On the 28th January 2019, at a widely attended launch event in Central Hall Westminster, the Commonwealth Jewish Council shared its concerns on behalf of small island nations round the world in light of the accelerating impact of climate change. Its campaign goes under the name ‘Small islands: Big challenges’
A dozen High Commissions from around the world were there, ranging from the Caribbean to Africa, together with senior representatives of the UK Jewish community, leading players in the environmental movement in the UK, the NUS, a rich representation from Jewish youth movements from across the community – for example, the Orthodox boys of Ezra together with the blue-shirted members of socialist Zionist Habonim Dror – representatives of the Israeli Embassy and senior officers of the Commonwealth itself.
They heard the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, present a message of support, asserting the imperative for Jews to play their part in ameliorating the potential catastrophe of climate change - he called it a necessary ‘Jewish foreign policy’ – and Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Senior Rabbi of the Masorti movement and founder of the Eco-Synagogue programme, outlined how Tu b’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for Trees, was both an inspiration, a call to arms and an fitting occasion to launch such a campaign.
Sir David King was the keynote speaker. Bringing to bear his vast experience and pivotal role in a number of fundamental climate-related initiatives, not least the Paris agreement, Sir David outlined the incontestable science of climate change and its impact on the planet and for human life. Dispassionately but compellingly, he demonstrated trend after trend, produced statistic after statistic, painting a potentially devastating picture of the future for us all. As the former Chief Scientific Advisor to the British government and now a universally acknowledged leader in scientific development seeking to offset or think through how to survive the coming challenges, his presentation offered small flickers of hope and optimism, but sobering evidence that nothing is going to improve any time soon, even if we stop all negative impacts on the world tomorrow. Certain trends have been set inexorably in motion and everyone worldwide will experience some negative effects however wealthy or protected they feel themselves to be. He pointed out that one of the reasons the UK government had led the field so significantly on a number of fronts in these matters is because we too are an ‘island nation’.
But the evening was not a general awareness-raising event about the climate. It was the CJC’s specific launch of a programme to develop advocacy on behalf of the small island nations of the Commonwealth in their immediate stress. Climate change is not coming down the line to them. It is already impacting them. In this sense their experience now makes them the canaries in the coalmine for us all. If we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, they are our early warning system. Already some Pacific island nations are planning for their disappearance beneath the waves, several Caribbean islands are more and more frequently devastated by extreme weather, Mediterranean islands are increasingly beset and bedevilled by pollution.
So the evening ended with an impassioned outlining of the reality on the ground from the High Commissioner for St Lucia, Guy Mayers. He made clear how small islands do not have the resources of big countries when hit by a problem. They can completely seize up and cease operating. How then do they recover? Small island nations cannot afford the cost of putting things right or developing resilience in expectation of further chaos since while they are trying to recover from one episode another one comes to knock them sideways. He described living through hurricanes, overcoming landslides, trying to find – borrow - the money to repair bridges and build them higher – and then watching them wash away again in a couple of years, so that the country can end up still without the bridge but now with the debt incurred by trying to build it.
The plight of small islands is immediate. In winding up the evening, Clive Lawton, CEO of the Commonwealth Jewish Council, urged all Jews in the UK Jewish community and throughout CJC’s 35 member communities in the Commonwealth, to take on the issue. Jews know what it’s like to live precariously. Jews know what it’s like to have to leave their home. Jews know what it’s like to feel friendless. He urged all to make sure that that is not the experience of the small island nations who, as HE Guy Mayers, pointed out, have contributed hardly at all to any of the problems of climate worsening and sea level rise but now face the full brunt of the onslaught on their future. For the CJC’s briefing pack see below and for further ideas as to what individuals and communities can do, please contact Robby Hoffman, General Secretary firstname.lastname@example.org