WASHINGTON -- Astronomer Carl Sagan, elected officials and Jewish religious leaders have combined forces for an urgent mission -- to prevent the destruction of Earth's environment.
The alliance sponsored a conference here Monday and yesterday to discuss ways in which Jews can mobilize to help solve environmental problems.
Organizers, including Sen. Albert Gore Jr., D-Tenn., and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said the conference was the first to unite religious leaders, renowned scientists and politicians in a campaign to save the environment.
Jews have a moral obligation to fight problems such as global warming, deforestation and overpopulation, said religious leaders who attended The Consultation on the Environment and Jewish Life conference held at the National Air and Space Museum and on Capitol Hill.
"God, the owner of the universe, has some property around us that is being severely damaged and we have an obligation to restore it," said Rabbi Saul Berman of Yeshiva University in New York.
"We want to create a sense of awareness" among Jews, said Shoshana Cardin, of Baltimore, who is chairwoman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
"We have a common responsibility" to protect Earth.
Rabbi Berman reminded the largely Jewish audience of "hatzhala" -- the duty of rescue.
"Throughout Jewish law, this principle recurs," he said. Jews have a duty to rescue Earth and "to rescue humanity from itself."
"By Talmudic times 2,000 years ago, there was already a broad array of [Jewish] environmental regulations," said Rabbi David Saperstein, one of the event's organizers and head of the Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement, a Washington lobby group.
Mrs. Cardin and other leaders said the conference was meant chiefly to send a message to Jews, but many said they planned to push grassroots environmental initiatives in their communities that would include recycling programs at synagogues and Jewish youth environmental groups.
"We have a special expertise in how to preserve precious living species," said Steven Sklar, who represented Baltimore in the Maryland legislature for years and is now an energy consultant in Washington.
The unique conference grew out of an earlier, smaller religious conference held in New York last year, Mr. Saperstein said.
The Joint Appeal by Religion and Science for the Environment, which resulted from that conference, plans to push politicians and the corporate world to join in preventing further environmental damage.
Mr. Sagan, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and other renowned scientists sketched frightening scenarios that could result from continued damage to the planet.
For example, if the current rate of global warming continues, Earth's temperature could increase from 4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century, said Michael Oppenheimer, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.
Possible results of global warming include war in the Middle East as water sources dry up and populations become desperate, the disappearance of islands and coastal areas, and floods of refugees from disaster areas.
"We're not going to know how bad it is until it happens," Mr. Oppenheimer warned.
Mr. Sagan, famed for his "Cosmos" television show and book, showed slides of Mars and Venus as potential models for a future Earth.
"Mars also has an ozone hole," he said, referring to the red planet's lack of the protective element. "It produces a sterile, lifeless planet."
Mr. Sagan and his colleagues provided conferees with chilling data to support their case: Two acres of forest disappear every second. One hundred living species are lost forever every day. The ozone hole is as large as Europe and is no longer confined to the area above the Antarctic.
Mr. Gore, a strong supporter of environmental causes, called the growing damage to Earth "an environmental Kristallnacht," referring to the infamous night when Nazis vandalized Jewish synagogues, an event viewed by many as the beginning of the Holocaust.
Similarly, an environmental holocaust could occur "if good people do nothing," said Mr. Gore.