November 2013

Our role disentangling society from fossil fuels

What is the proper role of people of faith in Australia in fighting climate change, asks Thea Ormerod.

BY Thea Ormerod

If it feels like we are in dark times when it comes to progress on fighting climate change, be assured that many share that feeling with you. Where do we look for some signs of hope when we care about climate action? What could be the role of people of faith in this new political landscape?

For signs of hope, let’s step back and see the big picture. Of course, our reliance on a loving and all-powerful God is part of this, but I will focus here on the more temporal sphere.

Paul Gilding, an independent writer and advocate for action on climate change and sustainability, has outlined a number of positive developments in the global environmental movement. He observes that climate change action is no longer at society’s margins, but now has the support of the world’s top science bodies, many of the world’s most powerful political leaders and some of the world’s wealthiest people.

Spokespersons of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the International Energy Agency are all advocating for strong and urgent action – including carbon pricing. This comes on top of the most global, broadly based community campaigning ever seen.

The next source of hope is the global energy market. The cost of renewable energy is falling significantly, so the cost of new coal-fired power generation is already more than new solar and wind generators. Rooftop solar has grown rapidly both here and overseas so that it is reducing the demand for coal-generated electricity, with major shutdowns of coal plants now inevitable. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNDP), investment globally in renewable energy is now comparable to investment in power from fossil fuels. Finally, the global finance sector is also now much more aware of the risks from unburnable carbon.

Thus, some of the conditions are in place for humanity to disentangle itself from fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy. It needs to happen with or without the Coalition Government’s support. The need to respond is far more urgent than many people think. The lag effect from current emissions means more warming is locked in, and the most vulnerable and blameless of the world are suffering the most.

So what is the proper role of people of faith in Australia?

In my view there is much room for scaling up our engagement and to make it a more integrated one. To stand against the evil of climate change, Christians must embrace its spiritual dimensions, but also its wide-ranging cultural, political, economic and practical challenges. It is essentially about disentangling ourselves from our dependence on fossil fuels, and it will require some adjustment, effort and perhaps discomfort.

Our modern lifestyles are currently heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Turning away from this means being prepared to make lifestyle changes even if these are inconvenient. Optimally, it means subscribing to GreenPower and/or installing solar panels, so the electricity we use is sourced from renewables. Whatever the costs to us, it undoubtedly costs the earth less.

In this regard, my observation is that Catholic schools are well ahead of parishes in general. Mount St Benedict College at Pennant Hills, NSW, a school for girls established by the Good Samaritan Sisters, is an outstanding example. The College is nearly carbon neutral in its operations, in large part because of an enormous array of solar panels on the roof of the school hall.

Culturally, society is turning towards valuing a more sustainable way of living. In the last census, two-thirds of Australians identified with one of the major religions. That suggests considerable potential to help drive this cultural shift – if we could help those two-thirds to make the connections between their values and beliefs, and living within the earth’s ecological limits.

Again, it won’t be comfortable. Anything to do with climate change has become politicised and sometimes we religious people tend to be conflict-averse. But we must have more courage. We need to find ways of motivating our own communities and also speaking out to the broader society, even if we cop some flack.

A stronger faith voice could add to the effectiveness of the Australian environment movement, partly because we are less easily dismissed as a greenie fringe group. We in ARRCC (Australian Religious Response to Climate Change) were excited to see the Discalced Carmelites and Sisters of St Joseph featured recently in the Sydney Morning Herald, taking a stand against coal seam gas mining.

There are plenty of well-organised, clever campaigns we could support or learn from. The divestment movement is one which has particularly caught ARRCC’s interest, and that of Operation Noah in the UK and GreenFaith in the USA.

Divestment is about disentangling ourselves from fossil fuels economically. Many good people have been unwittingly financially investing in the very activities they oppose in other ways. If you have an account with the “big four” banks, for example, a significant amount of your money is being used to fund fossil fuel mining and export. These are rogue industries which aggressively pursue their profits from activities that are tipping the world towards climate catastrophe. Only around two per cent of the money in the big banks is used to fund low-carbon technologies. The story is similar for most superannuation funds.

There is research which demonstrates that your investment returns will not be adversely affected by taking the more ethical path. The Uniting Church Synod NSW/ACT has led the way and many others are following.

There are many levels at which we people of faith could work. Let’s have the courage to be a catalyst for change in our own spheres of influence, wherever there is an opportunity to make a difference. There may be more opportunities than you might have thought.

Thea Ormerod

Theo Ormerod is a social worker, grandmother and long-time social justice activist. She is currently President of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC).

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