Act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly – The potential of religions to motivate climate action: PART ONE

By Anne Benjamin, 6 June 2020
The aftermath of the bushfires in the Blue Mountains. Image: Jesse and Briony Mowbray.


Act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly: The potential of religions to motivate climate action

Paper presented at the 2020 Fireflies Dialogues

What Hope? What Action?…in the Anthropocene

Bangalore, 9-12 January 2020

Anne Benjamin


1. Introduction

We have come here, at the invitation of Pipal Tree Dialogues, bringing our minds and hearts together to be part of the solution in the climate crisis engulfing our worldThank you for providing this place to meet, permission to grieve and the invitation to hope.

I will address this session’s topic, the potential of religions to motivate climate action, from my experience in leadership, as an academic with some limited knowledge of religions and through the lens of a Western Christian and Catholic, acknowledging that this is a very limited perspective. The paper covers the place of religions in climate action, the formal responses already made by religious institutions, Laudato Si’ and the Amazonian Synod as calls to climate action, comments on staying on course in climate action and finally some  suggestions for consideration.

As an Australian, I need to acknowledge what is happening in my own country right now.

Where I stand 

Australia is burning. We are a land familiar with fire. Bushfire is part of our annual cycle of seasons. We are familiar with eerie yellow skies, with community evacuations and volunteers fighting the blaze. The fires are doused or burn out. Very quickly, the blackened trunks show sprouts of green, grasses re-appear and the forests move into a new period of regeneration. But the devastation that is occurring now, all over the country, is unlike anything we have ever experienced, the result of severe prolonged drought and excessive heat. (The temperature in an outer Sydney suburb on Saturday 4th January reached 48.9 degrees.)

I have not experienced personal damage, but I stand here in grief: for the loss of human life, of animals – even species (e.g. possibly the koala and many small species); for families whose homes (over 1500 in my own state alone) have been destroyed along with the livelihood of many; for whole townships being wiped out; for rural towns where the river has run dry; for those who are sickening under the pall of smoke congesting our cities. Our national capital, Canberra, has been registering the world’s lowest air quality – on 1st January, Air Quality Index readings hovered between 3300-5000. (Over 200 is hazardous.) Day after day. 1000 people, children, parents and grandparents on holiday, were trapped for day and night between fire and the sea on the beautiful south coast. Grief is shared. In the words of a First Nations woman, the loss for our people includes our memories, our sacred places, we are losing what forever connects us to a place in the landscape. (Allam)

Some figures indicate the gravity of the situation: the 2018 Californian fires burned 2.0 million acres; the 2019 Amazon fires burned 2.2 million acres; the 2019 Siberian fires 6.7 million acres; 2019 Australian fires, 12.0 million acres. (Buchholz)

The nation is in a mood of catastrophe and dread. And anger. My country, whose representatives attending the Madrid climate change conference in December 2019 were resistant and obstructionist; which, in a recent report of 57 countries was ranked 57th for its Climate Policy. This is my country, my nation, that traditionally has had standing as an open forward-thinking (medium-size) leader for the common good.

I grieve for my national identity, a shift in the general culture of our country in the midst of this definitive – inevitable, predictable – crisis.

Climate change has presented its own hard moment of grace to Australia – we can only hope we can accept it and respond strategically.


2. The potential of religions to motivate climate action

Do religions have the potential to motivate climate action? It is a Yes-but answer. Yes, but not necessarily. Yes, but not uniformly.

Religions are essential to climate action. In the first instance, theologies, philosophies and spiritualities of creation, the world and the cosmos are part of all religions, including, in their distinctive ways, Indigenous cultures and spiritualities. Secondly, the climate crisis is not just an economic, physical or political phenomenon: it is also and significantly, a product of human cultural activity, and so, one to which we must respond from the totality of our culture and cultures, including religion. Thirdly, the nature of the climate crisis is such that it challenges profoundly our sense of who we are and of all our relationships and even of how we will continue to exist. These questions are pertinent to meaning-making which is at the heart of all religion.

However, the phenomenon of religion is not a uniform experience. Religion and religious commitment do not automatically lead to environmental concern or conviction about the need for climate action. The differences here are less those between the major religions of the world, and more within them. Some evangelical Christian groups are suspicious of those attributing human responsibility for climate change. (Australia’s current Prime Minister is a member of one such evangelical Pentecostal church and his admissions about climate change have been less than fervent. I might add, completely gratuitously, that his attitude to asylum-seekers and refugees has been even more hard-line. I said gratuitously, but in fact, the issue of the climate crisis and those seeking asylum are related and will become increasingly so.) Within Australian Catholicism some years ago, a prominent churchman famously denied the link between climate change and human activity – a denial that was, certainly, gratuitous, since he held no scientific competence in the area, and quoted none.

In the complexity and ambiguity of contemporary western society, some Christians find refuge in what is essentially a private, personal form of religion. While in some Christian (certainly Catholic) circles – especially amongst some of the hierarchy – there is a move towards restorationism – going back to the “good old days” where certainty was doctrine, authority was unquestioned and where engagement beyond the church walls is limited.

Overriding these variances, in a society such as my own, the church has a flawed credibility and the public culture is pre-dominantly secular (meaning non-religious), even though, in fact, many people do subscribe to one or other religious faiths or traditions.

In trying to present a realistic assessment, I might appear to have over-emphasised the negative potential of religions to motivate climate action. Despite these reservations, the premises behind this paper can be summed up this way: the environment and ecology are integral to religious thought, spirituality and practice; any response to the climate crisis will fail without the incorporation of religion and culture in attempted solutions; and we will need to call on the repertoire of religious imagery, wisdom and ritual to make sense for ourselves in this new era.


3. Formal Responses of religions to climate change

Pope Francis has been forthright as a religious leader responding to climate change, especially through his Encyclical letter, Laudato Si’ in 2015 and his Amazonia Synod initiative in October 2019. He has not been alone.

Over the past three decades there have been a series of formal statements from religious groups: World Council of Churches Climate Change Program, 1988: Dalai Lama’s first speech on climate change, 1990; in 2015: Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, “Islamic Declaration on Climate Change”, “Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis”, “Buddhist Climate Change Statement to World Leaders”, “Hindu Declaration on Climate Change”, “Interfaith Climate Statement”, Parliament of World Religions, “Embracing our Common Future”, “Indigenous Elders and Medicine Peoples Council Statement”; Final Document, Amazonian Synod, Rome 2019, to name some.

Each merits attention. However, the question is to what extent formal statements from religious and cultural leaders change attitudes and lead to decisive action.

Institutions as structured as Christian churches, especially the Catholic church, are well-placed to promote climate action through formal statements and confessional interpretations leading to action. In addition to a repertoire of religious language, imagery, ethics and beliefs, there is a hierarchical distribution network for information built in, in the case of Catholicism, from Rome down through national churches to individual dioceses and on to the local parishes where most people are. In addition to this communication system, the church has highly-organised ministerial agencies serving schooling, higher education, welfare and health.  Not only does the church have the capacity to communicate with the recipients of these services (that is, children and youth, young adults, patients and those in need), these services employ significant numbers of staff; and part of staff induction and development in all these agencies involves processes of formation – education about the mission and values of the church.

If used appropriately, these institutional religious structures can offer a key conduit for disseminating awareness and facilitating action. To date, such formally-initiated action has focussed more on issues relating to euthanasia and abortion than climate; however, the voice of the church has been clear about climate, poverty, asylum-seekers and other social issues, and within the institution, there is space where many small groups engage in such action.

Next I will consider aspects of Pope Francis’ two statements very briefly in this regard, not to rehearse their details but to make just a few comments on their impact.

Anne Benjamin is a Sydney-based writer and educator. She was the Executive Director of Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta.

Part two will be published next Saturday.


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