Sermon: Eco Shabbat 6 July (Caroline Russell)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 8 July 2019

I am delighted to be here today – thank you so much for inviting me to be with you.

And what a privilege to witness Miri and Tamara on the occasion of becoming Bat Mitzvah and reading Torah with their community for the first time.

And both of you referred to things that are absolutely relevant to what I’ll be talking about today.  Tamara with the idea of the bystander and the importance of not being a bystander and Miri with the importance of caring for and respecting refugees and the idea that any of us could become a refugee at any time.

I’m a councillor in Islington, the only Green with 47 Labour councillors and I’m a London Assembly Member which means I’m one of 25 politicians elected London wide to check the Mayor of London is doing a good job.

It is really wonderful that you are holding this Eco Shabbat and marking Climate Action Week.

And it is important that citizens work together to tackle the urgent and unprecedented challenge of climate change, and so much better that we do this as communities rather than just as individuals.

Climate change is a daunting and scary phenomenon and the more we learn about it the more terrifying it can seem.

We all know about the melting of the polar ice caps and the fact that this has now been found to be happening at a much faster rate than scientists predicted.

In some parts of the world places are already becoming uninhabitable. Some low-lying islands are now flooded so frequently that they will soon be permanently below sea-level.

In other places the deserts are spreading into previously fertile areas, rivers and lakes have dried up making farming impossible and warmer seas have led to the death of coral reefs and plummeting fish stocks.

Meanwhile, countries that have never suffered from serious hurricanes, droughts, or wildfires are starting to experience these phenomena.

The evidence of the climate emergency is growing every day. Last autumn, the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report told us, that we had a maximum of 12 years, 11 now,  to stop burning fossil fuels and halt the relentless rise of global temperatures that is creating runaway climate change and ecological collapse.

This led me last December to ask the Mayor of London to declare a climate emergency, which he did and that’s fantastic.  But declaring a climate emergency is just the first step.  As Greta Thunberg says you have to act as if your house is on fire. So, every subsequent decision must be based on the need to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change

Here in Western Europe we have, so far, been shielded from the worst impacts of the climate crisis, leaving us able for a long time to ignore the threat it poses.

But, even here, we are starting to get a taste of what runaway climate change will bring us in the near future if we carry on as we have been.

We’ve seen catastrophic wildfires in Greece and California, destroying towns with tragic loss of life.  But it’s not just over there, away, last summer the London Fire Brigade fought a grass fire in London for several days on Wanstead flats.  Firefighters were desperate to prevent the fire reaching a petrol station which would have been utterly disastrous.

One of the most obvious impacts for those of us who live in cities, that I highlighted in my recent report to the London Assembly ‘Climate Change Risks for London’ is the increase in frequency and intensity of heatwaves.

Just ten days ago, we saw Paris grind to a halt with all-time record temperatures of 45°C. Schools across the city were closed and people advised to stay indoors. These are the sort of temperatures at which vulnerable people start to die. And aside from the obvious and very worrying effects on people’s health and wellbeing, the impact on the wider economy is huge.

London needs to start planning for more of these heatwave events and my report contains a lot of ideas about the best way to do that.

Our efforts need to focus not only reducing our carbon emissions to try to prevent an escalation of climate change, but also on mitigating the inevitable effects of the climate change that is already with us, such as the extreme heatwaves and periods of intense rainfall.

This week is Climate action week and I want to briefly mention two events I spoke at that gave me hope.  The first involved a trip to the Thames Barrier with a group of people who work for the Environment Agency, the Tideway tunnel and various local authorities from along the river.

The discussion was about what does a climate emergency mean for us in our jobs.  It was heart-warming to hear the determination of civil engineers to solve the problem of managing the tidal river Thames in the face of rising sea levels.

The other event was at UCL with primary and secondary school pupils.  They had a day of climate action workshops and were sharing their ideas for getting their schools to play their part.  And just like every time I meet young people on school strike, I was struck by their determination to create a future and felt a massive surge of hope at their enthusiasm.

Now, I have to say I’ve never been invited to give a sermon before. Apart from the helpful advice from Rabbi Hannah, I contacted a friend who is a member of the Eco Synagogue steering group.

And she suggested that I quote a passage from the Kohelet Rabbah 7:13

I’ll read it:

Look at Gods work – for who can straighten what he has twisted? When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, he took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Look at my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy my world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you.

This is absolutely relevant to the situation we find ourselves in.

“There is no one to repair it after you.”

So, what can we do?

It is easy to get overwhelmed and think ‘What difference can I possibly make?’

But acting together – as a synagogue, a church, a mosque, a school, a workplace, a sports club, or whatever – we can make a real difference, we can magnify our efforts and encourage each other to go further.

Many of you will have seen the massive Extinction Rebellion demonstrations in London earlier this year. Maybe some of you took part in them. If so, you will know that one of the key demands of the protesters, written on the side of a pink boat at Oxford Circus, was ‘Tell the Truth’.

Telling the truth is a vital first step, especially when, until recently, our media has been so reluctant to talk about the climate and ecological crisis, business has been thinking mainly about the bottom line and many of our politicians have ignored the scientific evidence of what is happening to our planet, preferring to carry on with Business as Usual.

We can all Tell the Truth by talking to each other and our friends and neighbours and colleagues about the climate crisis.

Acknowledging what is happening is the first step to taking action and making change happen. That is why it is so fantastic that you are holding Eco Shabbat today – creating the space for Telling the Truth and starting the kinds of conversations we need to have.

Once we have acknowledged the need for change, we have to consider our impact, and specifically our carbon footprint, on every area of our lives.

From the choices we make about what we buy, what we eat, how we travel, which energy companies we choose to heat our homes, we can make a significant impact on the carbon emissions we individually create.

By acting together, we can have a bigger impact.

  • We can choose to eat less meat and dairy.
  • We can buy food and other products from sustainable sources.
  • We can compost our food waste and try not to waste as much in the first place.
  • We can use water carefully.
  • We can avoid items that are overpackaged. We can recycle everything that it’s possible to recycle and that we couldn’t avoid buying.
  • We can leave the car at home and walk or use public transport.
  • We can switch to a renewable energy supplier, which is one of the asks of Green Shabbat.
  • We can maybe even install solar panels on our communal buildings like schools and places of worship.

But, important as our individual and group actions are, they won’t get us where we need to be without systemic change and that has to come from our political leaders who need to know that cutting back on fossil fuel use and acting on the climate emergency is a real priority.

People power is the most effective, in fact, is probably the only, way to achieve this.

As an elected member of the London Assembly, I know how powerful it is to have the backing of engaged citizens when I’m trying to get green, climate-friendly measures adopted by the Mayor.

And I know how much elected politicians listen when their voters, and future voters, rise with one voice. They may not always act on our demands, but they are very aware of them and of their obligation, in a democracy, to listen.

That’s why it is so important that politicians, and other people in powerful positions, hear our voices. Relentlessly! We have to tell them we are willing to embrace the radical changes that are urgently needed to save ourselves and the natural world upon which we depend for literally everything!

So, keep pushing your elected representatives to do more, write emails and letters, sign petitions and join protests. Start protests! Do it individually, or better still, do it as a congregation and as a community.

You will make a difference. You will inspire others to make a difference. And together we will become an unstoppable force for change because there is no one else to repair our world.