Jonathan Wittenberg reflects on life after COP26 and the task ahead
‘It is not up to you to complete the work,’ taught Rabbi Tarfon, a central figure in the development of Judaism in the second century. ‘But neither are you free to desist from it.’
COP 26 certainly didn’t complete the task, and we are definitely not at liberty to let up the pressure. On the contrary, the commitment of faith communities and leaders may now be more relevant and urgent than ever.
The role of faiths is not to wield political power but to hold those who do so to account. Promises and pledges were made at COP, albeit inadequate ones, which need considerable sharpening over the next very few years. But they could prove worse than meaningless, sops to the conscience while the world continues towards catastrophe, unless they are turned into detailed plans of action. This means timetables, budgets, specific bodies responsible for implementation, and legal sanctions if targets are not met. It will only happen with steady moral pressure to ensure that these key steps are swiftly taken.
Our task as faith leaders is to bring to bear appropriate influence as directed by our shared core values of justice and compassion, and as defined by our responsibilities as trustees of God’s creation. This world of wonder, beauty and immeasurable biodiversity has been leant to us to appreciate and safeguard for the future.
At this definitive juncture it is important that the voices of faith leaders are not solely critical of those in power. I was moved to share Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Bahai and Pagan reflections at the interfaith vigil in George Square in Glasgow on the opening day of COP 26. We prayed for the hearts and minds of the world’s leaders to be open and responsive; we asked for them to be given the moral strength to exercise their challenging responsibilities at this crucial moment in the history of the planet. We prayed for them to be swayed not by short-term interests and pressure groups, but by the long-term vision of a sustainable and just world for humanity and all of nature. We must support and strengthen the determination of those in power to do what we know is both right and possible for the future of life itself.
But at the same time, we need the moral courage to challenge and confront; the Torah forbids us from ‘standing idly by the blood of our neighbour’ and, with regard to climate change and climate justice, all the world is that neighbour. It is too late now for slow gradualism, mollification and propitiation.
If we are to have the moral credibility we need for these roles, we must to continue to work on ourselves and our communities, morally and spiritually, collectively and locally. We need to rethink our consumer habits and make ourselves part of a sustainable lifestyle in which others, often in distant places invisible to us, don’t pay the true price for our way of life. At the same time we need to share hope by engaging in empowering positive actions, including deepening our commitments to the whole of our society, developing our understanding of our interdependence with the natural world and increasing our engagement with growing, planting and rewilding in ethically and environmentally sound ways.
Faiths have many strengths to offer in this existential emergency, including a profound sense of responsibility, clear core values, visions of the world as it could and should be, and the capacity to mobilise communities across the globe.
As a founding rabbi of EcoSynagogue, working closely with Eco Church and senior faith and environmental leaders across the world, I am passionately engaged with climate justice, global warming and biodiversity. The Hebrew Bible sees human beings as guardians of the Earth, entrusted to work it for the benefit of all life. The Bible’s central values are justice and compassion. The Torah repeatedly reminds us of our responsibility to our children, and they are hostage to what we do now. We owe them the legacy of a viable and sustainable planet, rich in life. We are not entitled to commodify, monetise and exploit creation. We are not entitled to follow short-term self-interest only. It’s not a case of “Tomorrow we may die”, but “Tomorrow they, the world’s children, will die”. The future of all life is in our hands.
These principles, by which I seek to live as a Jew, are shared by all religions and innumerable people of no faith alike.
What makes us stronger still is our readiness to work closely together. It was moving to experience at COP how we spoke with different, but not differing, voices. We must continue to speak from the wealth of our rich and various traditions, with a common commitment to the same vision and values for a just, compassionate, sustainable and wonderful world.
There are reasons for hoping we’ll get the answers right. There’s a deepening moral and spiritual awareness among hundreds of millions of the interdependence of all humanity and our shared dependence on nature. We know we must restore it so that it can restore us. Though with exceptions, world leaders and decision-makers are grasping this.
But will they, and we, act wisely, quickly, thoroughly and effectively enough? Will we all take up our responsibilities and do our utmost to make sure? It is a task we all share, and from which we must not desist. The fate of our children and this fragile world is in our hands.
Jonathan Wittenberg is rabbi of New North London synagogue and a regular contributor to Thought for the Day, the Times, the Guardian, and other media. In 2008 he was appointed Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism in the UK. Read more at jonathanwittenberg.org.