Carbon Price

Sep 7, 2011

Green groups fight everything but criticism against them

Throughout 2011, Australia’s best-funded environment organisations have been united in support of the Labor government’s push to establish a carbon price. Not everyone, it seems, thinks this is a good thing.

Leigh Ewbank writes: Throughout 2011, Australia’s best-funded environment organisations have been united in support of the Labor government’s push to establish a carbon price. Not everyone, it seems, thinks this is a good thing.

In a compelling essay published in The MonthlyDr Guy Pearse, the former Liberal party advisor who revealed the “greenhouse mafia’s” influence over national climate and energy policy during the Howard years, challenges the environment groups that uncritically cheer for the government’s flawed climate change policy.

“It’s a far cry from 2009,” notes Pearse, “when the environmental movement split over the so-called Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). … Now environmentalists are cheering almost as one, not just for ‘climate action’ but for Gillard’s plan.”

It is true that while the Clean Energy Future legislation is a marginal improvement on its predecessor, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, it still contains many of the flaws that fuelled the split only a few years ago.

Pearse offers several reasons as to why this is the case: a partisan bias toward the Labor party, the sectors’ increasing focus on incremental gains and the commonly held belief that markets will solve the climate crisis. Is there more to the story than these contingent factors? Pearse thinks there is and calls attention to the link between Australia’s foremost environmental philanthropists — the Poola Foundation and the Purves Environmental Fund — and the ENGOs that ‘Say Yes’ to the government’s carbon price push:

“…[T]he 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.”

The analysis raises a serious question about the role of Australian environment groups: how does one balance the need to satisfy the policy preferences of financial backers while living up to their responsibility to act in the best interest of ‘the environment’?

It’s worth noting that Guy Pearse is not alone in critiquing mainstream environment groups. At various stages of what has been a long year in Australian politics and environmental organising, other prominent climate change activists have too. Together these dissenting voices form a chorus of critique.

Professor Clive Hamilton used a public address (read the speech in PDF form here) in Melbourne to mount a scathing critique of mainstream environment groups. According to Hamilton, ENGOs engage in a “wishful thinking” that makes them unable to grasp the dire state of climate science and need for radical action. This, along with the acceptance of political incrementalism and the professionalisation of activists combine to result in a de-radicalised environment movement that advocates policies that no longer reflect the scale of the climate change challenge or risk putting the Labor Party offside. With the picture Hamilton paints it is no wonder that such groups are willing to cheer for the Clean Energy Future package.

For a more targeted critique of the ‘Say Yes’ campaign look no further than David Spratt, the author of Climate Code Red. In June, Spratt rebuked the ‘Say Yes’ coalition for rallies that he believes reduced the community “…to little more than extras providing a staged backdrop for an inordinately expensive media stunt.” More recently, Spratt questioned the campaign’s communications strategy, arguing the campaign “is missing a compelling heart narrative about the impacts of global warming.” The persuasive power of the ‘pro’ carbon price message, Spratt reasons, is blunted without this crucial ingredient.

The ‘Say Yes’ coalition has made some interesting decisions. In May I expressed concern about its unconditional support for the carbon price package. How could the climate campaigners credibly launch an advertising campaign asking Australians to ‘say yes’ to a carbon pricing policy before it was finalised — or at least before the details were known to the public? At the time, I wrote that the decision “reveals just how low the bar has been set on national climate policy,” adding that “in the current push for climate change action, it seems the groups behind the Say Yes campaign are willing to accept even the most incrementalist policy.”

The environment groups on the receiving end of this criticism have not responded publicly. Hamilton and Spratt’s commentaries were met with silence. Ignoring Pearse’s article would confirm a worrying trend of evading criticism. If ENGOs are unwilling to respond there is a risk that they will be perceived as weak. Disregarding the opinions of Hamilton, Spratt and Pearse — people who are well known for supporting science-based action on climate change — might lead some in the climate movement to question the strength of the their convictions and leadership role.

The argument could be made that discussing such matters in the public arena is an unwanted distraction from the political battle of the day, however this is not a convincing excuse. Such an exchange would have limited appeal in the broader community so there is little risk of muddying the waters on the carbon price policy as it is debated in the parliament. Furthermore, a debate among environmental leaders would not change the composition of the House of Representatives or the Senate where passing the Clean Energy Future bill is well within reach.

Those interested in climate change politics will soon know whether the big environmental groups respond to critique.

This post first appeared on Leigh Ewbank’s blog. Leigh is progressive writer based in Melbourne and communications direct for Beyond Zero Emissions, but this article is his own personal opinion.

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30 thoughts on “Green groups fight everything but criticism against them

  1. Douglas Evan

    @Mark Duffett
    As usual you offer unsupported assertions. Maybe you are right, maybe not. A 14% increase in velocity seems a bit more than ‘very marginal’ to me and the variability question is a red herring – No-one has ever said that wind can do it alone. There is a suite of rapidly maturing renewable options, some of which are perfectly capable of delivering base-load power. Wind power is currently the cheapest renewable source and it has a valid role to play in the transition to a carbon constrained future.

    I note that you are a bit of a fan of the nuclear optimist Prof Barry Brook. I’ve not followed the nuclear power argument particularly closely. I’m a nuclear agnostic. Despite the horrendous disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima I’m prepared to consider arguments that in this age of environmental crisis nuclear power has a potential role to play and that problems associated with waste disposal and storage and preventing waste being siphoned off for use in weapons can be dealt with.

    I’m equally happy to consider arguments that precisely because of these actual and potential horrors, nuclear power has become socially impossible. The guaranteed community opposition will make it impossible to implement, not least because under these conditions investors will not be found.

    I’m somewhat persuaded that irrespective of these factors the huge and soaring costs of nuclear energy and the very long lead times associated with the implementation of nuclear power make it highly unlikely to play a role in the current crisis. I have recently read a particularly convincing argument along these lines in Arena magazine June/July 2011 by Prof Jim Falk titled ‘Fukushima Fall-out’. I found this a pretty convincing argument that nuclear had never been a would never bean economically rational industry but that this did not necessarily count it out.

    I couldn’t find an online presence for this article but I commend it to you. I certainly felt I learned a lot from reading it and there are few people in this country that know more about this topic than Jim Falk.

    Likewise a recent article on ‘The Conversation’ by Professor George Dracoulis titled ‘Thorium is no silver bullet when it comes to nuclear energy but it could play a role.’

    But wishful thinking will not get us out of this hole and acting as though we can establish from scratch a nuclear industry in this country quickly enough to make the necessary changes to our energy mix is wishful thinking of the first order. For a good summary of how deep is the hole we are in, and what the task is that confronts us, I recommend the ever reliable Ken Davidson.

    For another view of the same situation try

    Finally for an easily understood summary of the consequences of failure you might try

  2. Mark Duffett

    @Douglas Evan, the projected increases in wind speeds are very marginal with respect to wind usefulness. Certainly makes no difference to the big reliability/intermittency questions.

  3. Douglas Evan

    @ Peter Ormonde

    Just found this article about Australian wind speed increases due to warming. Perhaps this has implications for usefulness of wind power?

  4. Peter Ormonde


    Interesting comments …. the numbers on the wind offshore actually look heaps better than the onshore stuff here…. the onshore stuff shows a standard deviation of around 40-50% while the European stuff is only about 10% variable … much more consistent and reliable… still what you say (and the implicit need for gas back-up with an intermittent output) puts wind power in a bit of a shadow I reckon – at least as it is currently operating.

    Yeah the osmotic stuff is seriously strange… early days yet and if it goes the way of other membrane technologies and the nano-scale design techniques there will be substantial efficiencies and design improvements available. I like the idea of making electricity out of something so simple. But at the moment it’s only a glint in the eye.

    Lots to play with in this stuff … but we must do it in a way that people both accept and support.

  5. Douglas Evan

    Isn’t it about time you put the toys back in the toybox and got ready for bed?

  6. Douglas Evan

    @ Peter Ormonde

    Plenty of interesting stuff in your comments. Of course when I referred to dodgy operators above I meant the rich variety of scamsters already established in the global carbon market.

    Never previously heard of Osmotic energy – weird but interesting. However if a 25MW power plant is as big as a football stadium the same capacity as (for example) Hazelwood brown coal fired power station (about 5% of Australian baseload energy) would occupy between 60 and 70 football stadiums presumably dispersed along the coast. That’s a pretty substantial infrastructure commitment and I wonder about the cost compared to wind (onshore or offshore) geothermal or solar.

    The best fit future mix of renewables is interesting. One report on the decreasing cost curve of renewables (Hearps & McConnell 2011) predicts: Cost of PV electricity to fall to between $300 and $100/MWh (depending on who you believe) by 2030. Of course according to Giles Parkinson solar PV is already at grid parity in Australia. Cost of wind between $140 and about $85/MWh by 2030. Cost of Concentrating Solar Power (the hope of the environment movement for renewable baseload power) between about $210 and about $60/MWh by 2030. Contrast this with predictions that geothermal baseload energy can be delivered by 2020 for between about $50 and $100/MWh from the north Flinders Ranges and (if the latter prediction proves reliable) ask yourself which ‘renewable’ mix gives us the best chance of getting out of this fix.

    Despite your reservations, onshore wind seems to work well enough in Australia but given the above price predictions perhaps we should simply skip wind, which is increasingly becoming an ideological battleground, and simply shoot for a mix of solar (PV – both large scale and dispersed – and CSP) and geothermal.

    Wind power in Scandinavia (at least in Denmark) has increasingly gone offshore not because of better wind strength and reliability but because of the increasing community opposition to having wind farms as neighbours and the resultant difficulty of obtaining necessary permits.

  7. jonah Stiffhausen

    “The Say Yes rally in Melbourne earlier this year was a strangely passionless affair”

    Well I suppose it is hard to be enthusiastic when demonstrating in FAVOUR of yet another tax.
    This fact alone shows how stupid the say yes mob is. They’re imbeciles who deserve to be laughed out of town.
    Anyone who accepts any of this pseudo scientific cant can’t be trusted.

  8. Peter Ormonde


    I have never said that offshore wasn’t more expensive – in fact the reverse if you read back. That’s how this started … paddocks are cheap … just not much wind.

    I am saying that putting windfarms in paddocks is a hell of a way to save money – it cripples the output achievable. It’s like leaving the solar panels in the shed because it saves on installation costs not putting them on the roof.

    Incidentally it’s not just the friction free blades that are responsible for the extreme efficiency of the mag lev set up – it’s also in the radical design of the turbine itself – spinning magnets. Spend a bit of time googling them up … there’s a US mob Maglev making them.

    Geothermal has a few bugs to sort out here – all the hot rocks are far away and a long way down – but CSIRO was doing some rather curious stuff looking at using in situ brown coal deposits as a sort of “heat blanket” which was looking interesting but that has dropped out of the discussion of late.

    And yes I reckon solar thermal will be the real future for medium to larger scale generation (even interesting at a small scale in some locations). It’s about scale and about getting the incentives right to get the best bang for our bucks.

    One of the really smart technologies that looks extremely interesting is this Norwegian stuff on osmotic power generation – well worth a look …. no shortage of salty water in this bloody place: Cheap too.

  9. Eponymous

    So, you seem to be suggesting that they are not developing off-shore because it is expensive? That seems like a good reason to me. Cold hard economics.

    If cost is no (less of) a problem, geothermal seems a better option to me. Pretty constant power delivery, middle of no-where so land not such a problem.

    I think a more likely option though is big solar thermal, but this will be hard without certainty. Did you know coal was subsidised in the early days because it was too expensive? Anyway, I suspect that since we make (can) steel and have a lot of sun, if we got serious about rolling out SolarThermal the cost would come down, as the supply chain shortens and some economies of scale are realised.

  10. Peter Ormonde


    Not “no wind” just not enough and seasonal and massive cyclical fluctuations between years. We live in a very variable and cyclical country climate-wise – not like Europe.

    The only reason we are not doing what the scandawegians, yanks and brits are doing – sticking them offshore – is because of cost. There is a big price involved in going for the cheap option here. Have a look at that CSIRO stuff again I think I posted the link for their how-to book above – not a mention of offshore resources or even how to go about it – was never considered an option apparently.

    If the existing incentives and subsidies provided are not sufficient to encourage offshore productive consistent wind farms then we need to fix that – not just settle for a cosmetic solution that operates at 20% capacity.

  11. Eponymous

    I think you grossly underestimate the analysis that goes into putting in a windfarm and do not understand the economics of them either. I also think the claims you have made about competing technologies are fanciful, unsupported and unproven.

    You honestly think windfarm developers are putting farms where the land is cheap and there is no wind?

  12. Peter Ormonde


    Yes I already have … and you and PeeBee find it “difficult to believe”.

    I think it is extraordinary that we are willing to cop a second rate technology – stick it in the wrong place (where it is subject to inconsistent and seasonal variation in output) and think we are securing the future. Both domestic PV and windfarms (as they are being applied in Australia) qualify for delusional warm inner glow non-answers. We need to get serious about this stuff – not just grab the cheapest available option in a market dominated by tax subsidies.
    Now I am taking you seriously. Please do me the same courtesy. No name calling. I am not a troll and have been playing in this renewable paddock for 30 years. And I know – from personal experience – that putting windfarms in inland paddocks in this country is pretty much futile. They work for 2-3 months year at best. And that’s when you have the trees horizontal from a dominant constant high wind … best anenometer one can get trees. And if they are straight – don’t bother. Simple.

  13. Eponymous

    Peter, you make some pretty serious allegations in your post here, that would be good to support with some evidence.

  14. Peter Ormonde

    Sadly Douglas, the dodgy operators aren’t restricted to the fossil fuel industry. Sections of the renewable industry too are not all that interested in supplying the most efficient and effective answers, but are more interested in making a quick buck at the lowest cost… they are corporations too after all.
    In other words I agree entirely that the current proposals are woefully inadequate and that market based solutions are, in themselves alone, not up to the task. Creating markets in which taxpayers subsidise inappropriate technology spawn inefficiency and a class of claimant tax farmers.
    As for the Carbon Tax and the eventual ETS, it looks like this is about as far as we can get at the moment politically – we are addicted to our air conditioners and plasmas apparently. It will I suspect require some of the catastrophic consequences of global warming and rising sea levels before we learn. And by then the adjustment will be painful. Sad isn’t it?

  15. Douglas Evan

    @ Fran Barlow
    A price on carbon that only promotes a shift from coal to gas as a source fuel is little help. Check out Climate Progress assessment of the IEAs Golden Age of Gas report.
    The important aspect of the government’s carbon tax – ETS package is the ancilliary concessions to the growth of the renewable energy sector that the Greens have wrung out of the government – and these are the bills still missing as I understand it. I don’t believe the market will solve this crisis no matter what the price. There will always be too many loopholes for dodgy operators. Within a decade we will have moved (globally) to direct regulation or we will have lost the battle for our future.

  16. Douglas Evan

    I read Pearse’s essay. Found it interesting as I knew nothing of the private philanthropy behind the climate movement. If Guy Pearse didn’t bother to check with the ENGOs before publishing as John Connor says – he should have – but I don’t think this invalidates his article which contains no actual criticism either of the philanthropists concerned or of the ENGOs. Read David Spratt’s piece. He’s right also in his critique of the ‘Say Yes’ campaign. The Say Yes rally in Melbourne earlier this year was a strangely passionless affair. However Microseris is still right. This is an emergency, incrementalism poses a threat to effective action but our response must be conditioned by the political reality. We either take what is on offer this time – a tiny first step but considerably better than the CPRS package – or we (probably) wait a decade. This is unthinkable – its now or (effectively) never. More worrying than any of the above is the absence yet of critical parts of the carbon tax– ETS package from Parliament. Where are the missing bills dealing with almost the most important part of the package, the support for renewables and the Clean Energy Finance Commission?

  17. jonah Stiffhausen

    Hell Ms Crago? Mmmm. I think there we really do have cause to worry.
    All power seekers/totalitarians must try and manufacture bigger and more urgent crises to justify the grabbing and exercising of more and more arbitrary power.
    We should just laugh at them. They really are ridiculous.
    Call me Jonah, please.

  18. LisaCrago

    Yes Stiffhausen, they are a merry little bunch our AGW fanatics reminds me of the hard core Armageddonist’s that will have us all burning in hell for sins.
    Me thinks the sky is not falling.

  19. jonah Stiffhausen

    ” Global Warming is far far more serious, more urgent and more catastrophic than any of the responses from world economies would indicate.”

    Very satirical. I like it. The biggest hoax ever played out, bar none. What could be more hilarious than those in power running around claiming to “save the world”?
    Well, one thing actually. People taking them at face value.
    God help us all.

  20. LisaCrago

    “How could the climate campaigners credibly launch an advertising campaign asking Australians to ‘say yes’ to a carbon pricing policy before it was finalised — or at least before the details were known to the public? ”

    Common political sense dictates that they could not crediblyt do so at all and I agree with you strongly on this one.

    The devil is always in the detail, people are not stupid and they mostly want to see what they get for their money before they part with it.I thought the ‘Say Yes’ campaign very odd. There was no referendum, we the people do not vote or say ‘yes’ to it, our elected lords and masters in APH do that, and it is clearly along party lines. The ‘Say Yes’ campaign was a 100% pure political one seeking support for ALP policy. Now, who funded this again…

  21. Bo Gainsbourg

    By the way, I suspect that while-ever the debate is dominated by the economic aspects, no matter how correct the green groups are, they will lose in that space. See how the coalition appears to be winning that argument despite every agreed fact and the consensus of economists. It more likely will be one in continuing to emphasise the real threats and the need for us to do logical actions to protect our kids and start fixing the core problem…..being policy wonks is wasted in the public space, it just totally loses the public and leaves them dazed and confused…

  22. Bo Gainsbourg

    I thought the Pearce essay was interesting and also the above, I’m not concerned at the criticism, there must be some evaluating process. I do think we have to try to set some kind of bar that can move politics towards more dramatic action and that was appallingly done in the Rudd period. There certainly was an historic opportunity there and Labor totally and utterly blew it. I do think many environment groups spent that period providing a human shield for Labor and it encouraged them to try to get the Libs to pass something that trashed the mandate they had from the public at the 07 election. Having said that I now think its critical to get this package through. Its not great, but its not as infected with Treasury and DCC dogma around the price mechanism as much as the CPRS and there are a coherent raft of complimentary measures with it. Whether the ‘support the price’ campaign is sending the right messages is debatable but the next year is critical to getting up legislation and starting the ball rolling. Clearly Labor is determined to self immolate by spending the last 4 years abandoning progressive voters on nearly every front. Its the strategy they’ve pursued for years led by a so-called pragmatic right convinced it will win them centre votes, only it hasn’t, its just made them look like they don’t believe in anything at all. I thought the environment groups collectively in the Rudd period did a crap job, but can’t see any alternative now but getting a toehold by getting this better set of legislation through. At least it allows for a decent trajectory.

  23. Mark Duffett

    @Stephen, I agree, but it’s not just the P- but the N-word, nuclear, that is excluded from the debate by the fossil mainstream Greens and ENGOs. They have ignored criticisms on this front by environmentalists and scientists like Brook, Lovelock, Hansen, Brand, Lynas, Monbiot etc just as they have Hamilton, Spratt and Pearse. As someone recently said, the quickest way to solve the climate crisis is to mention nuclear energy, because when you do that it magically becomes a second-order issue requiring something less than every tool at our disposal.

  24. John Connor

    While I agree broadly (very) with the sentiment of microseris I should make clear “ConnorJ” is not my avatar (think that’s what you call it).

    The Climate Institute’s view on the package and how it breaks political and investment deadlocks can be seen at

    What is most disappointing about Pearse’s article is not just the errors and tapestry of rumours and innuendos from unnamed sources. It is not just the fact that none of the claims have been checked with the targets. Nor is it the ludicrous conspiracy claim of two funders driving the policies of all the organisations – the organisations mentioned took every possible position on the CPRS! It is the chilling effect this could have on other philanthropists who may be put off supporting climate advocacy by the prospect of personalised unsubstantiated attacks.

    Say Yes was formed to counter the forces of misinformation and self interest that has had Australia trapped in a deadlock of delay and denial. It has shown that a cross section of Australians support action and done tremendous things in a firestorm of falsification. Not all has been perfect and clearly much more has to be done up to and after the hopeful passage of this legislation. The Climate Institute is proud to have been part of this effort.

    John Connor, CEO, The Climate Institute

  25. ConnorJ

    @ microseris – Couldn’t agree more.

  26. Stephen

    This article is not much better or worse than the things it’s criticising. It begins to see that carbon pricing is all about business as usual, but still it plays into the hands of the carbon-pricers and their fake ‘debate’. I don’t see any mention in here of attending to bagatelles like population, biodiversity, habitat and species. The P-word is deliberately excluded from the debate by the Green luvvies just as much as the LibLab neocons.

  27. Peter Ormonde

    I won’t attempt to argue the toss with Hamilton and Spratt – anyone doing the looking knows that Global Warming is far far more serious, more urgent and more catastrophic than any of the responses from world economies would indicate. The response to date has been glib, superficial and essentially business as usual, and designed to be so.

    And, in a democratic system, that is all that can be done while people still are araldited to their comfy air-conned plasma’d lifestyles, while industry relies on burning fossil fuels and spewing its waste into our air, while we rely on industry and while things look pretty much “OK” from the sofa.

    At best Gillard’s scheme, and the schemes operating anywhere I can think of, are inadequate. But they are a start. They recognise the problem but essentially do little about it. Perhaps they can be ratcheted up in time. But there won’t be time then.

    I don’t think we will understand or accept the seriousness of Global Warming until it is too late – at least until someone somewhere – some country or continent – collapses or is swamped…and there is no more room for avoidance and denial. And sadly by then it will be too late for any positive interventions other than coping with the consequences, or trying to.

    No number of academic studies or cassandra like warnings will be sufficient. Not to produce significant fundamental change on the scale required. We need the evidence before us, the flooded cities, the submerged paddocks, the starving populations. It’s how we “learn”.

    We are slow learners, and even slower doers.

  28. Fran Barlow

    There’s a lot that could be said in response here, but criticising “Say Yes” because they suppported the principle of carbon pricing without the detail of the scheme is unreasonable.

    It was and is important to put an explicit price on emissions. My onw view is that the government has put far too small an effective price on emissions, but in this case, unlike Rudd’s CPRS, it is in context, a modest step in the right direction and is deserving of qualified support.

    We should argue as it is rolled out for more robust and ubiquitous action, and take this deal to other recalcitrant states in an attempt to have them match if not outbid us, and then use that to raise the bar.

    The first step is however, important because in every state those who oppose action rely on the inaction of other jurisdictions. This dam wall must be broken and in a way that will be difficult to reverse. This has now been done.

  29. Microseris

    Given the hysterical opposition to the current proposal, if this option doesnt go through we go back to the drawing board and when labor inevitably loses a majority wait possibly another 10 years before we have the opportunity of putting an alternative up.

    This commentary completely ignores the political realities in which the legislation must traverse and offers no achievable alternative. It is in this reality environment groups have endorsed the current proposal.

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