My experience at COP 26 reminded me of the fascinating Smoky Room Experiment, conducted by social psychologists, Bibb Latané and John Darley in 1968.

Latané and Darley placed subjects in a room by themselves and asked them to complete a task. While they were doing so, smoke began to fill the room from a nearby air vent. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of subjects reported the smoke to the organisers within a matter of minutes. However, when subjects were placed in the same room in a group, the results were dramatically different. The subjects looked to one another. If the others in the room seemed unmoved by the smoke, it was ignored.

The authors of the study observed that, if people are alone when they notice an emergency, they consider themselves solely responsible for dealing with it. However, when others are also present, they are less inclined to respond proactively. Such circumstances call for leadership, for responsible individuals who will take a lead and cry, “Acharai!”, “Follow me!”

There is no question that our planet has become a tragic illustration of the smoky room phenomenon. The evidence could not be clearer that climate change is destroying our precious home. Indeed, rising sea levels and extreme weather events are already causing grave problems across the planet and are likely to pose far greater challenges for our children and grandchildren.

The Gemara (Tamid 32a) defines a wise person as, “One who anticipates the consequences of their behaviour”. It has never been easier nor more important for humanity to anticipate the consequences of our continued reliance on phenomena such as fossil fuels and unsustainable manufacturing processes. There is a clear consensus among the foremost scientists on just how devastating those consequences will be. We are in the privileged position of knowing both how high the stakes are and what remedial action we can take. While a lot has been accomplished by inspirational trailblazers, our overall response has been utterly inadequate. Can we now rise to this epoch-defining challenge and safeguard the planet for the sake of our descendants?

On Seder night, we are encouraged to answer the questions of our children and grandchildren. On four occasions the Torah tells us how to respond. The question of the simple son could not be clearer. He asks, “Mah zot?”, “What is this?” I believe that, similarly, our grandchildren will soon ask us, “Mah zot?”, “What is this planet that you have left for us? When the world’s scientists were warning of the danger, how did you respond?” We will need to have the right answer.

This is why I have called for our communities to take meaningful and decisive action to tackle climate change. I am delighted that the United Synagogue has responded impressively to that call with characteristic enthusiasm and commitment, building on and complementing the fruitful participation of a growing number of congregations in the outstanding EcoSynagogue initiative. Over recent months, in partnership with my office, the United Synagogue has produced an ambitious strategy entitled Dorot, meaning Generations. Clearly, the decisions we make today will, quite literally, shape the world that generations to come will inhabit.

As a first step towards real sustainability, Dorot is ambitious and comprehensive. It promises genuine progress in areas that will already be familiar to many, such as smart energy solutions and tree planting. It shows real leadership on clean investments and the phasing out of disposables, whilst not shying away from the challenging areas of greener travel.

An integral part of Dorot will be an educational programme showing how our approach to tackling climate change is rooted in the teachings of the Torah. We will seek to make an impact on the hearts and minds of those who run our communities, encouraging them to make meaningful changes to the bricks and mortar of our synagogues and to all of the activity that they accommodate. Our hope is that these changes will, in turn, inspire the hearts and minds of those right across our communities, to act responsibly in their own lives.

I firmly believe that the implementation of Dorot can serve as a watershed moment for the way that our communities respond to the climate crisis and threats to our biodiversity. In order to do so, however, it is essential for every synagogue, in line with the elements of Dorot, to create its strategy to respond to the generational challenge before us.

In the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba) Rabban Shimon bar Yochai describes how a group of passengers sailing on a boat noticed a fellow traveller who took out a drill and started to bore a hole beneath his seat. They asked him, “What are you trying to do?” He replied, “Why are you concerned? I’m drilling under my place”. In shock they replied, “But you will surely cause all of us to drown!”

Rabban Shimon bar Yochai’s message is clear: Each one of us has a responsibility to safeguard and protect the planet we all share. Not only for those who inhabit the earth now, but for the sake of all future generations.

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