Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen, addressing a spirited group of about 20 activists at Van Gough Cafe in Southeast Baltimore on Monday, says Jews have an innate responsibility to safeguard the environment.
“It is absolutely central to our Jewish thinking about the world that we have a responsibility to protect and to honor that which gives us life,” Sachs-Kohen said.
That was the basis of the “Your Voice, Your Earth, Take Action!” meeting organized by the Pearlstone Conference & Retreat Center, Repair the World Baltimore and the Baltimore Jewish Council.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and state Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11), the two featured speakers, expressed some concerns about key environmental issues facing the state and country. Many activists, from groups including Charm City Tribe, Maryland Environmental Health Network and Interfaith Power & Light, also shared similar reservations.
In response, the two legislative leaders promised they would work on solutions to fight climate change, push for more environmentally friendly policies and combat the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations.
Fresh off a plane returning from Bonn, Germany, the site of the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, Cardin said he will continue to engage in global climate talks despite Trump’s decision not to support the Paris climate accord.
The United States has always led the way in confronting global challenges, especially ones that profoundly impact the country, said Cardin, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He asserted that now is not the time for the U.S. to decrease its influence, and if anything, elected officials should be raising more awareness.
“If America is not out there leading on global issues, then it’s much more difficult to get done,” Cardin said. “What will China do? What will India do? We can get them to do the right thing, but without U.S. participation, it’s going to be very, very tough.”
In Maryland, Stein said he and other members of the legislature understand there is a sense of urgency to move swiftly to protect the interests of residents.
As an example, Stein pointed to a bill he will introduce next legislative session to bring Maryland into the United States Climate Alliance, a group of 14 states opposed to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. The JT was the first to report in June that Stein planned to pre-file the bill in August.
“It’s symbolic in the sense that it is saying that President Trump’s actions don’t represent the viewpoints of Marylanders on climate change,” Stein said of the legislation, which drew applause from audience members. “It also has practical implications, as these  states are members of the climate alliance working to take the next steps.”
Stein, vice chair of the influential legislative Environment and Transportation Committee, also informed the audience of other top issues he plans to support when session reconvenes in January.
He said there will be legislation that would require the state to double clean and renewable energy sources from 25 percent to 50 percent by 2030. Though environmental advocates strongly back the measure, Stein admits it seems unlikely such a bold plan would be approved in 2018, when every member of the General Assembly will be up for re-election.
“This is a mark we want to start working on and hopefully pass in future years,” said Stein, who added he would like to see the state reach the 100 percent renewable rate at some point.
In the wake of hurricanes that flooded parts of Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and forced many from their homes, Stein said measures are being taken to protect individuals who may become susceptible to such conditions.
One bill would address rising sea levels, as Stein cited a state Department of Natural Resources report released this summer that concluded 5 percent of the state would be permanently underwater by 2050. In conjunction, Stein plans to file legislation requiring the state to develop a plan on how to respond to flooding. The state would be required to consider how much protection would be provided to the areas projected to be under water using seawalls, wetlands development and other tactics.
Stein said that it is never too early to take such precautions and that it is critical “to figure out how we’re going to respond as sea levels keep on rising more and more.”
He also implored activists to monitor environmental issues not only in Annapolis, but also in Washington, D.C.
Trump has made several moves that have angered environmentalists, including nominating Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to oversee the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt previously sued to block a Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort.
Cardin said that “it is extremely disappointing that we have someone who is the head of the EPA who doesn’t believe in the EPA’s mission.”
“The world needs to be repaired in this climate,” Cardin said, referencing tikkun olam. “There is no emergency room to go to and fix it. We have to take care of it ourselves. The earth is in a little danger.”
The spirited crowd, compromised of mostly millennials who often nodded, clapped and applauded in agreement with the speakers, came away invigorated by the sentiments of Cardin and Stein.
Joan Plisko, director of community sustainability for Pearlstone, said she was encouraged by the positive reaction. She added she hopes everyone in attendance takes their activism to the next level.
“We really think it is important people in the community take advantage of these opportunities that they otherwise may not have,” Plisko said. “We want people who are passionate about their Judaism and environment to speak up and have the chance to have their voices heard by people who can help make a difference.”