The Baptist pastor leading Launceston’s climate inaction fight

Rebel PreacherSome see contradictions between Christianity and fighting climate change. Perhaps the end of human civilisation through natural disasters is God’s will – it wouldn’t be the first time. But for a Launceston pastor, protesting climate inaction comes directly from his faith. Jeff McKinnon is battling to save God’s creation from political and economic forces of destruction.

In the waiting room adjoining courtrooms 1 and 2 at the Launceston Magistrates Court on November 27, someone is sitting on the ground with no shoes or socks on, playing with their feet. Nearby, a man caught driving three times over the blood alcohol limit is wearing an impeccable suit. Taking up just about every available chair are people who have breached their bail conditions or burgled or committed common assault. And in the midst of the stultifying, bored irritation of the waiting room, nine mild-mannered retirees are looking a little out of place. This is the first time each of them has ever been arrested, here for the charge of ‘failing to comply with the direction of a police officer’. In their sensible skirts and creased trousers, they are each wearing an expression falling somewhere between defiant, confused, and uncomfortable.

Compared to other worldwide Extinction Rebellion actions, the protest in Launceston on October 11 was fairly minor. It went for an hour, and the police knew in advance that a handful of protesters would continue obstructing traffic after their permit expired. Those nine protesters were obligingly taken to the station at the agreed-upon time. As co-organiser Jeff McKinnon, the pastor at the City Baptist Church, points out, no one glued themselves to anything or used a lock-on device, as has occurred elsewhere.

“We had a wonderful relationship with the police, and I think the police are to be congratulated on that,” Mr McKinnon said. “Some individual police expressed strong interest in the issue and thanked us, in fact, for doing it. One gave one of our women a hug.”

The reason for the protest, of course, was climate change inaction.

Extinction Rebellion, a global protest movement, has three demands of governments: one, to tell the truth about climate change by declaring an emergency; two, to act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2025; and three, to create and be led by citizens’ assemblies on climate justice.

It is far from universally beloved. TV personality Kerri-Anne Kennerley said, “Put ’em in jail, forget to feed them,” and, “Use them as a speed bump”. Richard Walton, a former head of counterterrorism for the UK Metropolitan Police, calls them “anarchism with a smile”; Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has a similar opinion. Queensland’s Labor premier calls them “stupid” and “sinister”; Pauline Hanson says they are “unwashed idiots”. In the media whirlwind around environmental protests, Australian governments – including Tasmania’s – have proposed dramatic new anti-protest laws. The movement’s tactics of causing inconvenience and disruption for everyday people, unsurprisingly, rubs some everyday people the wrong way.

Mr McKinnon said they have tried everything else.

“The bottom line for us is that almost doing anything is better than doing nothing,” he said. “We’ve written letters, we’ve visited politicians. We’ve been trying for 30 years.”

For him, Extinction Rebellion is part of his commitment to his faith: “We’ve got to step back from middle class niceness and ask what God wants,” he said.

He lists a number of studies, ones that everybody already knows: that we are on track for four degrees of warming, turning Europe into desert and making agriculture only possible in places like Siberia and Scandinavia; that Australia is the highest carbon emitter per capita in the world and the third largest exporter of carbon after Russia and Saudi Arabia; that carbon emissions are actually going up.

In Tasmania, he believes the coming convulsions are as likely to be social as environmental. One image that keeps him up at night is that of the tiny state becoming one of the most liveable places on the planet, at the same time as the homes of billions become uninhabitable.

“There will be few places to come to that will be better than Tasmania,” he said. “There’s the south island of New Zealand. There’s Alaska. Northern Canada will become more suitable as the ice melts, maybe Greenland. Tasmania will change dramatically, and how that will happen is open-ended – we may have very little say about it.”

And this will all happen within the lifetime of Mr McKinnon’s beloved grandchildren.

It all sounds rather like the end of the world.

There is an argument in some parts of Christianity that climate change is God’s will: that the fire and floods foretold by scientists are also foretold by the Bible as part of the tribulations preceding the second coming of Jesus Christ. A “time of trouble such as never was since there was a nation”, to quote the Book of Daniel. As a friend put it recently in reference to his Christian relatives, “It’s not that they don’t believe in climate change, they just don’t think it’s a bad thing.”

Mr McKinnon is a man who believes with every fibre of his being that one day, perhaps one day soon, Jesus will return and live on Earth with it as his kingdom. Does it ever enter his head that the horrors of climate change could be a part of that process?

“I don’t think that fits with who Jesus was,” he said. “Jesus said very plainly that God is a God of compassion and mercy – that’s not some peripheral thing in the Bible, that’s dead centre of the gospel. Jesus said it again and again and again: what matters most is justice, mercy, and faithfulness. I think all the fire and sulphur is a metaphor.

“God actually lives in this world – there’s this view of: God is way up there and he looks down on the Earth and on these terrible people and casts judgement on them, and I don’t think that’s right. God created this world, and He wants this world to be beautiful.

“I would have thought that a belief in God would make us want to look after his creation. There’s not a whole lot in the Bible about climate change, but there’s a lot about creation care.”

He references Romans 6. To paraphrase, it says that just because one day the world will be divinely saved, you’re not off the hook in the meantime.

“One day He will come and overthrow the powers of darkness, I believe,” he said. “But between now and then, I have to speak out on the things that are dark.”

“The destruction of God’s creation for selfish, short-term economic benefit or political reasons, is unconscionable. If the poorest people in the world will suffer the most, and my grandkids will suffer, that’s evil that needs to be called out for what it is.

“I’m not saying that Scott Morrison is evil or anything like that – they could be good people who mean better than what they’re doing – but they’re doing evil. And I think we’ve got to call it evil and not pretend otherwise.”

Back at courtroom 4, the pastor is the last of the arrested protesters to face the magistrate.

Protester Susan Aulich, a 59-year-old grandmother who owns tourism business the Trig, starts a chain reaction when she declares she cannot undertake 12 months good behaviour because there is every chance she will be arrested taking part in climate protests again. Soon everyone is reading out speeches about climate change as their mitigating factors, and proclaiming that they won’t sign to undertake good behaviour – accepting fines instead.

Mr McKinnon says he won’t repeat what everybody else has already said. But before the court sits, in Civic Square at 8.30am, he holds his two-year-old grandson when he addresses a crowd and says, “It is our civic responsibility to demand timely and real action on climate change. We call upon the people of Launceston to join us in nonviolent rebellion against extinction.”

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