ACT: Australian Religious Response to Climate Change – Inaugural Conference

Australian Religious Response to Climate Change LogoThe Australian Religious Response to Climate Change conducted its inaugural conference at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Charles Sturt University, ACT, from November 8 – 10, 2019.

Report by Thea Ormerod (ARRCC President)

Judging by all the very positive feedback, the conference was a huge success! Thank you to those many people whose dedication made it so successful, and to the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture for their whole-hearted sponsorship. The 120 or so people who came, heard from academics, School Strikers, Aboriginal speakers and skilled activists. They networked, prayed, meditated, offered their own ideas, ate together and generally loved meeting each other. You’ll be hearing some refreshed messaging in coming months.

One-word feedback at the end: “hope”, “community”, “networking”, “inspired”, “scary”, “challenged”. Thank you to those many people whose dedication made it so successful. Bishop Stephen Pickard commented on the “buzz” in the room. One of the School Strikers who addressed the gathering on Sunday morning, Aoibhinn Crimmins, wrote, “I honestly have never met such an invigorated group of adults before!”


Ngunawal man, Wally Bell giving a Welcome to Country.
Ngunawal man, Wally Bell giving a Welcome to Country. Photo credit: Thea Ormerod

Many people sent apologies but those who made it were from diverse communities including Brahma Kumaris, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist (from various traditions), Quakers and Christians (from a range of denominations). These were some highlights.

The science

Professor Lesley Hughes’ presentation on the basic science was the most highly-regarded for many because it clearly summarised the data on rising global temperatures and their implications for ecosystems. From the extensive data collected, the climate is changing at a rate 170 times faster than it has for the last 7,000 years. Rainfall patterns are changing. Cyclones are intensifying. We face a most uncertain future.

Australian emissions are at a 7-year high and continuing to rise. We also have a federal government which is dismissive of the IPCC Special Report on keeping global heating to 1.5 Degrees C, supportive of new coal and gas mining and opening new coal-fired power stations.


Dr Miriam Pepper
L to R: Dr Miriam Pepper, Assoc Prof Mehmet Ozalp, Prof Lesley Hughes, Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black. Photo credit: Thea Ormerod

Nonetheless, she pointed out that there are a host of countries where emissions are going down; in China and India, several times more coal-fired power plants have been cancelled in the last eight years than are being built; and renewable energy capacity is booming globally.

Responses from faith communities

Dr Miriam Pepper and Associate Professor Mehmet Ozalp outlined how Christians and Muslims, respectively, are responding in Australia. In each tradition there are groups who are taking inspiring initiatives but much more could be done at a local level.

The National Christian Life Survey data found that nine in ten churchgoers believe they have a Christian responsibility to care for the environment and more than 60 percent regard themselves, to some degree, as active. However, this concern doesn’t show itself so strongly at a local community level. Nor does it appear that Christian action has increased over 2011 – 2016, except that there were early indications of more engagement from Catholic communities after the release of Pope’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, in 2015.

Dr James Whelan’s sessions

Dr James Whelan
Dr James Whelan addressing the gathering. Photo credit: Thea Ormerod

James Whelan’s presentation early in the conference, and then his workshop on Sunday, were named by the largest number of conference participants as the sessions they valued most. He highlighted the greater likelihood of winning an environmental campaign when thought goes into strategy rather than simply turning to tactics. While the best plans can still fail, there is much to be gained by goal-setting and systematically thinking through how to achieve those goals. His presentation invited attendees to consider the question, from photos of ARRCC actions: What special strengths and opportunities are available to us as people of faith?

James’ highly regarded workshop on “building the climate movement in our own faith communities” had participants thinking about “circles of commitment”. The framework was developed by a Christian Pastor in the US, Rick Warren, and published in his book, The Purpose Driven Church. People were invited to think what, specifically, they might do to shift others from, for example, being in the general “community” to joining a “crowd” that is occasionally active, or how they might shift interested others from being occasionally active to taking a leadership role, and so on. Finally, we want to create opportunities for people to go from “committed” to being passionate “core” leaders. In the discipline of thinking quite concretely about their own context, pennies seemed to drop and people’s enthusiasm was palpable.

Student Strikers

Tess Carlton and Aoibhinn Crimmins.
L to R: Tess Carlton and Aoibhinn Crimmins. Photo credit: Thea Ormerod

Tess Carlton and Aoibhinn Crimmins spoke to the conference about their experience organising climate strikes in Canberra. The process of organising the strikes has been empowering and they urged us to speak honestly to young people about the climate crisis. They were passionate about the need for everyone to be involved and keen to work with ARRCC in the future.

About the likelihood that society is about to undergo rapid changes because of climate disruption, Aoibhinn said, “we must jump on that opportunity like our lives depend on it because they truly do, and use it as a chance to start from scratch and create a world that we want to live in, together.” After stirring words such as these, the gathering made their appreciation felt by lengthy applause and the first and only whistle at the conference!

Session on ARRCC’s campaigns

View of Participants – Australian Religious Response to Climate Change – Inaugural Conference

Tejopala Rawls outlined why ARRCC concentrates on stopping Adani even though there are other battles to be fought. Primarily, the reasons are (1) limited resources and (2) the potential impact of the resulting carbon emissions if the Galilee Basin were to be fully opened up to coal mining. Adani is an infrastructure company whose planned rail line would make it possible for a swag of other mines to operate. If the Galilee Basin were fully developed, the amount of coal that might potentially be burned because of exports would make it the seventh largest source of greenhouse gas emissions globally.

He proposed that the results of the recent federal election election did not amount to a mandate for coal mining. the truth is that two-thirds of Australians still oppose Adani’s Carmichael Project, Labor had a primary swing against them of -1.4%, but Liberals also had a primary swing against them of -0.7%. Minor party preferences swung the election to the Coalition.

He challenged the gathering to consider a few tactics in the near-term: getting more people of faith along to school climate strikes, ringing church bells during the strikes, holding actions outside GHD and other contractors’ offices, setting up a local ARRCC group, holding a Carols Against Coal event or joining others on the frontline.

Thea’s presentation on ARRCC’s work on sustainable lifestyles argued that this remains important because (1) this is a good fit with core values in faith communities, (2) Australia has the highest per capita carbon emissions globally so we can individually make a difference, (3) we have power of this whereas key politicians are resisting action, (4) the global Living the Change campaign is based on research, it’s encouraging, compassionate but also ambitious. She encouraged people to get behind Living the Change and make a commitment online.


Discussion outside at ARRCC Conference
L to R: Fahimah Bardulhisham, Mehmet Ozalp, David (back of his head), Garrett Swearingen, Wies Schuiringa. Photo credit: Rev Dr John Squires

Outcomes of group discussions

During workshops on Saturday and Sunday, participants learned more about

  • Divestment from fossil fuels
  • How to set up an ARRCC/multi-faith climate action group in their local area
  • Frontline actions involving civil disobedience
  • Living the Change
  • Installing solar of building owned by faith communities
  • Plan-based diets
  • Building commitment to action in local faith communities
  • Making the most of one-on-one conversations

It was evident from the post-conference survey, unsurprisingly, that people’s interests vary when it comes to the kinds of actions that appeal.

Most are interested in getting people from their faith communities along to the Student Strikes 4 Climate, over half would join a protest outside offices of companies and contractors open to working with Adani, and over a third were interested in setting up a local climate action group. Some were attracted to creative actions like Carols Against Coal and a significant minority seemed more interested in Living the Change than advocacy.

Apart from the workshops, break-out groups considered how they might get active, either around areas of interest or as geographically proximate to each other.

Early in the weekend, conference participants were invited to write on post-it notes their ideas for new directions for ARRCC. From these, three ARRCC Committee members selected certain themes for discussion that were plausible, given ARRCC’s resources. These were:

  1. Outreach, support, offering leadership to young people in religious schools, eg, to join the School Strikes 4 Climate.
  2. Create an ARRCC rural and regional caucus both to inform ARRCC and to receive support for community organising in their areas; in cooperation with Farmers for Climate Action and Indigenous groups.
  3. Empower ARRCC supporters to appeal to, and support, leaders in faith communities to promote climate action, especially senior faith leaders.
  4. Make more use of faith communities’ capacity go display signs like Fr Rod Bowers’, outside their places of worship.
  5. Review ARRCC messaging to incorporate the economic benefits of transition, including clean jobs, in collaboration with research bodies like The Australia Institute.
  6. Get much better at social media as a way of increasing ARRCC’s influence, eg, through training supporters in Twitter, maximising the potential of Facebook and taking a poignant photo when they hold actions.

Small groups reality-tested these ideas and built plans of action for each question. Various groups wanted to keep working on these plans after the conference and are keeping in contact with each other.


Photo credit: Thea Ormerod

By popular demand, the last break-out group session on Sunday afternoon was organised so people could talk with others who were, broadly speaking, geographically located near them. Some attendees personally found this invaluable, saying that this meant they could more readily continue their association with other ARRCC supporters. They feel that it is much easier to sustain action with others when it can happen in person.

Feedback from the Conference was generally very positive. It is hoped that the conference has strengthened bonds, fuelled hope and generated plenty of activist energy so that 2020 will be a year where great things can happen!

Thea Ormerod (ARRCC President)

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