The climate movement
Australia’s patrons of climate change activism
By September 2011
With Tony Abbott up in the polls, both sides saying they’ll stand or fall on climate policy, and some believing effective ‘climate action’ and the fate of ‘progressive politics’ this decade are at stake, much of the environmental movement has decided it must cheer for Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Clean Energy Future (CEF) carbon-pricing package. As Abbott and an emboldened carbon lobby paint Gillard’s plan as economic Armageddon, environmentalists are cheering as if the clean energy revolution has begun.
It’s a far cry from 2009 when the environmental movement split over the so-called Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Climate Institute went one way – backing the CPRS in exchange for Labor adopting a highly conditional 25% emission-reduction target for 2020. The Greens, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Wilderness Society, Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) and GetUp!, among others, went another way, knowing the conditions attached to the 25% target meant it wouldn’t happen. Now environmentalists are cheering almost as one, not just for ‘climate action’ but for Gillard’s plan.
The Greens, as co-authors, declare “the old, polluting ways will have to change and a new, exciting era is set to begin”; the ACF calls the plan an “important step to start Australia’s transition to a low carbon economy”; the Climate Institute calls it a “vital step towards lower pollution and clean energy in Australia”; the WWF says it “will finally create a financial incentive to change old habits and old technologies”. Even Greenpeace calls it “the fundamental first step in our journey towards a clean energy future”.
Everyone is emphasising that ‘first step’ bit, as if using the same talking points. Under the “Say Yes” banner, the message that ticking the carbon price box equals a clean energy future is being amplified. At one “Say Yes” rally, GetUp! boss Simon Sheikh declared: “Now is a moment of celebration” and “We’re ready to power our economy with 100% renewable energy. We say yes!” The banners proclaim: “Say yes to cutting carbon pollution” and “Unlock clean energy”. One GetUp! video affirms: “get rid of our reliance on fossil fuel”. It’s implied that the government’s plan will achieve these things.
But will it? The Greens say the CEF package is superior to the CPRS: the official 2050 emissions reduction target was 60% – now it’s 80%; the CPRS allowed unlimited use of imported carbon credits, allowing Australia to outsource almost all its obligations – now imported credits aren’t allowed until 2015 and then only for 50% of polluter liabilities; there’s a new Clean Energy Finance Corporation with $10 billion to spend and a Carbon Farming Initiative to encourage farmers to store more carbon in vegetation and soils. The Greens have sought to make backsliding harder by institutionalising what they can. So, for instance, governments will have to publicly explain if they choose not to accept emission cap recommendations from the proposed Climate Change Authority.
It’s better than the CPRS, but here’s the curious thing – most of the flaws of the CPRS remain in the CEF. Big polluters are again excused from paying for 66–94.5% of their emissions, notwithstanding Gillard’s claim that “big polluters will pay for every tonne of carbon pollution they put into our atmosphere”. There’s the same inadequate 5% unconditional emissions reduction target for 2020; same hypothetical 25% target; still no carbon price at the bowser; billions of dollars going to emission-intensive power generators; $1.3 billion to coal producers whose exports are Australia’s largest contribution to climate change; and handouts to householders still mean most Australians won’t notice a carbon price. It’s another huge money-go-round that intercepts the price signal a carbon tax is intended to send industry and consumers to drive a shift to lower-emission behaviour. The pledge to pay owners of 2 gigawatts of the most emission-intensive coal-fired generation to exit the industry is an admission pricing carbon this way won’t achieve even that.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the emission projections are familiar. Treasurer Wayne Swan and Climate Change Minister Greg Combet say the agreed package would “closely match” Treasury projections released earlier this year. They envisage Australia’s domestic emissions (excluding carbon credit imports) to “increase around 10% from 2010 to the late 2020s”. With the 50% limit on credit imports ending in 2020, we’d rely mainly on outsourcing emission cuts to meet our targets well into the 2030s. Even by 2050, domestic emissions are barely below 2000 levels! Meanwhile, even with the carbon price, and well before 2050, coal-industry output doubles.
For all Gillard’s hype that a carbon price will “turbo-charge” clean energy, projections show almost no increase in renewable energy deployment prior to 2020 beyond what’s required to achieve the existing 20% renewable electricity target. With coal exports doubling and coal seam gas exports growing faster, renewables would by 2020 still account for less than 2% of energy produced in Australia.
In truth, there’s much less difference between the two major parties than either side makes out: both have a 5% target; both price carbon – Labor through a carbon tax and emissions trading, the Coalition by effectively running a national tender process for emission reduction; both cosset fossil-fuel addiction – the Coalition mainly by paying farmers to increase carbon storage in soils, Labor by importing carbon credits.
Ask people in the movement why everyone’s cheering for a plan you’d expect them to stomach under sufferance and the responses all begin the same way: “This is strictly off the record.” Most cite partisan bias, driven more by Pavlovian habit than ideology. While relations with the Coalition have usually been acrimonious, Labor has delivered various groups their biggest wins and political influence. A former insider of the Climate Institute tells me its unofficial mission when established was to “get rid of John Howard”. Post-Howard the CEO is said to have defined its new role as being Labor’s “mine-sweeper”. A “Say Yes” campaign insider recently told me: “People are so desperate to get something rather than nothing that we’re all running cover for Labor; so, rather than getting a better scheme from them or the other side, it’s all about helping Gillard sell the scheme.”
Another reason cited for the cheering is the increasing tendency of environmental groups to focus on incremental wins. Rather than asking ‘What needs to be done?’, they’re asking ‘What’s possible soon, given the lie of the land?’ Rapid transitions to renewables and away from fossil-fuel exports are considered unthinkable, given the grip that coal companies and unions have on both major parties. Settling for much less ambitious goals and overstating their significance is easier.
Then there’s the revolving door. Some who opposed the CPRS when they worked for environmental groups now work in parliament for the Greens, where cheering for the CEF is expected. Meanwhile, like the carbon lobby, big-brand environmental groups recruit former political staffers and senior bureaucrats. Radicals have been replaced by ‘realists’ who know that if they collaborate with the powers that be – often former colleagues – they can secure incremental wins without threatening the system.
Most ‘suit-wearing’ greenies also sport a neo-liberal faith in markets, with many building careers promoting the idea that emissions trading is the solution to climate change. Thus, campaigners at groups such as the WWF, the ACF and the Climate Institute turn ‘think global, act local’ on its head, believing a global carbon trade is paramount, not local action. To a worldview that cares not where emissions are cut but that cuts are made globally, at least cost, importing carbon credits en masse and ignoring coal exports fits perfectly. Never mind that a lower carbon price makes renewables deployment here less viable. Ross Garnaut’s starring role on the national stage as a carbon-price Pied Piper from the neo-liberal establishment encapsulates the dominant mindset.
Lastly, there’s the widespread desire to fill the tent. Many said ‘never again’ after the suspension of the CPRS in 2009. The Mittagong Forum, which was founded a decade earlier in the Southern Highlands, NSW, and intended to keep the environment movement singing from a similar song sheet, was torn apart. The acrimony within the ACF was intense – irate members resigned. I’m told that the Climate Institute’s board ordered an internal review of strategy. Since then, the groups that did a backroom deal with then Prime Minister Rudd have been on a charm offensive – encouraging a much broader group to come on board. Frustrated campaigners explain that the more groups involved, the faster the race to the bottom. One tells me: “If you’ve got ACF, WWF and the Climate Institute in the tent, you can’t talk about export coal; can’t talk down ‘clean coal’ or importing carbon credits or carbon farming.” As the carbon price becomes the issue upon which Labor stands or falls and the Greens’ forward momentum depends, the tent is filling up with unions, celebrities and GetUp!, among others.
This partly explains the cheering, but it’s hard not to wonder if something else is also going on here. Money explains the behaviour of many campaigning against Gillard, as those in her corner are quick to highlight; the proudly sceptical and coal-friendly Institute of Public Affairs, for example, has admitted they rarely take a position different from the “dozen energy firms” who contribute funds to them, because “otherwise they’d stop funding us”. Should we expect different from those funding big-brand green groups? It might seem like a diverse range of groups are all concluding independently that Gillard’s carbon price equals clean energy future, but they’re largely funded through two wealthy farmers: Robert Purves and Mark Wootton.
Robert Purves is the former chair and major shareholder of health group DCA; Mark Wootton is married to Eve Kantor, Rupert Murdoch’s niece. Through the Purves Environmental Fund (PEF) and the Poola Foundation respectively, they bankroll most of Australia’s best known environment groups, including many of those behind the “Say Yes” show.
The Poola Foundation, established in 1995, has for years been the ACF’s principal donor. The ACF’s building was gifted by a Poola-linked company in 2009, providing a permanent rental income stream. A donation of $10 million from the estate of Eve Kantor’s late brother (administered by Wootton and Eve Kantor) established the Climate Institute in 2005, with another $4 million invested since. Climate change “couldn’t be left to the environment movement”, says Wootton. Through the Climate Institute, the Poola Foundation provides office space to support the AYCC, and it is the largest contributor to the Australia Institute think tank. It originally funded the Mittagong Forum and provided resources and personnel to establish the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network to co-ordinate environmental philanthropy.
Robert Purves is more prolific, particularly since establishing the PEF in 2004. He has given millions of dollars to the WWF, is the primary sponsor of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and supports the core global team running Earth Hour. A polar bear made of ice that paraded through Sydney streets in June was also Purves-funded. Few people realise that Purves substantially funded the writing and extensive promotion of Tim Flannery’s book The Weather Makers. The AYCC credits core funding provided by Purves, their only ‘gold supporter’, for their exponential growth in 2010. Purves has also funded Sustainable Business Australia, The Climate Group, the Climate Action Network Australia, the Copenhagen Climate Council and Clean Up Australia. He funds the Total Environment Centre and its Green Capital program, which hosted one of Julia Gillard’s first speeches after the release of the CEF package. Purves funds Terrestrial Carbon Group and the Bio-CCS Group, which push all manner of cheap carbon-credit generating alternatives to switching away from fossil fuels to help Australia meet emissions targets: carbon farming, forest protection abroad, growing algae with CO2 from coal-fired power stations. Through Sustainable Business Australia (SBA) he also co-hosts Carbon Expos for those keen to profit from trading such credits.
Wootton and Purves are hardly the only philanthropists assisting green causes. Wotif.com founder Graeme Wood’s record-breaking $1.6 million contribution to the Greens prior to the 2010 federal election drew plenty of attention. What sets Wootton and Purves apart is their ubiquity – especially on the issue of climate change – and their hands-on approach: Purves is a former president and current board member of WWF (Australia), a former board member of WWF (International), the chair of SBA, a governor of AYCC and the only non-scientist member of the Wentworth Group. Similarly, Mark Wootton chairs the Climate Institute board and, until recently, sat on the boards of both the ACF and the Australia Institute.
Moreover, both men appear to advocate the ‘carbon price as panacea’ approach championed by Rudd and now Gillard. “It’s all about putting a price on carbon,” says Purves; it’s a “conservative, market-based solution”, says Wootton. As far as I can tell, neither has publicly opposed continued coal export expansion, cast doubt over ‘clean coal’ or opposed the large-scale use of imported carbon credits. While both back renewable energy, they’re also strong advocates of bio-sequestration options that help avoid a switch away from fossil fuels. The organisations they fund take similar views; a coterie of corporations deeply enmeshed in vast new coal- and gas-mining projects, or simply poised to gain from the carbon credit opportunities promoted by Wootton and Purves, now co-fund the same organisations.
This is not to parallel the friendly takeover of environmentalism in the past decade with the self-interested clout exerted by those funding Australia’s carbon lobby. Wootton and Purves might gain from generating carbon credits on their farms, but by all reports their philanthropy is driven by genuine altruism rather than vested interest. However, they embody much of what movement insiders cite as problematic – neo-liberal minded corporate greenies chasing incremental results based on ‘what’s possible’. So perhaps it’s inevitable that, as more groups come to rely heavily on the same patronage, the environment movement’s centre of gravity has shifted.
If more people knew to what they were saying ‘yes’, and to whom, it’s hard not to wonder whether there’d be a lot less cheering. Now, as in 2009, the Poola Foundation and Purves-backed entities are teaming up with Labor to establish a minimalist carbon price deal that allows Australia’s contribution to climate change to keep increasing during the most crucial of decades and beyond. Naturally, Labor and its unions are geeing up the “Say Yes” crowd. The ACTU is again in the thick of the action and, having received a
$1.12 million donation from Australia’s largest coal union in 2010, GetUp! is cheering too. There’s been a cumulative cost of up to $5 million for the omnipresent ‘independent’ commentary produced by the Garnaut Climate Change Review from 2007–11. A $12 million advertising campaign is up and running and soon the government will distribute grants of “up to $250,000 for organisations to engage with the public on the opportunities of a clean energy future”. It’s a new strategy, but the same people and money taming environmentalists into backing yet another ineffective policy.
After a decade of false starts, Gillard’s plan shows beyond doubt that the only carbon price Australia will adopt is one that largely defeats the purpose of a carbon price. The Turnbull-backed CPRS was probably the best deal negotiable between the two major parties, just as the Gillard plan is probably the best the Greens could expect from a partnership with Labor. Pricing carbon this way does not equal a clean energy future, but that will take years to dawn on many in the cheer squad. Meanwhile, perhaps the best that can be said of the Gillard package is that passing it makes room for issues that the current debate has kept off the table. With the carbon price box finally ticked, the massive expansion in Australia’s fossil-fuel emission exports will become harder to ignore. When we finally confront that issue we’ll be getting serious as a nation about a Clean Energy Future.
Graeme Wood contributed $15 million to the University of Queensland towards a new building, which will house the Global Change Institute, to which Guy Pearse is affiliated as a research fellow.