Observer  /  Community  /  Culture

Religious Australians are pushing for climate action, and want church leaders and politicians to get on board

Original publication by Barbara Heggen for abc.net.au on 10 April 2022

Hattie Steenholdt was part of a beach mission in Mallacoota during the Black Summer bushfires.
(Supplied: Hattie Steenholdt)

Most religions believe the universe and everything in it is a creation of God or gods, and most demand that we nurture God’s creation.

So for many religious people in Australia today — particularly among younger generations — it makes sense for religious leaders to encourage care for the environment.

University student Hattie Steenholdt, who attends a Baptist church in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, is part of this growing culture shift.

“Climate change is negatively affecting already marginalised communities,” she says.

“It is not a matter of which government is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but rather it is a matter of how we best love our neighbours and creation.”

Hattie Steenholdt says the issue of climate change needs to be depoliticised within the church.
(Supplied: Hattie Steenholdt)

Hattie was part of a beach mission with Scripture Union in her hometown of Mallacoota during the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20.

It was an experience that strengthened her conviction that Christians need to do more about the climate crisis.

And according to a survey commissioned by Christian development agency Tearfund Australia, she is one of many young people who feel the same way.

Titled They Shall Inherit The Earth, the study examines the attitudes of millennial and older Gen Z Christians.

It found that three in five are very concerned about climate change, and two thirds want their local church to take action.

But it also found that 35 per cent of church leaders say they rarely preach on environmental matters, citing the politicisation of the issue as a key challenge.

This figure doesn’t surprise Jessica Morthorpe.

She’s the founder and director of the Five Leaf Eco Awards, an ecumenical program helping faith groups achieve sustainability goals like establishing community gardens, water tanks, and constructing giant crosses made of solar panels.

A church powered by a cross made of solar panels.
(Supplied by Five Leaf Awards)

To her, though, caring for creation is pushback against the politicisation of religion.

 “Climate change has become this incredible political hot-button issue, which is just devastating,” she says.

“That has therefore influenced the reception of churches to the issue, rather than churches starting with the Bible, and starting with what God has actually said about creation and a need to care for it.”

Hattie feels a similar way.

“The issue of climate change needs to be depoliticised within the church,” she says, “to the extent that we approach it from the perspective of our Christian duty to act justly.”

Activists ask: where’s the moral leadership?

While some religious Australians are focusing their energies on grassroots solutions, others also see the need to engage with electoral politics.

The Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) is a multi-faith affiliation of religious communities advocating for climate justice.

In the lead-up to the federal election, the ARRCC is amplifying its climate activism, targeting MPs in marginal electorates, and urging them to embrace meaningful climate change policies.

“We don’t just run retreats, and have workshops and talk about lifestyles and webinars,” says president Thea Ormerod.

“We actually get out there and hang out banners and meet with members of parliament, and protest at coal mining sites.”

Samuel Batt, an advisor for Liberal MP Warren Entsch, meets with Father Neil Forgie and Venerable Rinchen Kelly.
(Supplied: ARRCC)

She believes too many religious leaders are too close to conservative politicians and more concerned about rituals than morals.

“They’re not really living out the values and teachings of the faith that they purport to champion,” she says.

“If politicians aren’t being challenged by the faith leaders of today, then where’s the moral leadership?”

“The moral leadership is coming from secular people, the environment movement. They’re speaking out for the moral positions that should be championed most strongly by people of faith.”

A cause uniting Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim leaders

Joel Lazar, the chief executive of the Jewish Climate Network says a key role of the religious leader is to reach into their religion’s wisdom to inspire community to embody the values of that religion.

“The prophets of the Old Testament knew this well and were constantly speaking out on critical social issues that, today, might be called ‘political’,” he says.

He says the Australian Jewish community historically has made lasting contributions to many of the country’s greatest social and economic challenges and sees no reason why that should change in regard to climate change.

 “We are inspired by our tradition’s value of protecting life and preserving natural resources.”

Buddhists too have a role to play, according to Tejopala Rawls, a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order.

“Buddhists try to practice compassion for all beings, and at a time when all life on Earth is threatened the case for our involvement seems very clear.” 

“There is a need for people of all faiths to be involved in order to show that people from ancient religious traditions have a clear moral response to this crisis,” he says.

Fahimah Badrulhisham, the co-president of the ARRCC’s Muslim Collective, agrees.

“It’s important to have Muslims advocating for climate justice in the public because climate change affects everyone, and the solutions must come from everyone.”

Activists share their message outside the office of Brisbane MP Trevor Evans.
(Supplied: ARRCC)

Everyone interviewed for this article was quick to emphasise the non-partisan nature of their campaigns.

“We’re doing what we can to make sure that all MPs in marginal and key electorates know that people of all faiths feel very strongly about this issue,” says Tejopala.

Support for climate action gathering force

With around 6,000 supporters, the ARRCC is still small, but Thea Ormerod says momentum has been building since the devastating fires in south-east Australia in early 2020.

“Since the fires in particular people who may have had climate on their radar were suddenly alarmed by it,” she says.

“I think there’s been a shift in the urgency of the problem.”

If the findings of the Tearfund report are accurate, faith leaders may come under increasing pressure to take action.

“At the start of 2020 we had fewer than 10 congregations where we had people organising locally. Now we have more than 150,” says Tejopala Rawls.

Fahimah Badrulhisham says the more she organises, “the more people I meet who leverage their privilege and abilities in direct and indirect ways for climate and social justice”.

And with floods continuing to devastate in New South Wales and Queensland, Jessica Morthorpe says their message is more urgent than ever.

“Climate change is really hurting and killing people right now,” Jessica says.

“It always hurts the most vulnerable first. And as Christians, we’re called to love and care for the poor, and to see the face of Jesus within them.”

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