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Are We Our Brothers’ (and Sisters’) Keepers?

By Matthew Anderson

An issue of emerging global concern is the increasing impact of climate change on the poorest developing countries. Rising sea levels could displace populations in low-lying nations such as in Nauru, the Maldives or Bangladesh. The disappearance of glaciers could deprive people of their water supply in Southeast Asia and some countries in South America. Ocean acidification and ecosystem degradation could reduce available food stocks and natural systems that support food production and tourism in developing countries. Drought and extreme weather events may reduce crop yields, potentially leading to widespread famine; this, added to the virulent spread of tropical diseases, could diminish or negate the recent tentative progress that the world community has made in fighting poverty. Poverty plus climate change impacts add up to increased economic, social and political instability. This is why international adaptation to climate change is so crucial.

International adaptation is not only an economic, social, environmental and political challenge — it is also a moral challenge. As the Jewish Environmental and Energy Imperative states: “We recognize that around the world, a quarter of all people still lack access to electricity. Many of these same people, plus millions more of the poorest around the world, have done the least to cause climate change and yet they are its principal victims. Their food security and physical safety are savagely undermined in the face of weather-related disasters and withering fields; the rapid escalation in food costs worldwide is especially burdensome to them.”

Historically the developed nations have contributed the highest emissions of greenhouse gases. But China already has surpassed the United States as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter and, if current economic trends continue, emerging economies like India, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia also could exceed the emissions outputs of developed nations. Yet, developing nations fear that a treaty aimed at global greenhouse gas reductions will drastically curb their economic growth and thus their abilities to reduce and eliminate poverty. Addressing global climate change requires the full cooperation and compliance of developed and developing countries. Consequently, it is a moral imperative to provide assistance to help developing nations pursue environmentally sound and sustainable economic growth and adapt to climate change impacts.

Sustainable development balances the need to protect the world’s climate while providing for strong economic growth for developing nations. Sustainable development is most commonly defined as, in the words of the World Bank, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Sustainable development is an important instrument of climate change adaptation, since developing nations need to reach certain basic levels of education, economic development, state power, gender equity and institutional effectiveness to respond to climate change. Sustainable development projects range greatly in nature and scope including securing an adequate and nutritious supply of food, integrating climate concerns into development projects, developing renewable energy sources, addressing reforestation needs, and creating more resilient social and politically responsive societies.

While intentions are good, the challenge before the international community is how to fund international adaptation. At the 2009 U.N. climate negotiations in Copenhagen, world leaders announced the creation of the Green Climate Fund. The commitment was to help developing nations by providing $30 billion annually in short-term funding by 2020 and $100 billion annually after 2020. While it is not yet really clear how it will be funded or operated, the Green Climate Fund has game-changing potential for international adaptation efforts.

As a world leader, the United States needs to address adaptation and its funding. Congress considered international adaptation when it took up climate legislation from 2007 to 2010. The National Religious Partnership for the Environment — whose members include the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches of Christ, and the Evangelical Environmental Network — made addressing international adaptation its collective key policy objective during the legislative debate. The members approached this issue through the ethical perspective of climate equity and fairness. The National Religious Partnership for the Environment drew the link between poverty and climate change, adopting the stance that any effort to address climate change must protect the world’s poorest people and nations. The umbrella organization took the lead role in making international adaptation an important element of the climate legislation considered by Congress.

While Congress has so far failed to pass comprehensive climate legislation, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment remains committed to support adaptation help for the developing countries. Current efforts to find support must turn to Congress’ annual appropriations process, which makes it more difficult to secure funding at a time when much of foreign aid is under scrutiny or outright attack.

Faith-based relief and development agencies work in more than 100 developing countries. In May 2011, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment sponsored a conference, “Best Practices in Adapting to Climate Change Impacts,” bringing together expertise from the field where these agencies are working in order to highlight concrete examples of how development can meet the challenges of climate change, particularly by empowering local leaders. For example, Rosemary Mayiga, a rural Ugandan farmer, created a local farming cooperative. Through her interactions with other farmers, she realized that rainfall in her region was becoming more irregular. With help from local development groups, Mayiga’s farming cooperative lined irrigation ditches with impermeable cloth to capture and store water. Farmers could keep water until it was needed, allowing them to adapt to increasingly erratic weather patterns. This is the sort of approach to international climate adaptation that empowers local communities, utilizes best practices in sustainable development, builds resilience, and creates wealth and opportunity.

International climate adaptation goes hand in hand with international mitigation efforts. One without the other is an incomplete strategy to address global climate change. A commitment to address adaptation recognizes the clear and present dangers of climate change and seeks innovative solutions that empower the potential victims of a warming climate. International adaptation efforts rise out of a shared moral and religious obligation to protect the poor, for they will suffer the most while contributing the least to this problem. International climate adaptation is also a rational response to the collective global nature of this problem, arguing in sum that all of humanity must stand together to face this challenge. As we come together we must strive to be the best versions of ourselves that our religious traditions call and indeed urge us to be.


Matthew Anderson is the executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. Anderson previously directed the Creation Care Fund, an intermediary fund that provides financial and technical support to Christian environmental grassroots initiatives, and Faith in the City, a multi-sector faith-based coalition in the Twin Cities. His experience also includes serving as the director of environmental and rural advocacy and education for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as well working on national campaign efforts on climate and energy for the National Council of Churches.

The Jewish Energy Guide presents a comprehensive Jewish approach to the challenges of energy security and climate change and offers a blueprint for the Jewish community to achieve a 14% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by September of 2014, which is the next Shmittah, or sabbatical, year in the Jewish calendar.

The Jewish Energy Guide is part of COEJL’s Jewish Energy Network, a collaborative effort with Jewcology’s Year of Action to engage Jews in energy action and advocacy.The guide was created in partnership with the Green Zionist Alliance.

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