What if climate change is merely seen as ‘God’s will’?

The line between faith and fatalism can be blurry, but it raises an important question for a Pentecostal prime minister leading a nation that is fast becoming a global outlier on the subject of energy policy.

When, in the face of COVID-19, the Morrison government embraced the medical science on infection control with zeal, a popular response was to hope the government would be equally zealous in its embrace of climate science. Two events last week suggest that this is a forlorn hope.

The first was the prime minister’s response to Boris Johnson’s appeal to Australia to take ‘bold action’ to achieve net-zero carbon emissions target by mid-century. Echoing John Howard’s infamous speech about Australia’s sovereign right to decide ‘who comes here and under what conditions they come’, Scott Morrison declared that Australia’s emissions-reductions target will not be set by London or Brussels – as if this were a matter for individual countries to ponder at leisure rather than a global emergency requiring an urgent, collaborative, global response.

The second event was the release of The Australia Institute’s research report, The Climate of the Nation, based on a national survey of 1,998 respondents aged 18 and over. Two findings stood out: 68 per cent of us support a net-zero emissions target by 2050, and 71 per cent think Australia should become a world leader in finding solutions to the impact of climate change. In other words, if the government wanted to take ‘bold action’ on climate change and energy policy, it would be a remarkably easy sell: the electorate is not only onside but, in fact, way ahead of its government.

Given Morrison’s commitment to govern for the ‘quiet Australians’ – his own version of US president Richard Nixon’s ‘silent majority’ – it seems remarkable that he appears not to hear them when they do speak, especially when they speak so clearly on the most pressing issue of the century.

Why might that be?

The most obvious answer is that this government, like many of its predecessors, is in thrall to the coal lobby, and that too many marginal seats, especially in Queensland, would fall to Labor if the government appeared to be in a hurry to phase out coal and commit to a clean, renewable-energy future.

No doubt there’s a great deal of realpolitik in that argument. It certainly explains why climate science has never been as easy as medical science for Australian governments to accept. But it doesn’t entirely explain why a man who enjoys such popularity in the electorate and a position of such secure power in his own party would not have the leadership skills – and the courage – to be bold on this issue, if he believed in it.

We know that humans – even leaders of a nation – act out of mixed motives. The heart and the head are often in conflict, and the heart is generally the winner, even though we often try to dress up our subjective, emotional responses in the guise of objective rationality.

On a brutal scale, the second Gulf War was a classic case in point. The brainchild of US president George W. Bush, the disastrous second invasion of Iraq (more than 110,000 civilians killed, more than half of them children under 15) was variously explained as a hunt for (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction, a regime-change strategy involving the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the ‘liberation’ of the Iraqi people, a means to protect US access to Iraqi oil, or a way of securing a second land base for US troops then stationed in Pakistan.

But the list of possible explanations didn’t stop there. Many US commentators thought it was about George W. Bush ‘finishing the job’ started by his father, President George H.W. Bush, in the first war. Others speculated that George W. was influenced by the religious views of ultra-right evangelicals, suggesting that Armageddon would occur in the Middle East and that if the invasion of Iraq triggered it, then so be it. That interpretation made Bush into a potential ‘man of destiny’ (rather as QAnon devotees now see Trump).

Take your pick. But that final item on the list could conceivably be relevant to the mystery of why our own prime minister seems so reluctant to make a strong commitment to a 2050 net-zero emissions target – or any target – and the strategies required to get us there. Does his religion play a part?

Normally, a politician’s religious beliefs are rightly regarded as off-limits to public scrutiny or speculation. But this prime minister has been remarkably open and explicit about his religious faith and practice, even taking the extraordinary step of admitting a camera crew into his Hillsong-style Horizon Pentecostal church to film him at worship.

In her Quarterly Essay on Morrison, political journalist Katharine Murphy noted that ‘when Morrison secured the leadership of the Liberal Party, some Pentecostal pastors described his ascension as a miracle of God’. And Morrison himself famously characterised the re-election of his government as a miracle.

Morrison told Murphy he is uneasy about discussing his religious faith because ‘no matter how I explain it, it will be misinterpreted’ – a strange remark, you might think, in a country where 52 per cent of the population still identify as Christian. Or was it so strange? Did it perhaps hint at Morrison’s sense that his particular brand of Christianity might seem puzzling, even to other Christians?

Unlike most Christians, Pentecostalists typically set great store by the so-called prophecies of the Book of Revelation – a strange book that reads like a drug trip and, as US religious historian Elaine Pagels points out, very nearly failed to make the cut when the final composition of the New Testament was being determined. Pagels and many other scholars regard Revelation’s extravagant symbolism as coded references to contemporary events then unfolding in Rome. But those wild images are associated by some evangelical and especially Pentecostal Christians with the concept of ‘end times’ – the looming end of civilisation as we know it, when Christ will return to reign over the earth.

What does all this have to do with Morrison’s attitude to climate change and energy policy? If he is indeed a believer in ‘end-times’ theology as having literal relevance to the present, that could explain a more relaxed approach to the destruction of the planet than might otherwise seem warranted.

We don’t know whether that’s the case, but there are many ways in which that kind of faith – ‘it’s all part of God’s plan’ – seems almost indistinguishable from fatalism. If that is the prime minister’s position, what impact might it have on his climate-change policy and, indeed, on his attitude to the burning of fossil fuels? (Let’s not forget his theatrical defence of coal when he brought a lump of the stuff into the House of Representatives, in defiance of the parliamentary rules.) Perhaps he does believe that, as the ‘end times’ draw near, none of this really matters.

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Hugh Mackay AO is a social researcher, and the author of 13 books in the fields of social psychology, social analysis, communication and ethics, and eight novels.

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