Religious rebels rattle Big Coal's cage


Uniting Church and Catholic ministers at the Maules Creek protestThe arrest last week of three identifiably religious people drew attention again to Whitehaven's new coal mine site at Maules Creek, in northern NSW.

The arrests came after a Catholic priest, three Uniting Church ministers, a Buddhist priest and the three arrestees faced off against a line of heavy haulage trucks at the entrance to the site. Why did these people of faith feel it was time to put their bodies on the line?

Simply put, when the law is fully harnessed to keep in place a system that many consider to be immoral, the most ethical action is peaceful, non-violent disobedience. Such action was taken by those protecting Jewish people from the Nazis during World War II, by the Jesuit Berrigan brothers in the Plowshares Movement, and during India's independence struggle, led by Mahatma Ghandi.

What has the Maules Creek coal mine got in common with these rather extreme examples? A great deal.

Probably the most underestimated crisis of our time is the developing ecological calamity resulting from climate change, driven by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Increasingly, humanity's collective investment in fossil fuels, which many people unwittingly support through our banks and super funds, has become dangerously disconnected from its ultimate outcome, the destruction of the biosphere. Coal is a major culprit.

Analysts have calculated a carbon budget, beyond which we will exceed the gravely dangerous threshold of a two-degree temperature rise. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at the current pace, this budget will be exhausted in just 15 years. Yet the business model of fossil fuel companies assumes that the extraction and burning of coal, oil and gas, will continue well into the future.

The fossil fuel industry globally has the confidence of governments, the finance sector and the public. Here in Australia, Big Coal uses its wealth to pay well-connected lobbyists at federal and state levels, as well as climate denial think tanks. The public's support is secured through misinformation about 'clean coal' and vastly inflated claims that the sector provides wealth and jobs. The finance sector's support is secured by promoting the perception that coal is a highly profitable, low risk option that renewables will never realistically replace.

The logical next step is for the legal system to protect the interests of companies. This is what is happening at Maules Creek.

Whitehaven's behaviour has been demonstrably unethical. Local ecologists have established that the company was given federal and state approvals based on false information it gave about the offset properties it purchased. Such concerns are now being investigated by a Federal Senate committee into ecological offsets, and was the subject of a recent Lateline investigation and an ABC Background Briefing report.

Apart from the harm its exports will do to the planet, the mine is set to decimate the last remnant of critically endangered box gum grassy woodland, the Leard Forest. The local Gomeroi people have been forbidden from entering the Leard, over which they hold native title; their rights have been trampled, sacred sites have been bulldozed, and they are unable to properly hold a culturally important smoking ceremony to honour the passing of a young member. Meanwhile local farmers stand to lose easy access to ground water because the mine, if fully developed, is predicted to drop the water table by up to ten metres.

Yet every legal and legislative avenue to stop Whitehaven's open cut coal mine has failed. The law is being used to defend those who are destroying the planet, from those who are trying to protect it. The only remaining option for those defending the future for future generations is to stand in the way.

For 18 months, peaceful protesters have attempted to blockade entrances to the site and slow the rate of deforestation. Until 12 March, there had been 20 arrests. When the three people of faith were arrested, it added weight to the protesters' challenge: public trust in religious institutions has flagged in recent times (often with good reason), but there remains a perception that religion plays an important role in the defense of morality. 

Investing in coal mining projects such as Whitehaven can no longer be described as socially responsible. Regrettably, this message has not yet been grasped by the ANZ Bank, which is a major investor in Whitehaven. But the ANZ is not alone.

We had all better listen to this message soon, because divestment from fossil fuels is emerging as our best hope for averting the climate disaster towards which we are otherwise headed.


Thea Ormerod headshotThea Ormerod is President of Australian Religious Response to Climate Change.

Topic tags: Thea Ormerod, Maules Creek, coal, climate change, civil disobedience



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Existing comments

I am pleased to see religious leaders finally take a stance in this most critical matter. I commend their actions. We are in the grip of a terrible affliction called greed! I hope by some miracle we collectively wake up to the devastation we are causing to our beloved home the Earth, before its too late? Invest in Ethical Super!!!
Linda Rodriguez | 19 March 2014

This planet, this magnificent piece of God's creation has undergone dramatic changes of climate during its evolution in times when there were no coalminers, very few human beings, no cars, electricity, etc and the planet was far richer in carbon dioxide absorbing forests generating life sustaining oxygen. What if the current climate changes are simply part of the continuing evolution of Earth and a further revelation and intention of God's creation??? The job of the "religious" is to minister to the souls of God's people not to serve speculative science theory.
john frawley | 19 March 2014

Thank you Thea for articulating this so well. I pray that others will consider what steps we are willing to take to defend God's Creation from corporations that would risk making the planet unliveable for short-term profit. As the German maryr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act."
Justin Whelan | 19 March 2014

People who claim a superior authority because they have a 'religious, affiliation give their faith a bad name. There is much more to ethics than the ignorant cry 'the sky is falling in' which is the echo I hear when people rail against climate change. The only real constant in the climate discussion is that change is the only constant.- if mankind really understood what is happening we could probably learn how to cope with the change... nor just rant and rail against anyone who the rent-a-mob selects as an opponent of the year.
Des Byrne | 19 March 2014

“This magnificent piece of God’s creation”, our heritage to preserve and protect. To imagine we can, in our own lifetimes, continue to use our climate’s controlling atmosphere for dumping combustion wastes of more than 100 million years of coal accumulation without new and potentially disastrous changes in climate is to believe the moon is made of cheese. This mindless coal burning experiment of global importance has already produced atmospheric changes far beyond rates and magnitudes of any natural climatic change of the past 5 million years. Thanks to those ministers who recognise the responsibility to protect this precious creation and have the courage to sand up to corporate bullying. If only the moon was made of cheese!
Jim Bowler | 19 March 2014

A remarkable article that certainly ticks all the expected boxes. I look forward to the day when the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change gathers enough inter-state support to preface its title with 'Federated'.
J Vernau | 19 March 2014

John Frawley's comments spectacularly miss the science - there is an overwhelmingly large amount of evidence to show humans have caused the majority of the warming since the industrial revolution. He also misconstrues biblical anthropology. Humans are not merely souls who need some spiritual ministering, but bodies who need a stable climate to thrive in. To not combat climate change is to wage war on the welfare on the global poor, to say nothing of ourselves, as we destabilise the very climate that allows us to thrive. Furthermore, to not tend to the creation wisely is to cut against the very image of God within us, which is to worship him, care for each other and tend creation - be that repairing our damage, managing it wisely for our own use or leaving well enough alone. My Frawley's attitude has bred a culture of indifference if not contempt for the creation, and those be they "religious" or not who draw attention to the damage they have done. The time is now for the "religious" to repent and stand in solidarity with anyone who stands alongside the Earth, the home God gave us.
Mick Pope | 19 March 2014

John Frawley says 'What if the current climate changes are simply part of the continuing evolution of Earth'. Well, John, what if they aren't? Most of the people who specialise in the relevant scientific fields think they aren't. Shouldn't we, then, admit that they might be right, and do something to insure ourselves against the possibility that they are?
Gavan Breen | 19 March 2014

Dear John Frawley What if the current climate changes, (which you do not dispute), are NOT simply part of continuing evolution? What if they ARE at least partly caused by human activity? Are you a good enough scientist to be able to make a definitive and unmistakably correct choice? What will happen to our children and grandchildren if you are wrong?
Alan Hogan | 19 March 2014

Des Byrne I know one of the people arrested personally, and he is very well informed about the climate change literature. If you were familiar with it, you'd see that while we might learn to cope with the change, it won't be without significant loss of human life and biodiversity - and I write this as someone who works in both the science and theology space.
Mick Pope | 19 March 2014

Arguments denying anthropogenic climate change and predictions of devastation of the earth caused by that climate change distract most people from the search for a negotiated middle way forward. Municipalities will have to stop permitting construction along the coast; the boundaries of agricultural and grazing districts will move further away from the equator; land for environmental refugees from the Pacific & Indian Oceans will be required in continental countries including Australia; some natural species will suffer large population reductions - but the earth will not be devastated by a 2, 3 or 4 degree rise in average temperature. The rate of carbon emission is still increasing as developing nations strive to replicate the energy intensive consumer societies of the West. Even with no more coal-fired power stations, average world temperatures are expected to rise at least 2 degrees from the 1990 baseline. As citizens and consumers, as specialists in whatever area of science, engineering, commerce, law, town planning, agriculture or grazing, all our efforts should be redirected to developing, and preparing for, the lifestyle changes required to live comfortably in a warmer world, with a harsher and even less predictable climate than we currently enjoy.
Ian Fraser | 19 March 2014

Des byrne is right "because they have a religious affiliation give their faith a bad name" this is very true. They do not understand, the vast majority of Catholics voted for Tony Abbott, because they know the climate has changed over millions of years and no matter what action Australia takes, it will make no difference to the world. Sadly many religious men and women instead of passing on the faith to our youngsters, are more concern to make themselves heroes by flirting with the Greens and Get up and the Labor left wing faction. There was a time when religious men and women taught religion to our children, now they are busy promoting the left wing ideology. Remember when Senator Christine Milne visited her old school in Tasmania, she was treated like a Queen, by her ex teachers-religious sisters and they started promoting global warming. Thank God, we have Tony Abbott and most states and Territories are under Conservative governments.
Ron Cini | 19 March 2014

"This mindless coal burning experiment of global importance has already produced atmospheric changes far beyond rates and magnitudes of any natural climatic change of the past 5 million years." If you're referring to temperatures, that's clearly not the case, Mr Bowler. The RATE of increase in temperature since the 1970's is the same as the RATES of temperature increase earlier in the 20th century, when man-made ghgs were insignificant. And yet, as you say, we've been dumping ghgs into the atmosphere since the 70's at unprecedented levels. The rates should be significantly steeper now if ghgs are a problem. But they're not. And then there's that pesky pause, for easily more than the last decade, when ghg dumping has been at its most intense. The dangerous anthropogenic global warming theory is looking dodgier with every passing month.
HH | 20 March 2014

In my previous post of 19 March 2014 I suggested that this remarkable article had ticked all the expected boxes. I might have overstated the case. Certainly the seemingly obligatory conflation with Nazism was made. The usual emotive scare-mongering terminology is in evidence, such as "ecological calamity", "destruction of the biosphere" and "climate disaster". Moral exemplars such as Gandhi are gratuitously mentioned and a general tone of righteousness assumed. Illegal activity is condoned: "For 18 months, peaceful protesters have attempted to blockade entrances to the site ... ". But one important box that remains unticked is a focus on an emblematic fauna species (other than protesters) that can be held to be in some way under threat. I recommend a mammal - preferably not a rodent - or failing that, a parrot, a colourful frog or a butterfly.
J Vernau | 20 March 2014


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