Most religions believe that the universe and everything in it is the creation of God or gods, and most demand that we nurture God’s creation.
So for many religious people in Australia today – especially among the younger generations – it makes sense for religious leaders to encourage caring for the environment.
University student Hattie Steinholdt, who attends a Baptist church in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, is part of this growing culture shift.
“Climate change is already negatively affecting marginalized communities,” she says.
Hattie was part of a beach mission with the Scripture Union in her hometown of Mallakuta during the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires.
It was an experience that reinforced his belief that Christians needed to do more about the climate crisis.
And according to a survey conducted 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 perspectives of millennial and older Gen Z Christians.
It found that three out of five people are very concerned about climate change, and two thirds want their local church to take action.
But it also found that 35 percent of church leaders say they rarely campaign on environmental issues, citing the politicization of the issue as a major challenge.
This figure doesn’t surprise Jessica Morthorpe.
She is the founder and director of the Five Leaf Eco Awards, a worldwide program that helps faith groups achieve sustainability goals such as the installation of community gardens, water tanks, and the construction of giant crosses made of solar panels.
For him, though, caring for creation is pushback. against Politicization of religion.
“Climate change has become this incredibly political hot-button issue, which is devastating,” she says.
“Therefore the issue has affected the reception of churches, rather than churches starting with the Bible, and starting with what God has actually said about creation and the need to care for it.”
Hattie feels the same way.
“The issue of climate change needs to be politicized within the church,” she says, “to the extent that we see it from the standpoint of our Christian duty to act appropriately.”
Activists Ask: Where Is Ethical Leadership?
While some religious Australians are focusing their energies on grassroots 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.
In the lead-up to the federal election, the ARRCC is ramping up its climate activism, targeting lawmakers in marginalized voters, and urging them to adopt meaningful climate change policies.
“We don’t just run retreats, and have workshops and talk about lifestyle and webinars,” says President Thea Ormerod.
“We actually get out there and hang banners and meet Members of Parliament, and protest at coal mining sites.”
He believes that many religious leaders are too close to conservative politicians and are more concerned about rituals than morality.
“They’re not really living the values and teachings of the faith they purport to champion,” she says.
“Ethical leadership is coming from secular people, the environmental movement. They are speaking for moral positions that should be most strongly championed by people of faith.”
A cause to unite 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 a religious leader is to access the knowledge of their religion to inspire the community to embrace the values of that religion.
“The Old Testament prophets knew this very well and were constantly speaking on important social issues that, today, might be called ‘political,'” he says.
He says the Australian Jewish community has historically made a lasting contribution to many of the country’s greatest social and economic challenges and sees no reason why this should change in relation to climate change.
“We are inspired by the value of our tradition of protecting life and conserving natural resources.”
According to Tejopal Rawls, a member of the Triratna Buddhist system, Buddhists also have a role to play.
“People of all faiths need to be involved to show that people from ancient religious traditions have a clear moral response to this crisis,” he says.
Fahima Badrulhisham, co-chair of ARRCC’s Muslim Collective, agrees.
“It is important for Muslims to advocate for climate justice in public because climate change affects everyone, and solutions must come from all.”
Everyone interviewed for this article emphasized the non-partisan nature of their campaigns.
Tejopala says, “We are making every effort to ensure that all MPs from marginal and major voters know that people of all religions feel very strongly on this issue.”
Support for the Climate Action Assembly Force
With around 6,000 supporters, the ARRCC is still small, but Thea Ormerod says the momentum has been building since the devastating fires in south-east Australia in early 2020.
“Since fires are especially people who may have climate on their radar, they were suddenly concerned about it,” she says.
If the Tearfund report’s findings are accurate, there could be increased pressure on faith leaders to act.
Tejopala Rawls says, “In early 2020 we had less than 10 congregations where people organized locally. Now we have over 150.”
Fahima Badrulhisham says the more she organizes, “the more people I meet who directly and indirectly take advantage of their privileges and abilities” for climate and social justice.
And with incessant flooding in New South Wales and Queensland, Jessica Morthorpe says her message is more urgent than ever.
“Climate change is really hurting and killing people right now,” Jessica says.
“It always hurts the weakest first. And as Christians, we are called to love and care for the poor and to see the face of Jesus within them.”