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Leaders out of step with their faiths' climate teaching



The evangelical Christian vote no doubt assisted the climate-denying Trump to his election victory, yet it is remarkable how out-of-step it is with the general view of faith communities globally.

COP22 gathering in MarrakechThis view was made abundantly clear the day after Trump's victory on 10 November, with the release of an Interfaith Statement in Marrakech, Morocco, and it should stand as a challenge to those in public life who continue to block climate action.

We see a similar phenomenon in Australian politics, the dominance of politicians with climate-denying views and all its consequences. What is remarkable here is that, despite a dominant Catholic presence in Cabinet for some years, the push from among their ranks is in the opposite direction to the moral signposts in Pope Francis' environmental encyclical Laudato Si' and any number of other faith-based public proclamations.

Our politicians resist the idea they should hold certain views because of their religious beliefs. It is true people can, in good faith, come to different solutions to practical problems from others in their own faith traditions. On the other hand, faith can never be closeted away as a purely private affair. Faith has an inescapable public dimension and impacts on the ethics underlying decisions about the issues of the day.

For this reason one would hope those in public office would not consistently act in ways that are opposed to the well-reasoned, evidence-based, morally congruent positions of leaders in their faith traditions.

The Interfaith Statement was endorsed by such prominent religious leaders as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and a diverse range of others. Australian endorsements include the Grand Mufti and heads of peak Buddhist, Hindu, Uniting Church and Lutheran bodies.

The statement describes the continued use of fossil fuels as 'ethically untenable', calls for a concerted push to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C and for divestment from fossil fuels.

While statements from the religious community are becoming more sophisticated on policy, more urgent and more far-reaching in their demands for climate action, the Australian government retreats. Despite being weighted as it is with people of faith, our leadership drags the chain internationally.


"The Islamic Society of North America has committed to divesting from fossil fuels and encouraged its constituent organisations and affiliated institutions to do so as well. This marks the world's first divestment announcement from a Muslim institution."


With the consequences pertaining to nothing less than the capacity of the earth to support life as we know it, at what point may we break the taboo on challenging politicians on the basis of their faith traditions? And, even if the voting public could not hold a political leader to the teachings in their tradition, would they not at least want to see them act according to widely accepted ethical standards?

Australia's emissions continue to rise at a pace. Ours is the first country to actually repeal legislation to introduce carbon pricing. Australia has overtaken Indonesia as the world's largest coal exporter and domestically has among the highest emissions per capita. Our current targets for reducing emissions are both low and unachievable with current policy settings.

Whatever the government's public assurances of commitment to reducing emissions, their real values are demonstrated in their actions. Their true attitudes were on full display when they immediately blamed renewable energy for the blackouts during the massive storms which hit South Australia.

The contrast between these attitudes and those of other people of faith is becoming increasingly pronounced. Both Laudato Si' and the Interfaith Statement condemn the continued use of fossil fuels. Prime Minister Turnbull has defended our continued coal exports with the 'drug-pusher's defence' that if Australia didn't export it, others would.

The Interfaith Statement encourages faith-based organisations, sovereign wealth funds and state pension funds to divest from fossil fuel extraction and investment in renewable energy and other climate solutions. The Coalition government has resisted all efforts to decarbonise the economy.

The statement requests controls on dispute mechanisms in trade agreements which allow corporations to sue governments when environmental protection laws impact on their profits. The government has allowed such dispute mechanisms to be included in the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement.

Faith communities are themselves moving in the opposite direction to that of fellow believers in public office responsible for current climate policy. The faith divestment movement is gaining momentum, with the Global Catholic Climate Movement now promoting it with Catholics.

Along with the Interfaith Statement has come an announcement by the Islamic Society of North America that it would commit to divest its investments from fossil fuels and encourage its two constituent organisations and five national affiliated institutions to do so as well. This marks the world's first divestment announcement from a Muslim institution.

The divestment decisions by Catholic organisations announced during 2016 will be just the beginning. Christian Brothers Investment Services in the US, which has 600 Catholic institutions as clients and manages US$6 billion, surveyed its clients recently. They found that 23 per cent of respondents had already elected to divest from fossil fuels and half of the remainder had discussed the possibility with their investment managers.

Teachings such as Laudato Si' and public statements like the one released during the Marrakech climate talks are the end result of many years of careful deliberation on current issues in the light of religiously-informed core values, beliefs and scripture. It is a great disappointment to many people of faith that there are politicians in public life whose actions bear little relationship with teachings in their faith tradition.


Thea OrmerodThea Ormerod is President of Australian Religious Response to Climate Change. Written with Professor Stephen Pickard, executive director of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture and Assistant Bishop in Canberra-Goulburn Diocese.

Topic tags: Thea Ormerod, Pope Francis, climate change, Donald Trump



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Existing comments

'It is a great disappointment to many people of faith that there are politicians in public life whose actions bear little relationship with teachings in their faith tradition.' This is so true, Thea, and applies to politicians in both the Australian Government and Opposition. Yet how many people reading this vote for either the Coalition or Labor? The Australian Greens have policies that support a rapid change to the new green economy but are still a minority party. The 'majors' even support the opening up of new coal mines, including the Adani Mine in the Galilee Basin. I think this is unconscionable. The great Barrier Reef is already badly damaged by coral bleaching. Some low-lying Pacific and Torres Strait islands are in dire straits from rising sea levels. Just look at coastal inundation maps of much of Australia's coastline for even a 1 metre sea level rise and you'll see how short-sighted are the policies of our major party politicians. Go to the Coastal Risk website. And our major party politicians are accepting donations from the fossil fuel industry! Many so-called Christians and others of faith have a lot of soul-searching to do, but don't seem to have even started.

George Allen | 17 November 2016  

Climate change. This is the most important issue of our time. Every body over 15 years of age should watch this. Let's not laugh at Noah anymore... No need to be fatalistic, just realistic. Or if you prefer: Not in denial. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SU2rN2QYAK0

AO | 17 November 2016  

If Laudato si is authoritative teaching on global warming (it's not - Catholics are free to disagree with Pope Francis on the science, according to Vat. II and the tradition, and even Pope Francis himself, if I understand him correctly), then what about Humanae vitae and Evangelium vitae, banning artificial contraception and abortion in line with the perennial moral teaching of the Church? Why isn't E.S. condemning artificial contraception and abortion with the same fervour it condemns climate skeptics?

HH | 17 November 2016  

A hundred years ago people bought tickets for a seat in a specially built stadium on Sydney Harbour to watch the second coming believing in good faith that "the end is nigh". The doom sayers are up and about again awaiting the great submersion, truly minor compared with the one than flooded the continuous land connection of Africa to Australia for example. Maybe it's time to build and start selling tickets for a seat on the Arc of Salvation. Or alternatively simply have faith and trust in God' s plan for his creation, something into which none of us can genuinely claim insight. I suspect that if the planet is to come to an end it is God's plan. He could let us down just as he failed to come again walking on the water through Sydney Harbour Heads. Who knows? Mind you though I have known for 30 years that our seasons have shifted and nowadays I have no idea when the Spring bulbs are going to bloom; some arrive in Autumn and some in Winter these curious days.

john frawley | 18 November 2016  

I think there is a real danger that the religious movers and shakers are becoming increasingly remote from political reality. Of course most intelligent people believe that climate change is happening. However, there is a danger that precipitate action - such as immediately shutting down the brown coal fired power stations in the Latrobe Valley - will dislocate both power supply and the Victorian economy. The Greens - becoming an evangelical atheistic/agnostic quasi-religious puritanical sect - are dead set against the introduction of nuclear power. To my mind that is daft. There is safe nuclear power in the Scandinavian countries. It is interesting that the Greens seem to be first choice for many self-styled progressive Catholics who seem to airbrush away their fanatical anti-life stance. The Church's teaching on abortion is part of the magisterium whilst the contents of Laudato Si' are not. Interesting that.

Edward Fido | 18 November 2016  

John Frawley, don't you know that God helps those who help themselves? And I mean 'help themselves' in the good sense.

Gavan | 18 November 2016  

Gavan. I well remember my elderly grandmother nodding wisely and reminding us that "God helps those who help themselves". To this day I have no idea what the evidence is that supports this old wives wisdom ! I can't help thinking that if some people do successfully help themselves, God might simply sit back and say, "Well ! They have done well. No need for me to interfere" !

john frawley | 19 November 2016  

Maybe they don't believe what they pray and sing on Sundays; nor what they read in Laudato si? ?"Why do you call me: 'Lord, Lord'," said Jesus, "and not do what I say?" Lk 6: 46 (JB). ?Maybe they don't believe that they will face judgement? How many priests and pastors are willing to teach them plainly they will be judged? "The Son of Man will send His angels and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that provoke offences and all who do evil, and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth." Mt 13: 41-42 (JB). ?No hypocritical equivocation in that! If we don't teach this basic, it's then impossible to call them to rely on Christ's mercy and repent. If they don't experience God's mercy personally, how can they become merciful towards the poor who are the first victims of global warming? How terribly frustrating, in the end, if fatal global warming could have been prevented by faithful Christian preaching and exhortation.

Dr Marty Rice | 19 November 2016  

Long before Laudato Si and Faith Divestent movements, conservative Pope Benedict XVI had implemented strict climate control procedures. Global media reported: "The Vatican, the world's smallest state, has reportedly become the most ecological, according to l'Osservatore Romano, the official daily newspaper of Vatican City. The Vatican City State has installed 2,400 solar panels on the Nervi Hall roof, measuring over 5,000 square metres. This will reduce CO2 emissions by 225 tonnes per annum. As well, the Vatican has established its own small record in production of solar power per inhabitant, with close to 200 W at peak times. The Vatican City State has a population of only 800 inhabitants on a surface area of 44 hectares (10,000 square metres per hectare). Along with solar power, the Vatican wants to invest in wind and biomass energy in the coming years. It has previously been involved in ecological matters, having invested in planting a forest in Hungary in 2007. Beginning in 2008, the Vatican has been implementing an ecological development program, seeking to become the first European state to fulfill 20 per cent of its energy needs using renewable energy by 2020.

Father John George | 19 November 2016  

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