Most religions believe that the universe and all of it are created by God or gods. Therefore, most insist 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.
Hattie Steenholdt is a university student who attends a Baptist Church in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. This is part of a growing culture shift.
She said that “climate change is negatively affecting already marginalised groups.”
Hattie was part in a beach team with Scripture Union in Mallacoota, during the Black Summer bushfires 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 Will Inherit the Earth, the study examines the attitudes of millennial and older Gen Z Christians.
It was found that three-quarters of respondents are very concerned about climate changes, and that two-thirds want their local church action.
However, it was also found that 35% of leaders in the church say they rarely preach about environmental issues, citing the politicization as a key challenge.
This figure doesn’t surprise Jessica Morthorpe.
She is the founder of and director at the Five Leaf Eco AwardsEcumenical program that helps faith groups reach sustainability goals such as establishing community gardens, water tanks, or constructing huge crosses made from solar panels.
For her, however, caring for creation is pushback ForThe politicisation and abuse of religion
“Climate change has become this incredible political hot-button issue, which is just devastating,” she says.
“This has influenced the reception of churches towards the issue, rather churches starting with the Bible and starting with what God actually said about creation, and a need for care for it.”
Hattie feels the same way.
She said that “the issue of climate changes needs to be depoliticised in the church” and that it should be approached from the perspective of Christians’ Christian duty to act justly.
Activists question: Where’s the moral leadership?
While some religious Australians focus their efforts on grassroots solutions, others see the need to engage in electoral politics.
The Australian Religious Response to Climate Change is a multi-faith association of religious communities advocating climate justice.
In the run-up to the federal election the ARRCC is intensifying its climate activism by targeting marginal MPs and urging them adopt meaningful climate change policy.
Thea Ormerod, president, says that we don’t just hold retreats. We also host workshops and talk about lifestyles.
“We actually go out and hang out banners, meet members of parliament, protest at coal mining sites, and even get out there and hold meetings.”
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
Climate action is getting support
The ARRCC has around 6,000 supporters. However, Thea Ormerod believes that momentum is building since the devastating fires in South-east Australia in early 2020.
“People who might have had climate on their radar suddenly became alarmed by the fires in particular,” she said.
If the findings of the Tearfund report are accurate, faith leaders may come under increasing pressure to take action.
“At the beginning of 2020, we had less than 10 congregations where people were organizing locally. Tejopala Rawls states that now there are more than 150.
Fahimah Badrulhisham claims that the more she organizes, the “more people I meet who leverage privilege and abilities in direct or indirect ways for climate change and social justice.”
Jessica Morthorpe believes that their message is more urgent now than ever, as floods continue to decimate New South Wales and Queensland.
Jessica states that climate change is killing and causing great suffering right now.
“It always hurts first the most vulnerable.” We are called as Christians to love and care about the poor and to see Jesus’ face within them.