Partnership Journalism•December 16, 2021
As flooding amplifies along the East Coast, Buddhist and Jewish faith leaders join the climate fight
By Ayurella Horn-Muller (Climate Central) with reporting and news segment by Amber Strong (Newsy)
Just two hours north of New York City is the Chuang Yen Monastery, a serene site of Buddhist worship sheltered by more than 200 acres of dense woodland. Image Credit: Andrew Shafer/ Newsy
NEW YORK — Bhikkhu Bodhi has lived in a monastery in New York's lower Hudson River Valley for the past 14 years, where he’s witnessed firsthand the compounding effects of climate change. Intensifying storms particularly concern him.
“People are always responsive to the words of spiritual leaders,” said Bodhi, an American Theravada Buddhist and president of the Buddhist Association of the United States. “If we speak up more explicitly, directly, clearly about the climate crisis and about the impact that it's going to have on humanity, it really calls for a very determined, full-scale response.”
Through collaborations involving Climate Central, Southerly and Newsy, this three-part series led by reporters Ayurella Horn-Muller and Amber Strong investigates ways in which religious leaders and faith-based communities across the U.S. are responding to climate change.
The monk, who has spent decades engaging the Buddhist community on climate change, is one of many religious leaders along the East Coast making the moral case for climate action.
Spanning many traditions and miles, these leaders and faith groups are advocating for local, federal and global policies advancing an equitable clean energy transition — putting forth spiritual arguments for mitigating climate change.
Conscious of his carbon footprint, Bodhi is a vegetarian who encourages others to consider cutting meat consumption to reduce personal emissions. He’s also the founder of Buddhist Global Relief, a charity that fights hunger by teaching communities how to create sustainable food sources.
Buddhist Global Relief helps address a large contributor to carbon emissions — agriculture. The food system produces over a third of global emissions. In the U.S., agriculture is responsible for about 10% of emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.
“What we found is one of the ways to both support farmers to emerge from poverty and to increase the yields of crops, while at the same time fighting climate change, is to support organic or ecologically sustainable types of agriculture,” said Bodhi.
The Buddhist tradition focuses on the theory of causality, or the idea that there are actions behind every consequence. Bodhi blames unchecked carbon emissions on humanity’s prioritization of economic growth. “There’s a whole lattice, a whole network of environmental impacts due to reckless and unrestrained human activity.”
That harmful human activity was a key focus as world leaders, organizations and activists gathered in Glasgow in the fall for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP 26. Among the faith leaders addressing COP 26 members, the Dalai Lama shared a message calling for cooperative and immediate action to confront ‘the urgent reality’ of climate change. He gave his first speech on climate change in 1990.
Preceding the COP summit in 2015, the Dalai Lama, Bhikkhu Bodhi and other Buddhist activists signed a statement on behalf of ‘over a billion Buddhists worldwide’, asking global leaders to prioritize mitigating climate change by aggressively curbing fossil fuel production, in the hopes of protecting those most impacted by the warming climate. ‘The Time to Act is Now: A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change’ joined a consensus of religious calls to action, including the Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis, the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, and the Hindu Declaration on Climate Change.
At the Chuang Yen Monastery, American Theravada monk Bhikkhu Bodhi explains the Buddhist philosophy of causality and how that connects to human-induced climate change. Image Credit: Andrew Shafer/ Newsy
‘Religions have their problems, and their promise’
All traditional forms of religion share a common calling: a moral and ethical obligation to help those in need. Human rights to life, health, food and beyond are irrevocably threatened by climate change, which is why some say religious intervention is required.
“This is an ethical issue of the future, of the planet, of very vulnerable people,” said Yale University senior lecturer and researcher Mary Evelyn Tucker. “How could it not be moral?”
Tucker co-directs the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, a project which aims to mobilize climate action in all places of worship. She also authored and edited several books on the relationship between faith and environmental stewardship, with a focus on Confucian and Taoism.
“All of these [Eastern] religions have a very profound sense of the interdependence of life. All of this is one flow; from the heavens, to Earth, and to humans,” said Tucker. “So humans are co-creators, with the universe and Earth, as caring for these great systems of life.”
Faith leaders across all denominational boundaries have been increasingly coming together to do climate activism. While the trend is blossoming today, the seed was planted decades ago; religious authorities spoke out about the warming climate even before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988. Ten years later, the nonprofit Interfaith Power and Light was established in the U.S. as a coalition of churches pursuing renewable energy, creating a model that would be adopted across 40 states.
Over the past decade, the number of global, national and local faith groups joining the climate movement has grown to include a robust range of religions calling for policy solutions to address climate change. They’re not just spreading awareness, either. A 2021 Nature article identified that one-third of the institutions that have pledged to divest almost $40 trillion from fossil fuel companies are faith-based organizations.
There’s still a long way to go, especially in the U.S., where religious attitudes towards science are more politicized and antagonistic than in other countries. Examples of this modern faith-fueled mistrust of climate science include groups like The Cornwall Alliance, a Tennessee-based evangelical nonprofit opposed to religious environmentalism and action against climate change.
“Religions have their problems, and their promise,” Tucker said, explaining that a lack of education about climate change, as well as who belongs to a parish, can sometimes stop local faith leaders from addressing climate change on the pulpit. Local faith leaders may also shy away from talking about climate change because of American political polarization.
People flock from all over the world to see the monastery’s centerpiece: a 37-foot marble statue of Buddha, the largest indoor Buddha statue in the Western Hemisphere. Image Credit: Andrew Shafer/ Newsy
“It's not always easy for these ministers to do it, because sometimes the interests of their congregation could be with a fossil fuel company,” Tucker said. “So, unfortunately, for some people in the pews, it may not be as clear.”
Who is sitting in American halls of worship is changing, too. Less than half of 10,000 young adults in the U.S. surveyed in a 2021 report think that faith communities are concerned with climate change. Nearly half of those respondents also said they don’t turn to faith communities due to a ‘lack of trust’ in the people, beliefs and systems of organized religion.
The number of U.S. adults overall who no longer consider themselves to be part of any religious denomination or tradition has also risen in recent decades. A 2014 Pew Research study found 23 percent of the adult population didn’t identify with a religion, up from 16 percent in 2007. Another 2018 Pew survey found a steady decline in the number of American adults under the age of 40 who say they believe in God or a universal spirit.
A lecturer at Tufts University and former Harvard Law Visiting Fellow of The Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World, Erum Sattar says this disconnect is because organized religions are failing to reach younger generations.
“They're not growing, and the pews are empty, people don't come, or maybe people are feeling disconnected from what this tradition has to tell them about the world they inhabit,” Sattar said.
Sattar sees faith communities engaging in climate action as a bridge to repair that divide. “I think it could be a real way to also revive and reinvigorate these traditions that, in a formal way, are losing sort of practical resonance.”
‘A risk we were willing to take’
Along the East Coast, climate change is hammering communities with intensified storms, higher tides and worsening heat. Compared to the first half of the 20th century, the Northeast has been seeing 50 percent more rainfall during its most severe storms.
In September, Hurricane Ida triggered extreme flooding across the Northeast, killing 46 people in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Many of the victims lived in illegal basement apartments in cities with high living costs. It was the region’s worst storm since 2012’s Sandy, which claimed 43 lives in New York City alone.
As the walls of Ida’s water subsided and grieving families buried their loved ones, what emerged from the wreckage were urgent calls for adaptation; as residents joined officials in rallying for preservation of infrastructure that wasn't built to withstand storms supercharged by climate change.
Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster thinks a key piece to that fortification lies in reducing emissions. The human rights activist and faith leader was one of three rabbis arrested in October for blocking the entrance of BlackRock, New York City’s largest financial firm, in a demonstration organized by the Jewish Youth Climate Movement. The protest aimed to pressure the firm to divest in companies that fund the fossil fuel industry.
She was there as a rabbi, but also as a mother, concerned for her children as they inherit a volatile future. “We knew that we were risking arrest by blocking the entrance to the building,” said Kahn-Troster. “That was a risk we were willing to take to get the message across.”
Kahn-Troster serves as the Executive Vice President of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) — a faith-based organization that lobbies major U.S. companies to reduce their contributions to emissions.
Her father was a Jewish climate change activist, so Kahn-Troster grew up learning about a fundamental religious obligation: caring for others and the world in which they live.
“We are caretaking the world as our obligation to other people. We know we only have one planet, and we all live on it,” said Kahn-Troster. “And we should all have the right to enjoy living here, sustainably. I think that message is very clear to me from my tradition.”
To the rabbi, that obligation extends beyond responsibility for environmental preservation and sustainable living, but also includes advocating for curbing emissions, expanding clean energy solutions and investing in sustainable agriculture, among other climate solutions.
“As faith communities, we have something to say to structures of power, right?,” said Kahn-Troster. “Especially in the United States, faith is part of a political conversation.”
If it takes getting arrested for companies to stop exploiting the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves, the rabbi is willing to make that sacrifice. She isn’t just preaching to one congregation, but protesting on behalf of all of them.
“Our political leaders are motivated when they hear from faith leaders,” she said. “That's an important piece of our role.”
This is the second story in a three-part series, Faith for Earth, produced through collaborations involving Climate Central, Southerly and Newsy. Led by reporters Ayurella Horn-Muller and Amber Strong, this series investigates ways in which religious leaders and faith-based communities across the U.S. are responding to climate change.
Other stories in this series: