Most religions believe that the universe and everything in it is a creation of God or the gods, and most require that we care for God’s creation.
So for many religious people in Australia today – especially among the younger generations – it makes sense that religious leaders would encourage respect for the environment.
University student Hattie Steenholdt, who attends a Baptist church in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, is part of this growing culture change.
“Climate change is negatively affecting already marginalized communities,” she says.
Hattie was part of a beach mission with the Scripture Union in her hometown of Mallacoota during the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20.
It was an experience that reinforced his belief that Christians need to do more to deal with 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 Gen Z Christians in millennials and older.
He revealed that three in five people are very concerned about climate change and two-thirds want their local church to take action.
But he also found that 35% of church leaders say they rarely preach on environmental issues, citing the politicization of the issue as a major challenge.
This figure does not surprise Jessica Morthorpe.
She is the founder and director of the Five Leaf Eco Awards, an ecumenical program that helps faith groups achieve sustainability goals such as creating community gardens, water reservoirs, and building giant crosses made of solar panels. .
For her, however, caring for creation is a repression versus the politicization of religion.
“Climate change has become this incredible burning political issue, which is just devastating,” she says.
“So it influenced the reception of the churches on the issue, rather than the churches starting with the Bible, and starting with what God actually said about creation and the need to care for it.”
Hattie feels the same.
“The issue of climate change needs to be depoliticized within the Church,” she says, “as we approach it from the perspective of our Christian duty to act with justice.”
Activists ask: where is the moral leadership?
While some religious Australians are focusing their energies on local solutions, others also see the need to engage in electoral politics.
The Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) is a multi-faith affiliation of religious communities advocating for climate justice.
With the federal election approaching, ARRCC is amplifying its climate activism, targeting MPs from fringe constituencies and urging them to enact meaningful climate change policies.
“We don’t just do retreats, host workshops, and talk about lifestyles and webinars,” says chair Thea Ormerod.
“We actually go there and unfurl banners and meet with Members of Parliament, and protest at the coal mining sites.”
She thinks too many religious leaders are too close to conservative politicians and more concerned with rituals than morals.
“They don’t really live the values and the teachings of the faith that they claim to stand for,” she says.
“Moral leadership comes from the laity, from the environmental movement. They defend the moral positions that should be defended most strongly by believers.”
A cause uniting Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim leaders
Joel Lazar, chief executive of the Jewish Climate Network – which is affiliated with the ARRCC – says a key role of the religious leader is to tap into the wisdom of their religion to inspire the community to embody the values of that religion.
“The Old Testament prophets knew this well and constantly spoke out on critical social issues that today might be called ‘political,'” he says.
He says Australian Jewry has historically made lasting contributions to many of the country’s biggest social and economic challenges and sees no reason for that to change when it comes to climate change.
“We are inspired by the value of our tradition of protecting life and preserving natural resources.”
Buddhists also have a role to play, according to Tejopala Rawls, a member of the Buddhist Triratna 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, co-chair of the ARRCC Muslim Collective, agrees.
“It is important for Muslims to advocate for climate justice with the public because climate change affects everyone and solutions must come from everyone.”
All of those interviewed for this article were quick to point out the non-partisan nature of their campaigns.
“We are doing what we can to make sure that all MPs from fringe and key constituencies know that people of all faiths care deeply about this issue,” Tejopala said.
Support for climate action joins forces
With around 6,000 supporters, the ARRCC is still small, but Thea Ormerod says momentum has grown since the devastating fires in south-east Australia in early 2020.
“Since the fires, in particular, people who may have had the weather on their radar have suddenly been alarmed by it,” she says.
If the findings of the Tearfund report are correct, faith leaders could come under increasing pressure to act.
“At the start of 2020, we had less than 10 congregations where we had people organizing locally. Now we have over 150,” says Tejopala Rawls.
Fahimah Badrulhisham says the more she organizes, “the more people I meet who are leveraging their privileges and abilities in direct and indirect ways for climate and social justice.”
And with floods continuing to devastate 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 are called to love and care for the poor, and to see the face of Jesus in them.”