It’s become, quite literally, the burning question of the Australian summer. How do you explain a prime minister who says he accepts the science of climate change, acknowledges the link between climate change and the devastating bushfires, who bears witness to the suffering and losses, and then chooses to do nothing about it?
Prime minister Scott Morrison likes to say he is a “do-er”. In fact, says so ad infinitum. But when it comes to climate policies, the appeals to Do Something beyond Australia’s glaringly inadequate current policies, and to show some leadership, have been ignored.
Morrison insists that Australia is doing more than most, which is patently not true; that emissions are falling, which are the result only of accounting tricks; and says he will not increase Australia’s emissions targets, or urge other countries to do so, even when it is clear that current policies will take average global warming to more than 3°C, and more devastation for Australia and Australians.
The most commonly cited causes for Morrison’s inaction are the influence of the radical MPs and senators within Liberal and National Party ranks who completely reject the science of climate change, and who seem to have a vice-like hold over Coalition numbers, and their leaders.
And then there is the power and influence of the fossil fuel lobby that not only appears to have a financial grip on the Coalition, but also a mortgage over some of Morrison’s key advisory positions. And let’s not forget, of course, the Murdoch media.
There is another influence, however, that is worth noting now as citizens and investors struggles to comprehend Morrison’s tin-eared response to victims and fire-fighters at the height of the crisis, his lack of empathy, his refusal to adjust his climate policies in any meaningful manner since, and his focus on “resilience” and adaptation.
And that influence – we should be reminded – is Morrison’s Christian faith, and in particular the “prosperity doctrine” or “prosperity gospel” to which his church subscribes. This belief holds that the world’s resources are there to be exploited, that Christians have a duty to do so, and that only Jesus can have an influence over climate.
Morrison is openly and proudly a member of the Horizon church in the shire of Sutherland, which is itself a member of the Australian Christian Churches organisation, formally known as the Assembly of God church group and which until recently counted Hillsong Church as a member.
What exactly is this “prosperity doctrine”? The key point, as explained by Bishop George Browning in “The Anglican” in late 2018, is to remove any impediment to personal gain and prosperity. On the issue of climate change, it is what helps deliver “traditional conservatives”, if that is who Morrison claims he is, into the embrace of the radical right.
“The goal of government is therefore not to regulate for the common good, but for the prosperity of the individual, even to the detriment of common good,” Bishop Browning writes. “The attitude of the conservatives in the present government on environmental issues is evidence enough of this stance.”
That could explain why Morrison is so keen to promote the coal sector, why he brought a lump of coal into parliament and declared “don’t be afraid”, why he mocks new technologies like batteries and EVs, and why his only tangible response to the bushfires has been to try to force the states to open up Australia’s gas reserves – a polluting fossil fuel, of course – for more exploitation.
Morrison justifies this pursuit of more gas as a necessary “transition fuel”. But as we wrote last week, and was echoed by Simon Holmes à Court in the Guardian, the idea of gas as a transition fuel has long been discarded – unless, of course, you intend to slow down the replacement of coal with the much cheaper wind and solar.
For some reason, the exploitation of wind and solar resonates less well with the Pentecostal evangelists than the exploitation of coal, gas and oil. Perhaps this is partly explained by the “neo-Liberal Jesusing” (as a Guardian headline writer put it so beautifully last year).
Mairead Shanahan, a Macquarie PHD student, wrote in 2017 that several Australian neo-Pentecostal leaders have links to mining companies, energy providers, and property developers.
Lucas Jacometti, Pastor of the C3 Church in Hobart, says in a sermon on climate change scepticism: “Only Jesus has the power to shift the climate.”
She notes that in 2016, the Tasmanian newspaper The Mercury reported that Jacometti, in partnership with oil prospector Malcolm Bendall, wanted to develop the Tasmanian central highlands into an oil reserve. Jacometti lobbied state and federal members of parliament, government departments, and public servants to get oil exploration on the Tasmanian state agenda.
Morrison wants NSW to exploit its gas reserves. In return, he offered support for infrastructure deemed to be “green”, but which had largely already been announced or planned – upgrades to the NSW-Queensland transmission link and the HumeLink interconnector designed to support the government’s pet project, the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro scheme.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the group that publishes the ‘Doomsday Clock’, which they recently moved to just 100 seconds to midnight, also does a good breakdown of the historical evangelical approach to climate change.
“Some evangelicals cite religious reasons for avoiding climate solutions. They subscribe to the belief that “God will take care of everything” or even that climate change is a sign of their coming salvation after the “end times,” they write.
Go back further, and you will find in a 2010 Pew Research Center survey that 58 percent of white evangelical Christians said Jesus Christ would return to earth by 2050, by far the highest percentage in any religious group.
And regardless of whether the Second Coming is associated with the destruction of the earthly world or its transformation into a paradise for the righteous (both of these beliefs have persisted within various strains of evangelical Christianity), there is no point in protecting a planet that is soon coming to an end (Zaleha and Szasz, 2015).
“Although most evangelicals would agree that the Bible commands them to care for the poor, prominent right-wing evangelists such as E. Calvin Beisner argue that fossil fuels are beneficial and essential to lifting people out of poverty, and that the proposed solutions to climate change are not only fruitless but harmful to the poor.”
This is basically Morrison’s line from the National Press Club speech last week. Apart from the patently untrue claim that “there is no credible …..
energy transition plan for an economy like Australia in particular, that does not involve the greater use of gas as an important transition fuel”, Morrison declared he would not do anything that would threaten Australian jobs.
“I’m not going to sell out Australians based on the calls from some to put higher taxes on them or to push up their electricity prices or to abandon their jobs and their industries and tell them that they’re just collateral damage of a global movement (by which he means the science and the call to respect and act on it). I’m not going to do that.”
That, of course, is just a line of convenience. It was quickly dispensed with just a few days later when Morrison announced a ban on all visitors from mainland China because of the threat of the Coronavirus, with obvious implications for the tourism industry and tertiary education.
But there is no such waver for climate change, even when the plummeting cost of wind, solar and storage are making the transition to a zero carbon economy affordable and most likely profitable because of the opportunities they present. Instead, the government is back to embracing the “Lomborg doctrine”, which deliberately ignores existing renewable and storage technologies and lays all hope in more R&D.
Another relevant analysis comes from this article: Why conservative Christians don’t believe in climate change, which was also published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
“White evangelical protestants are by far the least concerned about climate change,” it notes.
“An analysis of resolutions and campaigns by evangelicals over the past 40 years shows that anti-environmentalism within conservative Christianity stems from fears that stewardship of God’s creation is drifting toward neo-pagan nature worship, and from apocalyptic beliefs about ‘end times’ that make it pointless to worry about global warming.”
“I want children growing up in Australia to feel positive about their future, and I think it is important we give them that confidence that they will not only have a wonderful country and pristine environment to live in, that they will also have an economy to live in as well,” Morrison told reporters last year. “I don’t want our children to have anxieties about these issues.”
As Shanahan noted in her analysis:
“It is evident that neo-Pentecostal churches are content to leave global ecological issues up to God. They believe that God loves humans and, ultimately, humans can do what they like with natural resources, because God will take care of the global climate.”