – as we say in the Yiddish – in the kishkas. In the guts. It’s much much more personal when you can begin to realize that we are part of an interdependent web of creation and not simply in the environment or part of an ecosystem and in every regard the power of harnessing faith tradition resonant language ancient history and the Clarion moral and spiritual call of all of our faiths to this critical moment in human and even ecological history – there’s tremendous peril but there’s also tremendous promise. And it’s conversations like this that hopefully drive the latter.
EF: Yeah, I definitely hope so.
CC: And the last thing that I will add, that in addition to everything that Soltan and Fred have said, that the religious community offers something to the rest of the world – in particular the environmental activists and the scientists that they can’t do for themselves in some ways – is that religious communities offer stories and metaphors of hope and love. I recently did a forum where we were talking about endangered species, and we had some folks from the environmental community came in and attended and in some ways they got more out of that dialogue that some of the people of faith because they often feel hopeless and that they are fighting an uphill battle and that they are not going to “win”. But there’s many stories of redemption, and hope and change. Even the Judeo-Christian narrative and all other traditions – the story of Noah and the disastrous flood and then we’re delivered from the flood with Noah’s and God’s guidance. There’s all kinds of stories where the impossible becomes possible. People of faith live not just in a place of faith but also in a place of hope and that’s hope born out of love and love from the creator. And that’s something that I think people of the faith community can really strongly offer our other partners in this work and I think that Soltan had a great point that we can be in partnership and that’s something that the faith community can strongly offer.
EF: I really hope that that is something that the religious communities can provide everybody.
SB: One thing I really like what you both said about the long view and about offering hope and one of the most powerful ecological principles I ever learned in studying the environment is the concept of resilience and the way it’s defined traditionally by the person who coined the term Buzz Holling. He says resilience is the ability of a system to maintain a certain set of characteristics after an interruption or after some kind of event of impact. We may not know what characteristics we as an entire community of Americans or specific different faith traditions all agree on in terms of the characteristics we want to pull forward, but it’s important to know that resilience can look many ways and I think if you take the greatest common factor of all of our different traditions – whether there are the ones represented here or beyond, or the human condition there are some that we agree on – basic principles and basic resources that we have access to so I think there’s power in reinforcing the scientific principles and what they can teach us about how our social communities do as well.
EF: Well thank you so much. I think you offered some really great and insights and hopefully this drives people to move forward and give them hope, so thank you all for being here.
All: Thank you.