"One last look at 2012. Happy New Year planet Earth!" by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Rabbi Dean Shapiro has always been interested in justice and making the world a better place. That’s why he became a rabbi in 2008.

After about a decade leading Temple Emanuel of Tempe, he found a new way to have an impact. He recently launched the Joseph Project at Arizona State University’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.

The new venture will train clergy all over the world to lead their communities through climate change and climate crisis.

“As climate worsens, our people are going to look to us for processes and solutions that will make their lives better, and to help create meaning,” he said.

Shapiro has noticed people are beginning to experience “climate grief” as they realize their futures will likely be dimmer than they had hoped, due to the effects of climate change.

“As people contemplate moving from one region to another because of drought, flood or fire, the changing environment is arriving in people’s consciousness as a real phenomenon that will be encountered,” he said.

An August report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of scientists convened by the United Nations, found humans have largely caused the planet to heat 1.1 degrees Celsius or 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 19th century. Averaged over the next 20 years, the planet is expected to reach or exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, causing more frequent and life-threatening heat waves, severe droughts and the extinction of some animal and plant species alive today.

“It’s clear that climate change has already become a moral issue and that it is a driver of inequality and injustice,” Shapiro said.

The Joseph Project is preparing to offer its first course to practicing clergy online by the end of the year. Called, "Rising Waters," it will examine the impact of sea level rise, flooding and drought from academic, theological, community impact and emotional perspectives. More courses will come online as the program expands.

David Guston, associate vice provost in the Global Futures Laboratory, said the Joseph Project will help clergy face the multifaceted challenges of climate change.

“That these challenges cross many areas of human knowledge — water, food, energy, economics, social organization, government — means that a radically transdisciplinary organization like the Global Futures Laboratory is a perfect partner.”

The partners also share the same values, Guston said. The laboratory is rooted in the idea that “we can and must make a meaningful contribution to ensuring a habitable planet and a future in which well-being is attainable for all humankind,” he said. Meanwhile, the Joseph Project is rooted in the idea that “while we are not obliged to solve the problems of the world, we are obliged to contribute to their solution.”

Clergy are in a unique position given their training and set of understandings, Shapiro said, and faith leaders from all backgrounds benefit from learning from and engaging with each other.

“I have really benefited from the time I’ve spent with fellow clergy — Jewish, through the Greater Phoenix Board of Rabbis, and non-Jewish, through Tempe Interfaith Fellowship — there’s a real bond when bonafide clergy people come together,” Shapiro said.

Andrew Schwartz, director of sustainability and global affairs at the New York-based Center for Earth Ethics, said Shapiro is filling a “very necessary gap” with the Joseph Project.

Schwartz and Shapiro have talked about faith efforts around climate change for several years.

The climate crisis is causing “deep existential questions” about the state of things now and what is to come, he said, and those questions don’t have simple answers.

“The climate crisis is a crisis of values more than anything else in my opinion. It’s reflective of our society’s willingness to sacrifice the health of people and the planet alike at the altar of profit,” Schwartz said.

Faith leaders are necessary to help advocate for change in communities and to help those in their community emotionally process what’s going on. Clergy needs support in this work, too, Schwartz pointed out.

Rev. Shokuchi Deirdre Carrigan, a Zen Buddhist priest practicing and teaching in Brooklyn, met Shapiro at a training with the Climate Reality Project.

“I am very impressed with the thoroughness and expansiveness of his vision,” she said. “I believe deeply in spiritual leaders and communities coming together in times of crisis.”

Rev. Doug Bland, executive director of Arizona Interfaith Power and Light, said Shapiro has long been a “rock star prophetic voice for environmental justice,” and the two have worked together during Shapiro’s time at Temple Emanuel.

“We live in a world where nothing is held sacred and everything is commodified, a mere resource to be used and discarded,” Bland said. Faith leaders remind communities that the planet is not owned by humans, and is not to be exploited for short-term gain.

“Earth is the promise of brokenness healed and relationships restored,” he said. “Faithful climate action is rooted in love and justice.”

Shapiro said he would have personally benefited from the kind of training he is now working to provide.

During his time at Temple Emanuel, he led many joyous baby-naming ceremonies.

“But as I held that baby in my arms, I knew that the future for that child 50 years down the track was not necessarily going to be rosy,” he said. Today’s children will live through difficult times, causing him to “rethink” the naming ceremony. More than simply a joyous occasion, it should also task parents with the responsibility of raising their child to be a good citizen of the earth. JN