Faith leaders must stop acting as if there's no preventing natural disasters

(RNS) — Hurricanes have been in the news a lot lately. A lot. And with every storm comes another litany of lives lost — each one a child of God — and destruction to the planet many of our faith traditions teach we are to steward and protect.

Most recently, Hurricane Ophelia, the easternmost Atlantic hurricane on record, battered Ireland and the United Kingdom. Most of the people who died during this storm didn’t die from the impacts of floods or collapsing homes, but because of the wildfires fueled by the winds of the hurricane.

This comes after the deadliest wildfires in California history, which claimed at least 40 lives, and which forced the evacuation of 90,000 people from their homes. In the last two months alone, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria have unleashed unprecedented destruction on the inhabitants of Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, with the Caribbean Island of Barbuda declared “practically uninhabitable” by its prime minister, Gaston Browne. Gone. Wiped from the map.

In the midst of ever more surreal headlines, the phrases become routine, like so much of the dysfunction and suffering currently affecting our nation: We hear about the deadliest, the hottest, the most expensive on record.

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We jump into action after destruction has hit with courageous self-sacrifice and awe-inspiring generosity, all the while pretending as if there was nothing we could do before the storm hit, before the fires started.

As faith leaders, we believe it’s time we stopped pretending and summoned our great generosity of spirit and incalculable ingenuity to address the ongoing disaster that is causing so many of our other disasters: climate change.

In the last several decades, natural disasters have been increasing in both frequency and intensity. And 40 percent of the world’s population, including our fellow New Yorkers, live on coastlines while sea levels are rising.

Last weekend (Oct. 28) New Yorkers from across our city marched to mark five years since Superstorm Sandy pounded the Eastern Seaboard, causing billions of dollars in damage, and devastating coastal New Jersey and New York City in particular.

In those five years, while some significant action has been taken to help residents recover and rebuild, many of our fellow New Yorkers still remain out of their homes. And there has been very little action to prevent the next storm from hitting and not enough done fast enough to shore up our neighborhoods from that next storm and sea level rise.

With the current federal administration pulling us out of the most aggressive and comprehensive global plan to combat climate change, the Paris agreement, the need for New York to be the climate champion that acts is greater than ever.

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In the past it has often been pointed out that though the United States is one of the largest global producers of carbon emissions and consumers of energy, we are also the most insulated from the detrimental impacts of changing climates. Our wealth and infrastructure enable us to adapt. Meanwhile, it is the world’s poorest populations that have contributed the least to climate change who are hit the hardest by its effects, and are least able to recover.

This is all still true. And, after Sandy, and Irma, and Harvey, and Maria, and wildfires, and floods, can we really say that the U.S. is not being significantly impacted?

We are not climate scientists, or policy experts, or politicians. We deal with the aftermath of the failure of these groups to form consensus and the political will to act. We are the ones who somehow have to comfort families who have lost everything, sometimes including a loved one. We hear the stories of all that cannot be rebuilt. It is our congregations that raise money for victims, assemble hurricane buckets, and send relief workers.

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The climate crisis is a moral crisis and it will require moral courage to address it. But our faith teaches that we must not allow fear and a mentality of scarcity to drive us to inaction. That is why earlier this year The Riverside Church voted to divest from fossil fuels. We cannot remain invested in the very coal, oil and gas companies that are most responsible for climate change. Our city and state must also cut its ties from these industries that are out of alignment with a healthy climate and thriving communities.

It is time we demand our elected leaders take further, deeper, morally justified, action to address climate change. Our world, our people, needs New York to be a beacon of hope that others can aspire to.

We cannot wait for another storm or fire or flood before we act.

(The Rev. Amy Butler is the seventh senior minister at The Riverside Church in New York City, known for its public pulpit and social justice legacy. Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is the senior educator for Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization combating suffering and oppression. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)