Australian Religious Communities Unite Against Climate Crisis
by Sophie Flint
June 24, 2020

The 2019-2020 bushfire crisis in Australia has shown the unique ways that natural disasters and community emergencies can activate religious leaders, institutions, and values. As ravenous fires destroyed land and homes across the continent, faith-based communities engaged with first responders and affected communities in a meaningful way. On the national level, religious leaders are using their platform and beliefs to combat climate change and incite political action. These responses not only set an example to Australian communities, but they show the world how religious actors can provide support, alleviate suffering, and enact lasting change around the world.

From September 2019 to February 2020, Australia experienced one of its worst bushfire seasons in history, killing 34 people and an estimated billion animals. More than 46 million acres of land were burned, and nearly 3,000 homes were destroyed. As communities felt the impact of the fires—some by overwhelming smoke in the atmosphere, others by emergency evacuation—religious groups responded with compassion. 

The Riviera Christian Centre was quick to open its doors to victims and evacuees. They provided parking, showers, toilets, cooking facilities, charging for devices, and more. Clarie Jones, a representative from the Salvation Army, stated these efforts represent “the church at its best, working together.” Another church in Bega, feeling the heat from nearby flames, opened its doors for people to escape relief from the heat in its air-conditioned building. Responding to the care and peace she received, one woman commented this “is like church as we’ve never seen it before.” In the midst of a national disaster, the church was able to fully express its mission by creating a sense of peace and relief for communities. 

Minority religious communities in Australia also responded to the crisis in big ways. Melbourne-based Sikh Volunteers Australia altered their weekly meal time to help firefighters in need. While the group typically serves meals to those in need in Melbourne, they opted to drive to a nearby town to feed those affected by the fires. Over one hundred people volunteered to support the mission. The Australian Islamic Centre used social media to ask for donations and hosted a cookout after Friday prayer to raise money for relief. Some members even drove over five hours to donate supplies to firefighters—they hosted a cookout of lamb kebab, chicken kebab and other cultural foods for the fighters while they were there. 

Nation-wide, the interfaith community in Australia has been strengthened by these events and has convened as one voice against climate change. Whether these bushfires were a result of human induced climate change or not, leaders are using these disasters as a call to action. Indigenous and Abrahamic religions alike are voicing concern about government actions and policy. The Australian Religious Response to Climate Change co-hosted the “People’s Climate Assembly” where religious leaders circled together on the grounds of Parliament House. Here, Catholics, Anglicans, Muslims, Buddhists, and Quakers joined thousands of other Australians, unable to ignore the warning of the “wake up” call of the bushfires, to advocate for change. 

The group, active for almost a decade, believes “that as people dedicated to the common good, inspired by our beliefs and energized by our spirituality, people of all faiths can and should be at the forefront of creating a safe climate.” In June of 2019, the group organized more than 150 leaders, including bishops, rabbis, theologians, the grand mufti of Australia, Muslims Australia, Australia Buddhist Council, and others wrote a letter to the Prime Minister advocating for alternative energy solutions to counter Australia’s reliance on coal, and their belief that climate change “is a profoundly moral problem and Australia’s response will be crucial in addressing it.”

Both Australia’s religious communities and Australia’s religious leaders are setting an example for how their role and actions are catalysts for change. They would not stand by as members of their community lose loved ones, homes, and environments. By inspiring action, providing and advocating for victims of disaster, and leading the call for policy change, they are both caring for communities and the earth—values shared across faiths.

The views, thoughts, and opinions in this blog belong solely to the author and are not representative of an official position or endorsement by the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD).