By Andrew Humphries
Fifteen years ago, Kevin Rudd was Leader of the Opposition when he addressed the National Climate Summit at Parliament House and described climate change as the “great moral challenge facing our generation”.
There was no time to waste, he said, as the world faced its greatest crisis.
“My intention is to harness the best brains and talent available in the country to get our response and the nation’s response to climate change as right as possible,” he said.
“To do that, we have to begin by fashioning, shaping and encouraging a national political and policy consensus on climate change.
“Our job is to listen, but subsequent to that, our job is then to act.”
Just over six months later, in November 2007, Rudd became our 26th Prime Minister and, for so many Australians concerned about what was happening to our planet, his climate summit address offered hope for meaningful work to address the impacts of climate change.
Yet in the 15 years since, Rudd, Julia Gillard, Rudd again, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison made little headway in addressing that “great moral challenge” facing Australia and, indeed, the world.
The task now rests with Anthony Albanese, as all of the science tells us that we are edging ever closer to midnight in the race to save humanity.
In Melbourne, Uniting Church Senior Social Justice Advocate Mark Zirnsak has watched on as little progress has been made in the 15 years since Rudd’s Parliament House address.
“I would argue that he was correct and that climate change is a great moral challenge globally,” Mark says.
“I don’t want to suggest that it’s an end-of-the-world scenario, but obviously its harmful impacts are being felt by hundreds of millions of people around the world, and that would continue to increase due to a lack of action.
“We have seen some progress at a global level and some countries have committed to taking action, but there is a valid criticism in saying the action taken hasn’t lived up to the promises made.
“It’s one of these difficult areas that requires global effort across the board and there can be a selfish advantage a country can get if it doesn’t do its share and everyone else kicks in to make up for what it’s not doing.
“So you’ve got this temptation to say ‘we’ll let others fix it and we’ll ride on their efforts’.”
It’s also an attitude sometimes expressed by countries such as Australia suggesting they contribute little overall in the way of greenhouse emissions and, on that basis, should be cut some slack.
That, says Mark, is a dangerous attitude and it’s countries such as ours that should be leading the way in reducing emissions.
“If you actually look at our emissions, we are, from memory, in the top 20 among the biggest emitters,” he says.
“If you ran that argument about emissions per country with Australia as your example, you would end up saying ‘oh, there are 170 countries that can afford to do nothing because they emit less than us and therefore all of the heavy lifting has to be done by a handful of large countries who emit more than us.
“But if those large countries reduced their emissions to zero, you still wouldn’t get to the emission reduction that we need because those other 170 countries, including Australia, aren’t doing their bit.
“It seems a convenient argument to make, but it’s one that sets us on a path towards enormous damage and harm globally.
“A valid counter argument is to say that it’s fairer to compare on the basis of per capita emissions per country and, on that basis, we are right near the top.”
At a national level, the Uniting Church Assembly has called on members to address what it describes as a “climate crisis”.
“The Uniting Church calls for urgent action towards a more sustainable planet and support for those most impacted,” it said ahead of the release last year of a National Climate Action Plan which aims to encourage action across the Church.
“We seek the flourishing of the whole of God’s Creation and all its creatures.
“We act to renew the Earth from the damage done and stand in solidarity with people most impacted by human-induced climate change.
“Government, churches, businesses and the wider community work together for a sustainable future.”
The document commits the Uniting Church to reducing emissions by five per cent each year, with an end goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2040.
It recognises the danger caused by rising greenhouse gases, which have resulted in rising sea levels, extreme heat and storms, longer droughts and bushfire seasons, and the loss of coral reefs, but also acknowledges the fact that the impacts of climate change are not always distributed equally.
“We recognise that the impacts of climate change fall disproportionately on those who have contributed least to human-induced greenhouse emissions, including our neighbours in the Pacific and elsewhere,” our Church says.
“For many years, the Uniting Church has spoken out about the need for greater action on climate change and to care for God’s creation.
“Our statements in 1977, 1991, 2006 and 2018 have outlined the genuine desire of the Uniting Church in Australia to see more done to protect our environment.
“We also acknowledge that our words are not enough.
“It is time to move from resolutions to urgent, church-wide action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from our own activities and build credibility in our continuing advocacy work.
“This National Climate Action Plan is intended to drive that action.”
With the Assembly’s net zero target by 2040 in mind, Mark says the Victorian and Tasmanian Synod has begun the process of examining how it might reach that target and what it would mean for the Synod.
“A discussion paper, involving the Synod’s Climate Action Taskforce, will go out to members and it seeks to fully explore what it will mean to get to net zero, what kind of efforts we would need to make in doing that, and what the cost would be,” Mark says.
“So there isn’t a pre-determined outcome on that and our challenge has been that while there are parts of our Synod that are very dedicated to seeing a reduction in emissions, it would be fair to say that other parts of our organisations believe there are other priorities at this stage and that reaching net zero emissions at a Synod level is going to present quite a challenge.
“A part of the discussion will really be about how we collectively decide how to move forward on this.
“At the very least, the Synod should be committing to doing all that we reasonably can to reduce our emissions, but whether we can agree to join the Assembly in the net zero position is something that needs a lot of discussion.”
Mark hopes to have the discussion paper released within the next month or two, before a way forward is identified that can be taken to a Synod Meeting.
Pressed for a personal opinion on the net zero by 2040 goal, Mark says it requires a delicate balancing act.
“Climate action is a really important issue, but at the same time I think the Church is going to see that it has other priorities,” he says.
“In terms of my own view, it’s that the Synod membership really needs to own any decision.
“I absolutely think we should be doing all that we can, but whether the Synod feels it can put aside sufficient funds to reach net zero is a decision that the membership needs to make, and it will come at the cost of other priorities, and that is the reality.
“It’s a complex situation, so yes I’m saying we need to be doing all that we can on climate change while recognising there will be limits to how far the Church can afford to go on it.”
But the tide is turning, as more and more congregations realise the power they have in being able to make meaningful change.
At Manningham UC in Templestowe, members are understandably proud of what they have been able to do in promoting sustainability as part of the plan to address climate change.
When plans were drawn up to design and build its new complex, the merger of four congregations meant there was sufficient funds to create something special in terms of a building that ticked all of the sustainability boxes.
Social Justice Action Group member Don Bartlett uses the words from Luke 12:48 to explain Manningham’s commitment to sustainability.
“Luke said ‘to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded’,” Don says.
“We have a responsibility at Manningham Uniting Church to continue our sustainability journey.
“Our vision is simple: we want to send our community the message that we are committed to a sustainable future for God’s planet.”
The new building includes double-glazed windows, 34 410-watt solar panels which generate 14kw of power, energy-efficient LED lights, and rainwater tanks able to store 45,000 litres of water to be used for flushing toilets and landscape irrigation.
“This will be exceptionally helpful, with more than an estimated 30 per cent of the site covered with vegetation,” Don says.
“Water-efficient fixtures and fittings ensure that our water is used wisely.”
Provision has also been made for the installation of more solar panels when required, electric vehicle charging points in the building’s basement, and changes in the kitchen that encourage sustainability.
“At an appropriate time, gas cooktops in the kitchen can be replaced with electric induction cooktops,” Don says.
“This brings not only a huge reduction in the amount of energy required for cooking and heating, it eliminates unhealthy gases which cause respiratory problems, especially for children.
“Ultimately, we can disconnect our building from the gas network.”
Mark says the Manningham congregation should be congratulated on taking significant steps in sustainability when it came to designing the new building.
“The advantage for them of course was that it was a new church building, but it’s good to see the choices they have made, and they have made significant efforts in what they have done,” he says.
“Theirs is an obvious example of places where the Church can act, so they are to be commended for what they have done.”
Apart from the building itself, Don says other initiatives are being put in place to ensure Manningham continues to embrace a future based around sustainability.
“Sustainability goes far beyond building design,” he says.
“Largely thanks to congregation member Alison Smith, we are gearing up to become a significant community recycling hub, while Hugh Spratling’s indoor plants enhance our office space air quality and ambience.
“Our community garden provides an opportunity for locals to grow and share produce and our composting bins recycle organic matter, including that from the Redgum Cafe.
“Manningham Uniting Church has long advocated for God’s earth, and we have lots of in-house expertise on how to make our lives and our houses more sustainable.
“The sustainability of the environment is everyone’s responsibility.”
Don’s message is a simple one: every little bit counts in the battle against climate change.
He admits, somewhat ruefully though, that he comes to the issue after a working background that began in 1959 in the coal mining industry as a chemist and chemical engineer.
“My first job then was at the old coal-fired Newport power station,” he recalls.
“I can also remember the building of the Hazelwood power station, which we thought at the time was fantastic because it was done so economically.
“Decades later I admit I’m probably living with a little bit of guilt around that early work.”
By 1976, though, Don had become aware of the dangers that carbon dioxide had begun to pose to the environment.
“I knew about global warming and increases in carbon dioxide even then and I can recall giving a talk in 1976 while I was working for Melbourne Water about the dangers of overpopulation and buildup of carbon dioxide,” he says.
“It’s such a huge challenge now because despite everything we have done so far, carbon dioxide levels continue to increase.”
Don now devotes his energy towards addressing climate change, something he says is a fundamental part of being a Christian.
“We have to be optimistic and, as Christians, we should be at the forefront of the fight,” he says.
“Saving God’s planet needs to be our priority and we need to set the example.”
Also setting an example is Brunswick UC, in Melbourne’s inner north, whose congregation members have sent a clear message that there is no time to waste in addressing climate change.
In November 2019, the congregation declared a “climate crisis” and, in 2020, adopted a Climate Crisis Action Plan.
Congregation member James Clough says the decision grew out of the formation of a climate action group, which then determined a path forward.
“The first thing was for the congregation to declare a climate emergency and then establish a theological basis for setting priorities around that,” he says.
While congregation members had declared a climate crisis by 2019, James admits his own concerns had become apparent about two decades earlier.
“I would be perfectly happy to say that that was my position by 1999 and since then the pace of change has increased dramatically,” he says.
“This was something that was clear to me at primary school in the 1980s and I can recall reading reports about the gravity of the situation even then.
“In the last five years, we have been living with the consequences of climate change.
“Just a few weeks after we made that climate crisis declaration in 2019, we saw the consequences of climate change in the bushfire crisis.
“I remember thinking at that time that I hope we don’t come to see something like these fires as a good day, the fear being that such events might become commonplace.”
Even before their climate crisis declaration, Brunswick members had been looking at sustainability issues, with a move towards solar panels in 2015 a natural progression.
“A number of congregation members had solar panels on their own homes and we thought as a congregation it was time to look at that as a means of reducing our carbon footprint,” James says.
“The obvious first question was what would be the cost involved in installing solar panels and, after crunching the numbers, we found it would be a modest capital investment that would pay off pretty smartly.”
That initial cost was just under $13,000 when the panels were installed in 2015, with the investment on track to be paid off after just eight years.
It is actions such as this, as well as an increasing worldwide awareness around climate change, that has James believing averting a climate crisis may be possible.
“The crisis in Europe has produced a response from people, with so many now saying, ‘we have to fix this energy transition’,” he says.
“The electricity future is going to be so much cheaper and cleaner and if we can make it accessible to everyone I think the pace of change towards a future free of fossil fuels is going to increase dramatically.
“The last year has seen a huge change in direction and I think we have got a pretty good chance of pulling out of the dive before we hit the ground.”
As the fight against climate change engages us on an individual level, it’s also a battle being fought in the boardrooms of corporate Australia.
Uniting Church-aligned investment firm U Ethical began in 1985 and has established itself as one of the country’s largest ethical investment managers, with over $1 billion under management.
“We have developed a reputation for our unwavering commitment to ethics-driven performance,” U Ethical proudly declares.
“Our ethical authenticity is central to who we are, not just what we do.
“We aim to provide our clients with competitive returns, and as a social enterprise we contribute the majority of our operating surplus to social justice advocacy and community programs.”
Not surprisingly, U Ethical regards climate change as one of the most serious issues facing Australia.
That’s why it avoids managing funds for any company that causes unacceptable damage to the natural environment, and lists fossil fuel, uranium mining and nuclear energy industries as those it will not deal with.
Instead, it seeks to invest in companies with robust governance, business practices and sound decarbonisation plans.
“At U Ethical, we believe that climate change is the most defining and complex systemic risk of our time,” the company outlined in its 2021 Annual Sustainability Report.
“Climate change is an intergenerational and cross-border issue, a collective action problem that will require extensive collaboration within industry and between countries.
“We have reached the point where an emergency response is required.”
As Head of Ethics and Impact and with a background in climate science, sustainability and infrastructure planning, Désirée Lucchese is perfectly placed to continue U Ethical’s work within a Uniting Church context in addressing the complex issue of climate change.
“Historically we have always been concerned about climate change within the Uniting Church and have looked at it as a major human rights issue,” Désirée says.
“In 2014, U Ethical started divesting from controversial oil and gas developments and in 2019 we fully divested from fossil fuels.
“So it meant ending all possible exposure across coal, thermal coal, oil and gas.”
Désirée says advocacy also plays an important role when driving home the message to corporations that fossil fuels cause climate change.
“For example, we engage banks to ensure they decarbonise and reduce their investments in oil, gas and coal, in line with the science that tells us of the harm these fuels are causing,” she says.
“So even if we aren’t directly invested in fossil fuel companies, we are still engaging with different sectors, including the most influential ones, to try and have their operations and capital not being invested in fossil fuels.”
Désirée suggests there is much we can do on an individual level to ensure those companies managing our money are addressing the issue of climate change.
“In my own case, I have my superannuation invested in an ethical fund and I don’t want it being allocated to companies that are destroying the world,” she says.
“So my values say that I don’t want to have any involvement in something that impacts the real world.”
Désirée urges Uniting Church members who want to take up the climate change challenge to become advocates for our world.
“We must press the banks and bigger financial institutions to do the right thing around decarbonisation and reaching targets and commitments made,” she says.
“What I would say to congregations is to ask their members of parliament to invest in renewable energy and social justice and to prepare for climate adaptation.
“To get to net zero emissions is a very big challenge for the world and it needs governments to invest in the subsidies, grants and infrastructure that address the issue.
“To make the world a stable and adaptable world for climate change we need governments, individuals and the private sector to do their job.
“On an individual level, we can look at switching to electric cars, becoming more responsible in our own household and community, trying not to travel too much and writing to our MPs to drive change.”
As a university student, Désirée’s Bachelor of Science thesis was on the topic of the economics, science and international relations of climate change and, by the time she finished her studies in her early 20s, she had become increasingly concerned about the impact of climate change.
“What I’m interested in are the ways we can influence and effect change and how we change organisations and shift mindsets,” she says.
Part of that shifting of mindsets involves promoting the benefits of reaching net zero emissions, a vital task if we are to have any chance of reining in climate change.
“You know, it’s very complex and the reality is that emissions are not reducing and we are being forced to adapt to a very rapid decline of the state of nature,” she says.
“From an environmental perspective, we face a very daunting prospect.
“There isn’t great cause for optimism and the escalation of the crisis is quite astonishing.
“When I started looking at climate change, I never thought I would be seeing what I am now, that it would happen so fast.
“The reality is that we are facing a very challenging future, because of geopolitics, social injustice and inequality, and climate change is only going to exacerbate all of those challenges.”
Désirée suggests any hope for arresting the enormous impacts of climate change will lie with our younger generations, the students and young people she often talks to about the issue.
“I mentor a lot of young people and students and I see there is a lot of interest on their part and a desire to do things differently, so maybe that new generation offers us some hope,” she says.
As a member of the Port Phillip West Presbytery’s Task Group for Climate Action, Sue Strong is able to see first-hand the efforts being made by many congregations in the fight against climate change.
She says St Luke’s Uniting Church in Highton, through its Repair Cafe, offers a wonderful example of what can be done to combat climate change.
Congregation members are doing their bit for recycling, ensuring as little as possible goes to landfill, and therefore lessening the impact on the environment.
Once a month, members of the public are invited to bring in an item that needs repair, with the aim of getting it back to working order.
Customers are encouraged to stay and see how the item can be mended, thereby learning skills themselves that they can use at a later date.
Mended items are then weighed, and a bell is sounded and, at the end of the day, the number of kilograms that did not go into landfill is recorded and celebrated.
Sue says Queenscliff UC is an example of another congregation determined to tackle climate change.
“The Queenscliff community is committed to the gospel and if they deem an issue to be important, because it fits within their values, they will work hard to ensure that it happens,” Sue says.
“So they have a natural bent towards tackling climate change.
“They have also worked at creating positive relationships with their federal MP, as well as the local mayor and councillors.
“Queenscliff speaks of having a profound sense of Jesus being present with people on the edge and as the earth is now on the edge, their efforts are bent towards caring for both.
“They shared that, ‘we only care for what we are deeply connected to, so if we love the earth we will care. We need to begin with nurturing our relationships to earth and each other and then science can help’.”
Mark Zirnsak says it’s the actions taken by congregations such as St Luke’s and Queenscliff that will contribute much to the fight against climate change.
“There are some easy things that can be done by congregations, like encouraging the use of energy-efficiency measures that will actually save them money,” he says.
“It makes sense to look at something like rooftop solar panels, or swapping to green power.
“Then we move to big challenges like what do we do about gas usage across all of our properties, and I know that retrofitting gas is not a cheap thing to do.
“We can also look at something like the vehicle fleet used by the Synod and how they might be swapped over to electric vehicles.
“That won’t be cheap but we do know that the price of electric vehicles will come down over time and that we don’t have to replace the entire fleet of vehicles by tomorrow, so you can progressively switch to EVs.
“I actually think congregations can take quite significant steps without there being a big cost.”
While there are obvious economic benefits in arresting climate change, Mark Zirnsak says it’s an issue that also needs to be looked at through a social justice lens.
“Climate change brings to the fore issues of global injustice and inequality,” he says.
“The irony is that the countries which went through industrial development and created most of the problem with their emissions are not the ones most heavily impacted by climate change.
“Those affected most are low-lying Pacific Island countries or those like Bangladesh which are financially impoverished and are feeling the weight of the negative impacts of climate change.
“If you live in a Pacific Island country you are facing the real prospect of eventually it becoming uninhabitable and not having access to fresh, clean water due to rising sea levels.
“There is a real injustice around the fact that these people haven’t created the problem but will bear the brunt of it, and I think something like that should motivate us to take as much action as we can to mitigate climate change.”
As he reflects on Kevin Rudd’s words from 15 years ago, Mark clings to a sense of hope around what is in store for us.
“I am hopeful but I think the challenge we face as human beings is that we tend to respond well to immediate crises, whereas climate change is a very substantive problem for us globally that needs immediate action which has to be sustained over decades,” he says.
“As human beings we are not really good at doing that, but with that said I am hopeful we will ramp up our efforts.
“I’m hopeful, though, that as humanity we will rise to the challenge.”