New Group Linking Climate Change with Systemic Racism


A new national Jewish group dedicated to tackling the climate crisis is emphasizing the connections between racial injustice and a degraded environment.

Minority communities, says Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, founder and CEO of the new group, Dayenu, “are more likely to have polluting industries close by, less access to cooling in extreme heat, and significantly limited access to quality medical care.”

Launched one month before George Floyd’s killing in police custody led to weeks of demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice, Dayenu aims to link the issues in its push for clean energy and a “Just Green Recovery” — a pledge by the presidential candidates to rebuild the world after the coronavirus so that it is more just and sustainable rather than supporting the coal and gas industries.

“We want an economy that runs on 100 percent clean energy,” said Phil Aroneanu, Dayenu’s chief strategy officer. “Iceland has done it and some other countries are working towards that. The coal industry is dead and the question is whether we are transitioning from coal to gas or to renewables … such as wind, solar, paddle power and batteries.”

Dayenu’s emphasis on “climate justice” is a response to studies showing, for example, that adverse links between air pollution and preterm birth or low birth weight are highest for babies born to black mothers. A meta-analysis in the journal of the American Medical Association confirmed the correlation and concluded that the damage to babies’ health will continue to grow as climate change worsens.

The climate crisis disproportionately impacts “those who have been historically marginalized: people living in the global south, in poverty, in particularly vulnerable areas, and people who experience racism and other kinds of bigotry,” Rabbi Rosenn told The Jewish Week.

Noting that Dayenu is Hebrew for “enough,” Rabbi Rosenn said the name was chosen because it says “we have had enough with this destruction and being on the path that is neither just nor sustainable,” and it is also saying “we have enough” in terms of the “science, technology and capacity to ensure a just and sustainable world so all can have enough.”

Dayenu is joining several grassroots Jewish environmental groups currently at work on the issue, among them Hazon, Jewish Earth Alliance and Jewish Climate Action Network (JCAN). Adrienne Leveen, a co-founder of JCAN-NYC, said Dayenu will “help connect grassroots Jewish climate groups with a larger national movement focused on climate justice.”

Dayenu is getting out its message through what it calls Dayenu Circles, small groups of five to 10 people who meet monthly to engage in Dayenu-led climate campaigns. The first one has been established by 15 members of Congregation Beth Elohim, a Reform synagogue in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. Lisa Cowan, the group’s leader, said they are participating in Dayenu’s Just Green Recovery campaign and are “thrilled to have this new pathway to advocate for climate solutions.”

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, said his organization is “working closely with Dayenu to mobilize Reform Jewish voters to address this issue.”   

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has said that if elected he would elevate the issue of climate change and consider it a national security priority. He has outlined a plan, what he calls a “Clean Energy Revolution,” to address what he said is “a grave threat” so that the U.S. can “lead the world in addressing the climate emergency.”

President Donald Trump has widely rolled back measures meant to address climate change. When U.S. government scientists released their latest volume of the National Climate Assessment, Trump rejected its central finding that emissions of carbon dioxide are caused by human activities and causing lasting economic damage. He has also begun the yearlong process of withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate treaty that has been signed by nearly all nations to reduce fossil fuel emissions. He called it flawed, said it protects polluters and is too costly. In addition, he has moved to weaken fuel economy standards for cars.

Dayenu hopes that climate will be a factor in the coming election. A majority of Americans (63 percent) report seeing the effects of climate change in their own communities, according to the Pew Research Center, and 60 percent said they believe it is a threat to the well-being of the United States — as high a figure as in any Pew survey going back to 2009. Fully 65 percent believe the federal government should do more — including more than half of Republicans and an overwhelming number of Democrats.

“Solar energy is the cheapest form of energy and the reason we still burn oil and gas is because we have the infrastructure and the companies running them don’t want to close them down because of shareholder value,” said Aroneanu. “The technology [for clean energy] is there, what is lacking is the political will and investment in clean energy infrastructure. There are tax credits that are about to expire for solar and wind that Congress is considering continuing. We have to invest money up front to get a good return later.”