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While most religious leaders accept climate change, the Christian right in Australia and the US make scepticism a tenet of their politics. By Mike Seccombe.

How the religious right stall climate action

It has been more than three years now since Stephen Pickard penned his letter to the religious believers among our federal parliamentarians, arguing the case for action on climate change.

The Reverend Professor Pickard, an Anglican bishop in Canberra and executive director of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture at Charles Sturt University, saw that conservative Christians in Parliament were unconvinced by scientific fact, so he took another tack. He argued theology.

Specifically, he took issue with the interpretation many in the religious right place on the lines from Genesis, in which God gives humankind, starting with Adam and Eve, dominion over all on Earth.

“The question of human beings having this dominion is often used as a rationale for the present way we deal with the Earth’s resources,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “It becomes a subliminal rationale for continued misuse of nature.”

Pickard’s letter, written on behalf of the multi-faith group Australian Religious Response to Climate Change, argued this interpretation of scripture – that humans should dominate and subdue nature – amounted to “a poor way of reading a piece of writing which really talks about the interconnectedness of all things”.

“If there’s one thing that needs to be subdued, it’s the human proclivity to overwhelm and to take what is not ours to take,” he says.

The two-page “theological reflection” he sent to parliament was expressed in language to which, one might have thought, devout conservatives might relate. In part, he wrote:

“If we love the creation as God the Lord loves creation then we ought to be able to echo the voice of God when we have regard for all we do upon the Earth and with the Earth – behold it is very good! Having regard and care for the Earth, according to this injunction, is a sign that the resurrection of Jesus is transforming our own hearts, wills and minds.”

Alas, his efforts appear to have transformed no conservative hearts, wills or minds. His theological argument had no more impact on the Christian right of our government than the scientific evidence or expert opinion. Three years later, Pickard has yet to receive any response.

“It went nowhere, which is very sad,” he says.

It’s also more than a little perplexing. The fact is that the great majority of religious leaders – from the Pope to the Dalai Lama – share Pickard’s views about the urgency of addressing climate change. So do the great majority of world leaders, including many from the centre-right of politics, such as Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. Even Margaret Thatcher did.

Yet in this country the resistance to any meaningful action to ameliorate climate change by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases is led to a substantial degree by those politicians who claim Christian faith.

Last year 350.org released a list of the most implacable opponents to climate change action. At or near the top of the list were the following names: Tony Abbott, Barnaby Joyce, Kevin Andrews, Cory Bernardi, Eric Abetz, George Christensen and Zed Seselja. These politicians are bound together by their strong and frequently touted religious belief.

Interestingly, each of these names appears on similar lists compiled by advocates of same-sex marriage,  a reality that betrays a certain selectivity in the application of religious dogma.

When it comes to same-sex marriage, they are stalwart defenders of the faith. Change to the Marriage Act, says the former seminarian Tony Abbott, is a threat to religious freedom. Yet concern about climate change – indeed the very notion that climate change is real – he dismisses as “bullshit”. No matter what his Pope or the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference say.

Now, it is no real surprise that same-sex marriage should be a matter of religious concern. The Old Testament did consider homosexuality an abomination, along with eating shellfish, touching the skin of a pig and having contact with a menstruating woman, among other things, even if later Christ himself said nothing about it. And the church has been in the marriage business for a long time.

But climate change? How did that become a matter of religious contention?

The short answer is that in most of the world it is not, says the Reverend Tim Costello, Baptist minister and chief advocate of World Vision Australia.

“You’ll find religious leaders around the world tend to believe in climate change,” he says. “They start with the view ‘the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” and that we are here not to dominate but to tend. And they accept the science on the damage that’s being caused.”

The big exception to this reality is the United States, Costello says, for reasons that actually predate any awareness of climate change.

In the latter half of the 19th century, Darwinism and new humanist theories prompted the development of a new Protestant religious construct, described as “liberal” in its challenging of traditional rites, and “modernist” in its acceptance of science and social theory.

“These progressive evangelicals were called Post-Millennials,” Costello says. “They believed that through the preaching of the gospel and the spread of education and good works like hospitals and pushing back poverty they could start building the kingdom of God here on Earth.”

But in the early 1900s a very wealthy, very conservative oil man, Lyman Stewart, mobilised a fightback by traditionalist evangelicals. Central to this defence of traditional, literal Christian doctrine was a huge publishing effort. They produced a 12-volume set of essays from 90 conservative evangelicals writer and called it The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. More than three million books were published, and given away, free, to hundreds of thousands of pastors, seminarians, missionaries and other church leaders.

The success of this massive anti-science, anti-humanist propaganda campaign is a matter of deep regret to Costello. Under its influence, he says, a large part of the evangelical movement, which had formerly been “so engaged in pushing history”, lost “its freedom of conscience”, became passive and conservative, and fell back on “the escape clause that Jesus will fix it”.

And that helps explain why even today between 30 and 40 per cent of Americans do not believe in evolution and why, according to a Pew Research Centre survey a few years back, 88 per cent of American evangelicals believed in miracles while only 28 per cent accepted the science of climate change.

It helps explain why Donald Trump could be confident of the continued support of the Republican religious right base when he pulled America out of the Paris accord on climate change in June and why Michigan Republican Congressman Tim Walberg endorsed the move at a meeting of his constituents the next day, saying:

“As a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us. And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.”

Out on the religious right, Costello says, belief in climate change came to be viewed as “green paganism, that equates to worship of nature not of God, that it’s pantheistic, that it’s sacrificed transcendence”.

“It started in America, but it’s come to Australia in quite a big way,” he says.

Lest you think he exaggerates, consider the views of Cardinal George Pell. Back in 2006, Australia’s most senior Catholic described concern about climate change as “hysterical and extreme” and “a symptom of pagan emptiness”.

In an opinion piece carried by the ABC in November 2011, in which he cited as authorities a number of prominent, pseudo-scientific climate change deniers including Ian Plimer, Bjørn Lomborg and Lord Monckton, Pell claimed to have first become engaged in the issue of climate change in the 1990s while studying “the anti-human claims of the deep Greens”.

Pell advocated doing nothing about climate change, on the basis that “the history of climate change provides no reassurance that human activity can control or even substantially modify the global climate …”

He likened the sale of carbon credits as part of a market-based reduction strategy to “the pre-Reformation practice of selling indulgences”. The economic cost of change, he wrote, was similar to pagan religious sacrifice.

“To the religionless and spiritually rootless,” he warned, “mythology – whether comforting or discomforting – can be magnetically, even pathologically, attractive.”

More recently Pell has had things other than global warming to occupy him: running the finances of the Vatican, dealing with the fallout from the child abuse royal commission and answering to his own charges of alleged historical sexual assault offences. There is also the inconvenient reality of laudato si’, the June 2015 encyclical from a progressive Pope – who took his name Francis from the patron saint of the poor, the sick and the environment – which argued for strong action on climate change.

But while Pell has fallen personally silent on the matter, his talking points remain in wide use. Even those who do not trumpet their faith couch their rhetoric in terms of religion.

Angus Taylor, for example, often reported as one of the rising stars of the political right, who last year was appointed assistant minister for cities and digital transformation, had this to say in parliament in June 2014 about climate change activists:

“The new climate religion, recruiting disciples every day, has little basis on fact and everything to do with blind faith. The new theologians of the Green Left are not focused on the hilltop at Calvary, but on hills closer to home ... And heaven help the heretics who question them.”

You hear the same suggestion – that those who advocate stronger climate action are motivated by some green-pagan belief system – constantly from the climate sceptics and defenders of the Coalition government’s minimalist climate policy. And it annoys Christian climate campaigners.

“It’s a scientific issue and it would be really good if these people could start treating it as such,” says Thea Ormerod, president of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change.

“There is no conflict with religion. The fact is most religious leaders around the world accept the science. In all of Europe, in most developing countries, there’s a broad acceptance.”

She turns the argument about false faith back on the religious right, suggesting that they serve the interest not of God but of Mammon.

“Ask yourself, who benefits?” Ormerod says. “It is the big corporates of the fossil fuel industry that are pushing scepticism. The puzzling thing for us, on our side of the issue, is how this isn’t bleedingly obvious to every person of faith.”

Mark Butler, the Labor Party’s environment spokesman, is steeped in the history of the climate wars, and has just produced a book of the same title, also arguing that climate scepticism has been ginned up by vested interests.

“America and Australia are almost unique in still having this highly charged debate about the basics of climate change,” he says. “It is really strange just how deep it runs here.”

Stranger still is the fact that 30 years ago global warming was not a political issue at all, and that until only 20 years ago there existed a broad political consensus on the need for action.

In the 1980s, Butler says, climate change was “really only a discussion between scientists”. But in the early ’90s the fossil fuel sector “started its pushback, on two grounds. The first tactic was to introduce doubt on the science, saying it wasn’t settled. And the second was to emphasise the economic downside of taking action.

And when Howard came in, he really grasped those two strategies for delegitimising climate action.”

John Howard didn’t do it immediately, though. Butler says the new prime minister “paid lip service while Clinton and Gore were in power in America, for they were both supporters of the Kyoto process that unrolled after 1997”.

But “when George W. Bush came in, Howard let rip and really did all he could to stymie action here”. Butler says that senior Howard ministers Nick Minchin and Andrew Robb are recorded “quite expressly suggesting climate activism was a substitute for the left at the end of the Cold War, to de-industrialise the West and to end capitalism. They seriously argued that”.

The condensed version of Butler’s history of the climate wars continues with Howard’s flip back to faux belief in the need for action shortly before the 2007 election, the efforts of the Rudd–Gillard Labor government to take meaningful action to cut carbon emissions, the brief ascendancy of climate change believer Malcolm Turnbull, and the electoral victory of the religious right denialist Tony Abbott. And now, of course, we have Turnbull back in the prime ministership, but paralysed on the subject of climate action.

There may be no other political issue that so clearly traces the shift of the non-Labor side of politics from liberal to conservative. And, in the view of former senator Chris Puplick, from being rational and evidence-based to reactionary and anti-intellectual.

Back in 1990, Puplick was the Liberal spokesman for the environment. In February that year, after a six-month period of consultation with the relevant backbench committee, comprising both Liberal and National party members, he produced a policy document for that year’s election.

He reads part of it to me: “Particular attention will be paid to the steps Australia can take to ameliorate the worldwide impact of the greenhouse effect. These include the targeted reduction of 20 per cent in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2000.”

On climate change policy, the Liberal Party under the moderate leadership of Andrew Peacock was significantly more progressive than Labor under Bob Hawke, and under the leadership of John Hewson it was way ahead of Paul Keating.

But that was long ago and, says Puplick, the Coalition parties have been in “full retreat” on the issue ever since, as they have come increasingly under the sway of the political and religious right.

“Over the course of the last 20-odd years, the Liberal Party has become anti-intellectual,” Puplick says.

“It has moved away from issues of evidence and has become increasingly anti-scientific. So much so that Tony Abbott became the first prime minister in 30 odd years not to appoint a minister for science.”

The issue of climate change provides the clearest example of the shift, he says, but it is evident more broadly.

“It’s an attitude of ‘never mind the evidence’. If you don’t like what’s happening in society, vote no. If you don’t like what’s happening in the broader social environment, vote no.”

This week, the “vote no” brigade in our government is focused on same-sex marriage. A couple of weeks from now, the focus will shift back to climate change, and the response to the review of energy policy by Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel.

And that, in the view of Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, will be the biggest test of Malcolm Turnbull and his government.

May God help him, because the Christian right won’t.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 26, 2017 as "How the religious right stall climate action". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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