I’ve just returned from Canberra, where I made up one part of a delegation of faith leaders to present a religious case for more action against climate change.
The meeting was organized by the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change, appropriately abbreviated to ARRCC. This is a body established under the Climate Institute and dedicated to mobilizing faith-based response to global warming, the major environmental threat of out time.
The delegation consisted of:
Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins – Chairman of the Council of Progressive Rabbis of Australia, New Zealand and Asia and Senior Rabbi of Emanuel Synagogue
Sr. Geraldine Kearney – Australian Catholic Religious
Br. Ikebal Patel – President of Australian Federation of Islamic Councils
Mr. Kanti Jinna – Vice Chairman Hindu Council of Australia
Sujato Bhikkhu – Australian Sangha Association and Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils
Thea Ormerod – Chair Australian Religious Response to Climate Change
Rev. Professor James Haire AM – Executive Director of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture and Director of the Public and Contextual Theology Strategic Research Centre.
Even though we had not met as a group before, we struck up an immediate rapport, as there was so much shared among our traditions as we face these challenges. Actually, quite apart from the content of the formal meetings, the new friendships we made may well end up as the most memorable and important part of the day.
There were three messages we wanted to get across:
1. That climate change was a moral issue requiring urgent and substantial action. We live in interdependence with nature, and have a strong moral responsibility to care for the environment.
2. That the government should aim for a firm target of 40% reduction of carbon emissions compared to 1990 levels by 2020.
3. That, since climate change is largely produced in the developed world, but its impacts are felt in poor countries, Australia should show world leadership in undertaking to shoulder its fair share of the costs.
We started with a statement to the press on the lawn outside Parliament, which was attended by the major TV channels. A stirring and powerful message was read by Rabbi Kamins, although its effect was diminished a little by the fact that a large excavator was working nearby. (Any rumors that the excavator was deliberately planted by the coal industry working with Cardinal Pell should be treated as strictly speculative.)
Our first meeting was with Clare Penrose of the Prime Minister’s office. As well as our main messages, Sr. Geraldine told how she had just returned from Kiribati, where she heard the President, Anote Tong, speak of the sacrifice and compassion that they were asking from the peoples of the world in response to their plight. Rev Haire had just returned from England, where the Churches had just met for a bold new initiative, Poverty Over, attended by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Rev Haire said that he was surprised at the extent to which Australia was recognized as having the capacity to offer moral leadership on world issues, and urged the government to show boldness. I mentioned that Australian monks, as well as their constituency in Australia, also have a high profile in many neighboring countries, and could help to raise awareness of climate change action on an international level.
Clare Penrose gave an articulate and detailed response on the government’s actions regarding climate change, conceding that they have not done enough to inform people of all that had been happening. She ended by inviting the group to work in partnership to accomplish the common goal of minimizing climate change for all our sakes.
We then went, in a bit of a whirlwind, to meet Greg Hunt, the Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment and Water. This was another brief encounter. Mr. Hunt was at pains to reassure us that he was no climate change sceptic, and had in fact done his Phd in climate change science. There was some discussion over the interpretation of some of the data on climate change.
Next meeting was with Tony Abbott, who entered saying how kind we were to meet a middle-level opposition minister like him. When someone retorted that he might be a future Prime Minister, he laughed and said, don’t tempt me with worldly power! He was the only climate change skeptic we met today. He feels that, while caution is prudent, there is no call to make claimte change the dominant environmental issue. He opined that Australia would be able to cope with a sea level rise of 1 meter (! See http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/oct/27/rising-sea-levels-australia-beaches) Needless to say, we agreed to differ, but at least we had a good laugh together.
Next we walked to the nearby Charles Sturt University for lunch and an extended conversation, looking at what we could do to most effectively respond to claimet change. There were many ideas. One was that we should harness the ‘power of the pulpit’, targeting monks, priests, imams and other faith leaders, and encouraging them to speak on climate change. ARRCC already has an action kit, but this is largely phrased from a Christian background. We agreed to restructure this information in a way that would be suitable for each tradition, and have it translated into appropriate languages, hopefully also with a short video with a priest, nun, etc. speaking to the topic. The idea is that the topic of climate change should be presented in as conservative a way as possible within the existing language and concepts of each tradition, so that it can be easily adapted and presented in a faith context. We were especially concerned about reaching non-English speaking communities.
I shouldn’t give the idea that we were all business: actually we chatted about all kinds of things and Thea did a masterful job of gently prodding us back to the topic. After this energizing session, we returned to Parliament House for a final meeting with Penny Wong, Minister for Climate Change and Water. She was, in my estimation, the most impressive of the pollies, very clear and firm. She made no bones that the 40% target we asked for was, in her view, impossible, and that the government was firmly sticking to its goal of 25%. Nevertheless, she encouraged us to keep presenting our position, and suggested that there were many other aspects of global warming that we could also help with. We said that we wanted to help the government achieve its goals, and she expressed surprise that the religions in Australia had not done more.
And i guess the answer to that one lies with us…