Green groups tackle Jewish imperative

WASHINGTON — An environmental health specialist ends her PowerPoint presentation with a quote from the Talmud.

A lobbyist cites what he half jokingly suggests could serve as a biblical pitch for solar energy: "Let there be light."

Science, politics and spirituality didn't always mix so comfortably. Yet all three melded in seeming harmony at the recent Mark and Sharon Bloome Jewish Environmental Leadership Institute here.

"The land and living things have rights in Jewish tradition," said Rabbi Warren Stone of nearby Temple Emanuel. He serves as a board member of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, which sponsored the three-day institute in tandem with the annual gathering of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs.

"Between the U.S. and Israel, there's a lot of environmental work to be done and we need to be part of [it]," added participant Lori Yadin.

Yadin arranged a pre-institute Shabbaton at which Shomrei Adamah (Guardians of the Earth) — a local Jewish environmental group that addresses such issues as Chesapeake watershed pollution and suburban sprawl — played host.

In a shift from most Jewish gatherings, activists in their 20s and 30s seemed to dominate the COEJL events; they joined graying boomers whose environmental efforts date back to the 1970s.

"It's definitely lopsided toward the young side," said Stephan Sylvan, a Shomrei Adamah member.

Sylvan and his peers once took their activism outside the Jewish community. "We found our outlets elsewhere, in the secular world: the Sierra Clubs, Audubon, the Natural Resource Defense Council," said Sylvan.

But with the advent of groups like COEJL and Shomrei Adamah, that has changed, he said. "Many of us were very concerned environmentally as Jews, but we didn't know it," said Sylvan. "We didn't know these were Jewish values. It was an epiphany for many of us."

Along with the spiritual aspects, COEJL conference participants focused on the down-to-earth details of energy policy and other Green concerns. One of the issues a panel discussed was the problem of global warming.

"The science is clear and getting scarier," said Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute.

He cited the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose studies conclude that global warming is caused by the burning of oil, gas and coal.

The IPCC, which draws on the work of 2,500 scientists around the world, released findings earlier this year that suggest the process is proceeding faster than expected.

Researchers are finding that global warming affects living things, such as the algae that inhabit coral reefs and causes rising sea levels, warmer oceans and shrinking glaciers.

Devra Davis, an environmental health specialist at the Heinz School of Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, studies health effects for the IPCC.

She is concerned that the burning of fossil fuels leads to a kind of "double jeopardy" involving both global warming and respiratory illnesses.

Air pollution, she said, can lead to premature death from sulfur dioxide found in fine particulate matter and to asthma, which is linked to nitrogen oxides, prime ingredients in smog.

"If it's wrong for people to die in cars because they're drunk, and we try to prevent this, what is keeping us from preventing deaths from air pollution?" asked Davis.

She pointed to a recent article in the British medical journal Lancet projecting 8 million avoidable deaths by 2020 from particulate matter alone.

COEJL's executive director, Mark Jacobs, made a connection to the Jewish tradition of protecting the most vulnerable. "The poor, children and the elderly suffer most from air pollution," he said.

During a question-and-answer period, participants queried everything from the precautionary principle of Judaism to the value of planting trees.

Davis, a COEJL board member, voiced some discomfort with putting personal lifestyle changes ahead of social policy.

"We learn to clean up after ourselves in kindergarten," she said. "There are some messes we have to clean up as a society. There are some things we have to do as a chavurah."