Illustration: Andrew Dyson
This week, faith leaders across a range of religious traditions will be in Canberra speaking with one voice about the nation's approach to climate change. As religious leaders, we suggest that in a global world ''freedom'' cannot mean seeking maximum individual or national advantage, but true freedom means being willing and able to contribute to a common good which is accessible to and benefits all.
We make this suggestion with a sense of urgency. The latest report from working group II of the UN International Panel on Climate Change, to be officially released on March 28, outlines in painstaking detail a deepening environmental crisis. This will be especially challenging if average global temperatures rise above the internationally agreed upper limit of 2 degrees Celsius.
The greater variation and intensity in weather events across the globe with only a 0.9 degree rise looks likely to be a mild foretaste of what is to come.
The report resoundingly confirms extrapolations from existing research on climate vulnerability, that these changes will most affect those who are already poor. It will be no surprise to anyone that 95 per cent of deaths from extreme weather-related events occur in developing countries.
The report warns of decreasing crop yields for those who are already hungry, pressures to migrate for those who are already hanging tenuously to their homes and heightened conflict in zones already marred by political unrest.
No nation is independent of the activity and influence of other nations. To seek maximum advantage is to exacerbate injustices and court conflict with those who are disadvantaged.
We are not scientists, but simply acknowledge that the overwhelming body of scientific opinion confirms that exploitative human behaviour is now not only threatening life options for future generations, but is already causing sufficient change as to threaten the ecological diversity upon which life depends. It is also increasing the poverty cycle for those least advantaged in the global family.
We argue therefore that the environmental crisis, with global warming at its centre, is a moral issue. Further, we argue that because of our relative wealth, we Australians are in a position to lead in terms of the targets we set.
We are innovative people. We are looking for new industries and enterprises to take over from our dependence upon mining. We could lead the world in the development of renewable power. It makes no moral, or even economic, sense to move only if others do.
This is a unique point in history when it is still possible to minimise climate disruption. Australia's addiction to fossil fuels, both for domestic consumption and export earnings, has placed us in an unsustainable position in relation to the rest of the world. It must change. We could claim a place in history by initiating this change now.
It would therefore make sense to phase out the extraction and use of fossil fuels for energy generation. We suggest investors, especially banks and superannuation funds, could choose to divest from fossil fuels. Investment in a coal-fired power station assumes viability for at least 30 years.
Over the next 30 years, such investment will be increasingly seen as socially irresponsible.
Why risk investors' money in a venture that will attract escalating opposition? Fossil fuels must be left in the ground.
We urge the federal government to retain existing legislation which is assisting the transition to clean, renewable energy. The Clean Energy legislation, aka the carbon tax, should not be repealed unless it is replaced by appropriate structures to provide incentives for reduced carbon emissions and the transition to renewable energy.
We support maximum involvement in the planting of trees and improvement of soils, which appears to be the aim of the government's Direct Action Plan. But we strongly argue the plan is not capable, either economically or environmentally, of reaching the carbon emission reduction target that Australia must now morally accept as part of its global responsibility.
We urge Australian householders, communities and businesses to significantly reduce energy consumption and, where possible, choose green power. Human beings are not defined by circumstance; we are defined by the response we make to circumstance. It is the view of science that prevailing environmental circumstances are life defining.
Will history record us as having been too self-indulgent to act for the future, or will history record us as having had the moral and intellectual courage to charter a sustainable course for ourselves and for future generations? The choice, and responsibility, is ours.
George Browning is the retired bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Canberra/Goulburn. He writes here on behalf of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change.