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Say What?
<p>AAP Image/WWF</p>

AAP Image/WWF

When Greens Eat Themselves

A leaked report shows environment groups aren’t having the impact they’d like you to think they are.


WHAT would you conclude about the success of a public campaign by interest groups that saw support for its cause decline?

Take the case of the coalition of nine organisations — including the Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace, the ACTU, the Climate Institute, GetUp! and the World Wildlife Fund — which last year funded the Saying Yes to a Price on Pollution campaign. If you remember it at all, it may be for Cate Blanchett’s involvement (more of which later). According to a “strictly private and confidential” review and evaluation study commissioned by the Say Yes coalition, the campaign was a raging success. “Now is the time to declare victory,” the leaked report says of the campaign. On what grounds? Australia put a price on carbon pollution.

The only problem is that this was going to happen, whether or not these groups mounted their $2 million plus campaign.

“They said we will say yes to any sort of carbon pricing — whatever it is, we will support it.”

You’ll recall that, in the tussle for victory that followed the stalemated 2010 federal election, the Greens insisted on legislation to price carbon as a condition for guaranteeing support for a minority Labor government. Those involved in Say Yes argue they played an important role in keeping the parties to the agreement. But for the politicians, the alternative was too awful to contemplate: the possible loss of government for Labor, the loss of seats for Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, the two independents who supported the minority government, and the loss of influence for the Greens.

So the “victory” was a policy outcome that already was part of a signed agreement between Labor and the Greens. Moreover, it did not go beyond the five per cent target for emissions reductions that environment groups and the Greens had dismissed as completely inadequate under Kevin Rudd. Most importantly, given the aims of the campaign, it actually saw a fall in public support for tackling climate change, making it all the more likely that a future Abbott government would succeed in scrapping the carbon tax and the emissions trading scheme.

If that’s victory, well, defeat doesn’t bear thinking about.

Andrew Macintosh, associate director of the Centre for Climate Law and Policy at the Australian National University, argues that the groups involved in the campaign dealt themselves out of real influence by agreeing beforehand to whatever emerged in legislation. “From way back they said we will say yes to any sort of carbon pricing — whatever it is, we will support it. That is such an unsophisticated message it is laughable.”

<p>AAP Image/Alan Porritt</p>

AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Former GetUp! national director Simon Sheikh, Australian Conservation Foundation CEO Don Henry, Youth Climate Coalition national director Ellen Sandell, World Wildlife Fund-Australia CEO Dermot O'Gorman and Climate Institute CEO John Connor during a press conference in Canberra, July 11, 2011.

The lack of ambition and modest achievements of the Say Yes campaign are a sign of the environmental times.

The green movement is strong on paper. In terms of political representation, the Australian Greens have gone from strength to strength, albeit not solely because of their environmental advocacy. The groups that came together for the Say Yes campaign claim three million members and supporters, although that includes about 1.8 million union members, who are not necessarily strong environmentalists.

In the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, conducted by university academics, 7.8 per cent of adults said they were members of environmental organisations, which would mean 1.4 million of the current population. Though more rated themselves as passive rather than active members and more still as belonging to “non-protest” rather than “protest” organisations, the figures demonstrate a significant degree of concern about the environment. Many are involved practically through community organisations like Landcare, Clean Up Australia and climate action groups.

The combined annual income of the big four in the environment movement — the Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace, WWF and the Wilderness Society is close to $60 million. Add in other green groups and without even mentioning more broadly based organisations such as GetUp! and the ACTU, you are talking about much larger sums. Between them they have hundreds of staff. All this raises the question of how effectively they marshall this support.

“I don’t see a single federal Coalition MP who is seriously worried about their seat because of climate or other environmental issues. That is the test, isn’t it?”

“The mining industry spent $20 million campaigning against a resources tax and changed the country,” says Richard Denniss, executive director of The Australia Institute. “The Your Rights at Work campaign against John Howard’s Work Choices was a $20 to 30 million campaign. The environment movement could be running something bigger than that every year.”

Although the environment movement is a long way short of matching the resources of the mining industry, Denniss nonetheless has a point.

From the latter stages of the Howard government to the end of 2009 there was bipartisan political support for action on climate change through an emissions trading scheme. It is easy enough to blame Tony Abbott for wrecking the consensus but there was more to it than that.

The people and interest groups challenging climate science, though they include very few experts in the field, have swung public opinion towards them and often have gone unchallenged. At the same time, many indicators of environmental health have declined, including biodiversity and freshwater, marine and forest resources, although at least the rate of deforestation has slowed. Then there is the daddy of them all — rising greenhouse gas emissions.

The 95-page report on Say Yes, undertaken by research firm Think: Insight & Advice, makes clear that an important goal was to raise public support for putting a price on carbon. A March 2011 strategy paper said the purpose of the campaign was to “build and energise the necessary public support for national legislation on pollution and climate change in 2011”. A July 2011 strategy update set a target of increasing support in opinion polls from 39 per cent to 49 per cent by the end of November.

<p>AAP Image/Dean Lewins</p>

AAP Image/Dean Lewins

Sydneysiders gather for a 'Say Yes' rally at Prince Alfred Park, June 5, 2011.

On these yardsticks it failed: according to the Nielsen poll, support for a carbon price fell from 46 per cent to 37 per cent between February and October 2011, while opposition rose from 44 per cent to 59 per cent. Essential Research showed a more favourable trend but still a small fall in net support (those opposing minus those supporting) between March and November 2011.

The report concedes the point, arguing that the campaign’s “primary power was not in delivering new support — although some hoped that it would be — but in demonstrating that support existed among the combined 3 million supporter base of its members”.

Well, you would hope so.

The report goes on to say: “The two biggest criticisms of Say Yes from both inside and outside the coalition were that ‘we were speaking to ourselves’ or that we were speaking only to ‘the politicians in Canberra’.”

Apart from declaring victory, the tone of the study, which involved interviewing 55 people inside and outside the campaign, is often critical, sometimes scathingly so, of what was achieved and how the campaign was conducted.

A particular target is the highest profile event of the campaign — the advertisement in which Cate Blanchett and Michael Caton, among others, spoke out in favour of a price on carbon. Though Blanchett uttered just seven words — “and finally doing something about climate change” — they were turned into a full-blown media controversy. What was supposed to be a strategic leak to the mass circulation Sunday Telegraph and other News Limited Sundays on the day the advertisement screened became a front page story quoting politicians and other critics branding Blanchett as a multi-millionaire out of touch with ordinary Australians struggling with the cost of living.

“The highly charged political environment scared away potential supporters and turned off up to 30 per cent of donors, according to one fundraiser,” says the report. “Potential corporate supporters were the first to take cover when the ‘Carbon Cate’ controversy broke. Not only did they hold back funds but they also withheld critical public support for the campaign out of fear that their brands and reputations might be the next target of News Ltd tabloids and the shock jocks.”

It is easy to be wise after the event but in this case plenty of warnings had been sounded. “Strongly anti-Cate ad,” said an email from Ogilvy, which conducted research for the campaign. That was on April 4, more than six weeks before the ad screened. A policy maker is quoted as saying “we warned that this would be seriously out of touch”. A communication plan drawn up for the campaign and several strategy memos “explicitly stated that the communications should avoid entrenching ‘us versus them’. While Cate is undoubtedly Australian, she is hardly considered ‘one of the crowd’ in Western Sydney.”

The Say Yes slogan and some of the advertising scripts were tested twice in focus groups and they reacted unfavourably on both occasions. “On 20 April external focus groups pan the Say Yes concept as hollow ‘in the absence of information’,” the study records. Despite that it was the theme of the Cate ad, which was shot two weeks later.  In a remarkable indictment, the report concludes: “It is the assessment of this study that the ad was allowed to go ahead against the advice from not one but two research agencies because no one person, or small group, had the organisational authority or personal standing to stop the television shoot from proceeding.”

The take from other focus groups in seats held by independents was that “affordability is a key concern that should be addressed” — a confirmation of earlier research showing it to be the most important issue in people’s minds. Tony Abbott certainly did not miss his cue on this score.

The lack of ambition and modest achievements of the Say Yes campaign are a sign of the environmental times.

Yet the recommendation from Say Yes strategists was that “discussions around structure and cost should be reactive rather than proactive”. Two other research agencies disagreed but were ignored.

What accounts for this rolling series of misjudgments? “Ultimately, it came down to a question of leadership,” says the report. Although it describes the formation of the coalition as having been “a tremendous feat of negotiation”, it seemed to create more problems than it solved: “The effort that went into bringing and keeping such a large and diverse group together meant that there was little energy, or time, for much else.” There was “much more talking than doing”.

Not mentioned in the report is that Christine Milne, then deputy Greens’ leader, vented her frustration over this very point at a meeting with coalition members in December 2010. In what one person present described as a call to arms, she urged environmental groups “to get out there and start campaigning hard”. Even then, nothing much happened until well into the following year.

At pains to come up with some positive outcomes of the campaign, the report points out that the Cate ad generated just over $5 million in free publicity in the week after its release, though conceding that “it is difficult to gauge whether the impact overall was positive or negative”. This surely ranks as the ultimate in masterly understatement.

The report also argues that GetUp! helped force the government back to the negotiating table with the Greens at a crucial juncture. This was when the government was holding out out on concessions demanded by the Greens, and GetUp! sent an email to its supporters, who flooded Julia Gillard with complaints. The Prime Minister’s office was not amused but the point had been made. But this was a GetUp! initiative, rather than part of the Say Yes campaign.

That brings us to the future. While the carbon tax and emissions trading scheme have passed into law, the report concedes that the “victory” may be shortlived, given Tony Abbott’s promise to repeal the tax. This, it says, points to the need for one or more campaigns in the future. The study’s “deliberative debrief group” came up with six potential strategies, including a “backing the tax” campaign to inoculate it against repeal, depoliticising the carbon tax so that it is no longer an election issue and ensuring business insists it stays to secure investment certainty.

<p>AAP Image/Dean Lewins</p>

AAP Image/Dean Lewins

Demonstrators advocating for a price on pollution, Prince Alfred Park, June 5, 2011.

Good luck with all that. With heroic undertones of “if at first you don’t succeed…”, the goals also include increasing community support for action on climate change. Apart from some groups collaborating on a television advertisement to coincide with the introduction of the carbon tax on July 1, nothing much has happened since the report was completed in December last year. “We are still working through the specifics of it,” says the Australian Conservation Foundation’s chief executive officer Don Henry when The Global Mail asks about future campaign plans.

A persistent criticism of the modern environment movement is that it has grown top heavy, bureaucratic and complacent, neglecting grass roots activity in favour of what Americans call inside-the-beltway politics. In the words of one activist, “I am always amazed at how many people are sitting around tables as opposed to delivering the message”. And as one policy maker told the evaluation study: “We were surprised at how poorly the environment movement understands and mobilises its members.” Direct lobbying of politicians has its place but it is much less effective without building public support.

At the national level, the movement has evolved from largely voluntary groups into professional organisations focused on large scale fund-raising and marketing strategies. This inevitably encourages rivalry and is one reason they find it notoriously difficult to pool their resources for campaigns and why, when they do, the campaigns often are ineffective.

Some organisations, including the ACF, have seen periods of low turnover of senior staff. Greenpeace and The Wilderness Society, both with a history of success at grassroots level, have suffered internal problems and a resulting loss of focus over recent years. A split in the Wilderness Society in 2010 saw the departure of Alec Marr, its head for the previous 15 years and it ran up a deficit of almost $1 million in 2009-10. Although it has since returned to surplus, income for last financial year was down 11 per cent to $12.8 million, requiring cuts in staff and other spending. Greenpeace Australia has had three chief executives in three years and saw its income from fundraising fall from $20 million to $16 million between 2008 and 2010. It ran a deficit of over $1 million in both 2010 and 2011, requiring Greenpeace International to bail it out with a loan of $2 million.

It all adds up to a certain staleness in the environmental air.

Part of the problem, according to one political adviser, “is that the environment movement doesn’t quite know how to campaign when Labor is in power because they are so scared of the alternative”.

The ANU’s Andrew Macintosh argues that groups like the ACF and The Wilderness Society lost authority after forming alliances with Labor in the 1980s.

Lyndon Schneiders, national campaign director for the Wilderness Society, says he is happy to work with people across the political spectrum but the gap between the parties has widened. “The Coalition has been far too influenced by the culture wars that have come out of the [United] States — the argument that ‘you need to mobilise your base, so go and beat up greenies’. I am still trying to find ways to have a constructive relationship with them. The difficulty is you go and spend time with the Libs and you might as well be pissing in the wind.”

David Spratt, climate change activist and co-author of Climate Code Red [2008], which argued that global warming had become an emergency requiring urgent action, says that most of the big environmental organisations spend most of their budgets on research, policy, gaining political access and communications and little on actively engaging communities and thereby building serious political power. “My biggest beef with the environment NGOs is that they basically have tried to win the battle without organising people,” he says. “I don’t see a single federal Coalition MP who is seriously worried about their seat because of climate or other environmental issues. That is the test, isn’t it?”

“The 24-hour political cycle makes it incredibly difficult for most people to conceive how they can make a difference. There is massive concern but also a massive sense of disempowerment.”

Spratt is a critic of “brightsiding” — the approach governments and NGOs have adopted in recent years of talking mainly about the positives of climate change, such as a clean energy future and green jobs and playing down the adverse consequences. “For these organisations, the story of climate science and impacts was simply off the agenda and hence also for electors,” he wrote recently. “This was an unfortunate positive feedback loop that reinforced in the media’s and the public’s mind the notion that the climate threat had diminished. It remains the most spectacular own goal in recent years… ”

Daniel Voronoff, a communication specialist and contributor to the Climate Code Red blog site, argued last year: “Imagine the anti-smoking advertisement that fails to mention mouth and lung cancer, telling the smoker they should give up a pleasurable habit of 10 years because, well, they’re certain to feel better. The evidence shows this appeal just doesn’t work.”

The don’t-mention-the-climate-strategy stems from research suggesting people turn off when presented with an unrelentingly negative message. “What is very clear from the research is that we are not going to scare people into action,” says John Connor of the Climate Institute. Perhaps, but how can we expect them to accept a carbon tax and higher electricity prices if we gloss over the real reasons for imposing them? It was Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth — not a positive spin on the issue — that made people all around the world sit up and take notice, many for the first time.

The environmental movement still kicks some goals. There was the recent reversal of federal government permission for a super-trawler to fish in Australian waters — although the scientific, as opposed to political, basis for that decision is open to question. Apart from putting a price on carbon and the $10 billion fund to promote renewables, the ACF’s Henry cites curbing land clearing, the recent declaration of a network of marine national parks over an area “the same size it has taken us 100 years to achieve on land”, putting the Kimberleys on the national heritage list and steps towards saving the Murray River. These are notable achievements but over them looms the spectre of global warming. As Spratt argues, “if you don’t solve the climate issue, all other environmental issues are irrelevant”.

Rachel Siewert, for 15 years head of the Western Australian Conservation Council before becoming a Greens senator in 2005, says there has not been forceful enough national leadership on many issues, with a lack of direction and of co-ordination between groups. “If you look at the climate debate, a lot of them left it largely up to us and to a certain extent the renewable sector to keep it on the agenda.

<p>Parliament of Australia</p>

Parliament of Australia

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert

“At the moment my question is: ‘Where is the outrage from the environment movement over the assault on environmental laws and regulations?’”

Siewert is referring to the main piece of national environmental legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, to which planned reforms would streamline approval processes, in part by handing back power to the states. “It is one example where there needs to be a strong, nationally co-ordinated campaign,” she says. “They have put out a couple of media releases but in the old days they would have been in every [politician’s] door, not just talking to those responsible for the environment.”

There are signs of new thinking that may lead to more effective action. Green groups are applying pressure on superannuation funds to take greater account of risk when considering long-term investments in fossil fuel industries and controversial projects like the planned LNG gas hub at James Price Point. At the grassroots level, Schneiders says The Wilderness Society is looking at new approaches, accepting that, in the day-to-day combat with governments and industry organisations, the environment movement may have lost touch with mainstream Australia. “We need to make sure we are not just having a fight with the elites: we need to bring the broader movement with us.”

In an era where mass environmental protests have faded, he points out that neither side in the climate change debate has been able to generate the kind of groundswell of public opinion that sees people taking to the streets. “The 24-hour political cycle makes it incredibly difficult for most people to conceive how they can make a difference. There is massive concern but also a massive sense of disempowerment.” He claims success with recent attempts to engage his members through suggestions about how best to approach politicians, write letters to the editor and conduct fund raisers.

The Australian Youth Climate Coalition is harnessing its 80,000 signed-up supporters to go beyond the media. “We are really focused on going back to the grass roots and face-to-face engagement with people,” says national director Ellen Sandell. It recently organised an online vote on renewable energy and a “solar walk” in support of a solar thermal station at Port Augusta.

David Ritter was a lawyer specialising in commercial and then native title work before spending five years working for Greenpeace in London. When he returned to Australia in August to become head of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, he was struck by the contrast in attitudes to the environment. For example, David Cameron chose the Greenpeace building to launch Conservative policy on a cleaner, less carbon-dependent energy future. It probably would not be the venue of first choice for an Abbott announcement.

“What accounts for this rolling series of misjudgments? “Ultimately, it came down to a question of leadership,” says the report.”

Ritter worked in London with other major environment and community groups on a campaign to protect the North Sea. “The North Sea is hardly the same as the Great Barrier Reef but then I come back to find the conversation, at least at the surface level, is about how much of the Barrier Reef would it be alright for us to destroy in order to expand coal mining and coal ports in Queensland,” he says.

Ritter talks of bringing Greenpeace in from the cold and, like Schneiders, reaching out to a broader community. “I don’t see the environment as an issue that is separate from the economy or from society,” he says. “We have to talk about what people consider their ways of life being at risk.”

He cites as an example the concern of Australian anglers about the destruction of local fishing stocks by a super-trawler.

“I think we give the environment the best chance when we start from a position that stems from everyday experience, rather than a more top-down approach. Unless you are linking to the way people think and feel about their day-to-day lives and the things that capture people’s imagination, it very quickly becomes an arid policy debate that loses people.”

Ritter says Greenpeace will continue with the direct action policy for which it is best known “where we think it will be effective… If you look at the great social changes that have happened, whether it is women’s suffrage, ending slavery, equal rights or the decolonisation movement, they happen because people are prepared to engage in non-violent direct action.”

But he also is looking to instigate a more pragmatic approach.

In the UK, he worked closely with retail giants Sainsbury’s, Selfridges and Marks and Spencer to change their buying practices. “The entire king tuna industry in the UK converted to more sustainable options within the space of about six months,” he says. “Corporations are legislatively mandated to maximise profits for their shareholders. But a big retail chain like Sainsbury’s have worked out that they can take products out of their supply chain that come from recently deforested land, that have destructive impacts on the ocean and that improve their carbon footprint and that they can improve their bottom line and achieve an amazing improvement in their brand reputation.”

Which leaves the question raised by The Australia Institute’s Richard Deniss early in this article: shouldn’t the environment movement be doing more to combine its resources to tackle a few big priorities, like increasing public support for action on climate change? Ritter says Denniss’ comparison between well-defined economic sectors like business or organised labour and a movement as broad and diverse as that covering the environment is “a bit illusory… But I don’t think anyone could argue with the central proposition that it would be good if we could work together more effectively.”

30 comments on this story
by Anthony Element

All this proves is that the forces of evil, those who would put our planet in danger out of sheer greed, have more money to spend promoting their agendas.

October 17, 2012 @ 8:22pm
by Michael

...Actually, it says those who are supposedly trying to protect the environment are worse at resource allocation than those who don't care...

October 18, 2012 @ 8:41am
by Michael Kieran Harvey

Unlike the simple equation smoking=cancer, (first proved by German scientists in 1937), which the tobacco industry was able to obfuscate for generations, the environment problem is unbelievably complex and does regrettably require half a brain to understand. Cate should not be criticised for being intelligent, nor for being rich enough to get the facts from outside the limited news purview of the Australian media. I myself was so frustrated with the so-called "balanced" coverage of the issue I spent a significant amount (still paying it back!) to attend the Cambridge Darwin conference in 2009 (how can you expect the average Australian to go to this sort of trouble for the truth?). The last session, "Darwin and the Future" saw an overflowing auditorium of sceptical scientists in tears as one by one the predictive graphs trended BELOW what the data was delivering. How Don Henry, Christine Milne, Cate Blanchett et al stay focussed and positive at all is nothing short of miraculous. Being judged successful by the "standards" of the very corporations killing us is NOT the issue. The issue is who do you believe: the Royal Society of Scientists, or Pell, Bolt, Monkton, Abbott, Palmer and all the other sceptics? After all the slanging, the Greens will prevail, but they will be handed a corpse. The Australian public knows this, and far from being apathetic, is just grabbing what it can. Rather similar to the circumstances that reduce civilised peoples to cannibalism.

October 18, 2012 @ 9:10am
by Bro Sheffield-Brotherton

I think what you say Anthony Element is long known and well proven. The issue being explored in this article is the growth of wealthy environment groups more interested in protecting their own brand, and harnessing people as donors/supporters for besuited types to campaign on their behalf rather than promoting grass roots activism. It's ironic that we now have a political party - the Greens - that is exhorting the environment movement (and it's interesting to ask whether that term means anything like what it once did) to get out and campaign on issues. This is an extraordinary reversal of the role of community activism - at least as I have understood it since the modern environment movement began building around 1970

October 18, 2012 @ 9:11am
by Marcus

I concur Anthony. If the environmental movement is so weak & ineffectual, then why do the vested interests of this world spend so much time, money & effort attempting to denigrate it?

October 18, 2012 @ 9:20am
by Emerson

Have you even bothered to read the entire article before commenting? The Say Yes campaign was worth $2 million plus, the combined income of the big 4 environmental organizations was around $60 million, money was was not the issue. The politics and direction and internal weaknesses of the environmental movement is.

What is the point of spending $2 million dollars on a campaign supporting policies that WON'T address climate change, that has as a result of "compensation" given $500 million to the countries biggest polluters? How our time, energy and money is being directed is the problem, not the amount of money being spent.

October 18, 2012 @ 9:30am
by patrick

This was a very thorough and balanced piece. I certainly think there is an element of preaching to the choir with regards to a lot of environmental messaging; it's fascinating the going on the negative has scared the groups off when polluters have been happy to do entertain apopcalyptic visions.

From my own perspective as a PR professional, I'd like to see more press connecting current events to climate change, and broadening the voices advocating for action. Link the QLD floods, the frequency of cyclones etc to climate change. Get an insurance CEO to explain why people's premiums are going up and why insurance co's are factoring it in. Get coastal councils etc. Unfortunately, it's still activists mostly, and that is disconnected from the public's broader experience.

October 18, 2012 @ 9:59am
by Budovski

It's a complex scenario but the answers are really quite simple. The carbon tax is not such a bad idea, but the ETS is sheer stupidity. A system that delivers zero cuts in Australia's total carbon emissions is worthless. Handing money to derivatives traders or to 3rd world countries with rife corruption to magic away emissions will not deliver real and measurable cuts.

So in short, marketing an overly complex, inefficient and convoluted system was never going to work, people simply are not that stupid. The government could have achieved real cuts by taxing carbon at a low rate ($8 a tonne with NO exemptions or free permits) and using 100% of the revenue to reinvest in renewable energy, household energy efficient improvements and reforestation. The government instead has given coal energy producers a chance to increase their prices (with zero justification) and blame the government for every subsequent price increase.

Sad to say but the Australian Greens have far too many neo-liberal market evangelists in their ranks to understand that 'market solutions' are fanciful delusions and what we actual need is 'practical solutions'.

October 18, 2012 @ 10:04am
by Leslie Richmond

The real "victory" of the Say Yes campaign and its organising mafia was that it managed to effectively gut and demobilise a developing, independent national climate action network comprised of local, grass roots groups. These groups had been working hard organising rallies, actions, forums, conferences and community and union education sessions, trying to get across the seriousness of the crisis as well as the real possibilities and opportunities for change. They had a focus on needing to win the community on the ground rather than talk to politicians, and that the science of climate change, rather than political expediency, should dictate the solutions. They played a significant role in pressuring the Greens to stick to their policy and oppose the CPRS.

Over years of campaigning, we saw virtually no material or organisational support from the environmental NGOs or the Greens. What we did see plenty of was the ENGOs trying to control and dictate the nature of the movement, denigrating us as amateurs, sidelining us in the media, and purporting to speak for the movement when they were effectively AWOL on the ground and promoting policies that were rejected outright by thousands of activists who were doing the actual hard work.

The hijacking by Say Yes of what were originally intended to be large climate action rallies, their dumbing down of the issues, and the pouring in of resources that just couldn't be countered by the grass roots groups to turn the rallies into cheer squads for the ETS (to the point of organisers trying to prevent climate action groups displaying placards or handing out flyers that weren't "on message") swamped a lot of the work we had been doing. In the wake of the Say Yes campaign, it became harder to convince people of the need for other ongoing activity, or other solutions, or to not rely on politicians. Now we have an even less concerned citizenry, and many more demoralised activists. With one ill-conceived campaign we have been set back years

Some groups have managed to keep going and find new avenues to keep campaigning with their original focus, such as Climate Emergency Action Network SA, who have been central to the Repower Port Augusta campaign to get large scale Solar Thermal to replace the aging coal-powered stations (a campaign in which most ENGOs and the Greens have been as absent as ever). But many have wound down or been severely curtailed, trying to rebuild their activity and base in a less receptive environment.

So the ENGOs and their mates got their victory. Much as Stalin secured the victory of the revolution by executing all the actual revolutionaries.

October 18, 2012 @ 10:45am
by Geoff Mosley

The Australian Conservation Foundation has decided to oppose any expansion of Australia's coal export and to work for its complete phasing out.

October 18, 2012 @ 11:42am
by Christian Bell

Things may not be as bleak as they appear, I think the article is not bad reflection on 2011, Australian's have cut back on their use of power domestically.. Energy companies are not keen to build new fossil fuel generators and are complaining about the success of the renewable energy sector. Unstable weather in many parts of the planet has lead to a shift amongst climate skeptics from its not happening at all, to its not going to be as bad as some people say.

October 18, 2012 @ 11:46am
by Richard Stern

Agree completely with Leslie Richmond, above. Environmentalist groups had better outcomes before the formation of the Greens, whose interest is too broadly socialist. That's to be expected when you look at the makeup of the leadership. They've sucked the air out of the small-g green debate, and with the departure of Bob Brown that becomes more obvious every month. I'm afraid every time Christine Milne or other national Green leaders appear another point of support for the environment is lost. Leslie Richmond's reference to Stalin is apt.

October 18, 2012 @ 1:03pm
by Leslie Richmond

Unfortunately, Richard, I think we're coming at this from opposite sides. I'm actually a socialist, and my major problem with the Greens is that they are decidedly not. Most of their their leadership are completely won to capitalism and operating within a market framework and are concertedly parliamentarist, which is increasingly enforcing a consevative liberal character on the party and divorcing them from their activist origins and membership and from any organic connection to social movements. They are on the same trajectory as the Irish Greens - and the German Greens before them - to becoming part of the system rather than a challenge to it.

And I'm afraid that, contrary to your position, my take is that Bob Brown was and is the key architect and driver of this creeping conservatism that will doom the party to irrelevance or opprobium if left unchecked. His grouping are behind the push to shift policy and decision making power from the membership to the parliamentary wing and consolidate the party aparatus around the MPs, and most of the federal and state MPs are there with their express approval and patronage, particularly Christine Milne.

The Greens' contemporary insistence on being in the game, of trying to appeal to the centre and to be seen as respectable and responsible within the faux construct of parliamentary politics is what is going lose support for them and the environment.

There is some good observation and analysis of the current dynamic and developements within the Greens over on Left Flank:

"The Greens after Bob Brown: ‘Replacing the bastards’ or just joining them?"
http://left-flank.org/2012/04/17/the-greens-after-bob-brown-replacing-the-bastards-or-just-joining-them/

"Trapped by orthodoxy: The Greens and the myths of the market"
http://left-flank.org/2012/08/17/trapped-by-orthodoxy-the-greens-and-the-myths-of-the-market/

"Australia’s ‘Left’ in government. Part 2: Greens trapped in a prison of their own making"
http://left-flank.org/2011/09/15/australias-left-in-government-part-2-greens-trapped-in-a-prison-of-their-own-making/

October 18, 2012 @ 3:44pm
by A. Cowie

Mike Steketee, you're writing for this online paper too.? Good news. Write more, please.

October 18, 2012 @ 3:52pm
by J Press

Interesting that virtually all comment is in favour of action on climate ... the argument is about what action. In my view, the only hope of real change must come from a government that leads on the issue. The perhaps-flawed but best hope of that is through the Greens. May I suggest that those who believe that the Greens need to do a better job get inside the party and show it how.

October 18, 2012 @ 4:03pm
by azurekingfisher

My political analysis is winging its way to my social network.

October 18, 2012 @ 5:14pm
by D

Thanks so much for this much-needed article.

October 18, 2012 @ 6:31pm
by Michael O'Connell

If you want to see the outrage and current grassroots organizing
check out www.bimbleboxdocumentary.com includes free online streaming links for the film.

October 19, 2012 @ 4:36am
by Norry

The climate has been changing on this planet since time began .To blame it on carbon, as in the breathing of every human, animal and plant species on earth is a total nonsense. Another guilt trip imposed on society by well meaning but misguided folk. This is a distraction from the real problems of pollution , the soil will grow plants (food) more virulently with an increase of both carbon and temperature .
The greens will exit politics in a big way next election, is my prediction. People I speak with voted for the greens out of frustration only, but the ensuing stalemates in the political process since, has galvanized people into voting for a definite result, where one party can actually instigate their policies without having to buy votes from independents and the greens.

October 19, 2012 @ 4:51am
by Colin

A great and timely article. Part of the problem, as this article hints, is that as the Environmental NGOs got a measure of success, became professional and started getting access to the corridors of power, many of them became caught up in achieving practical compromises with Government. This leaves nobody out there really championing the much stronger protection the environment needs, with the erosion in public support compounding the problem.

October 19, 2012 @ 11:37am
by George V

Of course, after the next election we will return to some sanity. The new government will make decisions based on evidence, not wild predictions of temperature increases and climate catastrophe, and misrepresented data. As the majority will elect it to, it will not waste taxpayers money on useless schemes that attempt to address a problem that is in question with remedies that have no effect on temperatures. This is what you should be writing about Mike. The democracy has no interest in alarmism.

October 19, 2012 @ 5:04pm
by Colin Reynolds

@Norry "The climate has been changing on this planet since time began " well, duh. The point is that it's now changing far faster than it has done for some considerable millennia, and it's as a result of our interference. Please get informed, and stop spreading misinformation.

October 19, 2012 @ 8:36pm
by Climate Action Campainer

The Yes campaign provided me and 30 other community activists with training and practice lobbying Federal politicians...not just about the carbon tax but about how money from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation should be used to help finance large scale renewable energy. This is the most useful contribution the large Envronmental NGOs have made to my work as an unpaid grass roots climate change organiser.

October 19, 2012 @ 9:15pm
by Frosty

Great article and very good points made. I agree with it pretty much and particularly comments made by Leslie Richmond.

I listened to the Radio National Breakfast interview on this topic and I was impressed but at the same time disgusted by Lyndon Schneider's professionalism in regard of his ability to deflect the light being shone on large ENGO's failure on Climate Change to date. I was well unimpressed with the excuses he made.

I certainly take exception to the idea mentioned that mass protest has failed to make an impact. Firstly, there was never enough of a 'mass' to make an impact and secondly, it was not sustained over a long enough time and thirdly, it certainly wasn't serious enough to make politicians shit themselves.

It seems that large environmental NGO's are obssessed with underwhelming 'baby step' action on Climate Change and supporting political parties and governments who think they can take underwhelming 'baby step' action on it and still maintain business as usual. Real action on Climate Change and 'business and politics as usual' are two fundamentally opposed paradigms and I would argue that both 'business and politics as usual' are a major part of the problem.

Essentially, the environment (and climate) movement has been gutted by the actions of larger ENGO's to the point where infiltration by government directed ASIO agents couldn't have gotten a better result. They have most certainly lost touch with the grassroots, just as politics in general has lost touch with its grassroots and the desires and needs of the community at large.

It's a shame really. There's plenty of smart people in these large ENGO's but they've become part of the problem and not part of the solution, taking an almost 'Quisling' point of view regarding government action to date on Climate Change.

Essentially all that's been achieved by the government with the support of large ENGO's is to put the general public back to sleep in a hypnosis like state - 'don't worry about Climate Change, sssssssss.... we've got it ALL under control, sssssss...., go back to sleep, ssssss....'. I guess that's precisely what the government and big business wanted.

Well, enough of being 'battered wives' in this relationship, there is still time though to take the monster Minotaur by the horns and put much more focus now on Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA) campaigning and mass civil disobedience. Hmmm, 60 million certainly would go along way toward financing some NVDA and civil disobedience.

I remember filling out a questionaire sent to me by the ACF a year or so ago. I basically said 'when I see Don Henry and Ian Lowe locking on to a coal-fired power station, then I'll donate or sign up to ACF'. Essentially, I told ACF to go stuff themselves until they get real.

October 19, 2012 @ 10:04pm
by Norry

@Colin Reynolds. Disinformation Col ? Would like to see your source of info regarding that "considerable millennia" (a millennia.1000 years) you speak of.
And speaking of a thousand years, here's a simple one for you Col. Greenland (GREEN Land) “Roots of plants and deep Viking graves found in South Greenland in soil that is now tjaele (permafrost or permanently frozen ground) indicate that the annual mean temperature must have been 2-4°C warmer than now.”

Source: Knud Frydendahl, “The summer Climate in the North Atlantic about the Year 1000″ in Viking Voyages to North America, Birthe L. Clausen (Denmark: Kannike Tryk A/S, 1993), 90-94.

October 20, 2012 @ 8:24am
by ghl

"I don’t see a single federal Coalition MP who is seriously worried about their seat because of climate or other environmental issues. That is the test, isn’t it?"
Labor, on the other hand, are petrified at the public's justified reaction to their dishonesty.
No warming in 16 years, the panic has lost its bite.

October 20, 2012 @ 7:46pm
by What the !

As Spratt argues, “if you don’t solve the climate issue, all other environmental issues are irrelevant”

Henry David Thoreau mentioned the same thing "what use a house of you have no planet to put it on" 100's of years ago.

Unfortunately the Dunning–Kruger Effect has won the day here and there isn't any hope. ( I need to meet Mr Spratt and shake his hand :) One only has to look to comments in here like saying "Greenland, was green", it just goes to show how much the problem is not understood at all. The Scientists will eventually win the day but by then a few Billion will have been killed and and we, the ones that caused it, will be "ashes to ashes". The Planet won't care, but future human generatiosn will. The environmental groups are as equally to blame, I call them anti-conservation groups, because they seem to be doing their darndest to kill the biosphere as well.

October 21, 2012 @ 4:46pm
Show previous 27 comments
by JR

Any cause is going to be fighting an uphill battle if the mass media is not sympathetic, or worse, is actively hostile.

October 23, 2012 @ 6:13am
by Andy Parnell

As someone who was once an avid supporter of Greenpeace (and still am internationally) the article rings too many truths. Greenpeace Australia, should of learnt, from its UK counterparts to develop a large grassroots Active Supporter Network. When I came back to Australia, I found, much to my dismay, that there was little to no support for such activity. There is very much a Sydney centric emphasis as if the rest of the country, doesn't exist. That's why the Sea Shepard entity, has such a strong supporter base in Western Australia, the other groups, have ignored it other than fundraising. Until the Green NGOs, develop beyond a financial supporter base, their power will remain, in the handfuls of staff they have to work (and that means, say, 40 staff instead of 2000 Active Supporters in energy). When the real power, is mobilising their supporter base, through active supporter groups, working together, across the whole of Australia. If that were to occur, Australia's Environmental Groups, would have corporations, hiring thousands more PR firms, to protect them. That said, Gunns was the biggest Scalp of the Century...and credit where its due, the campaign in Tassie, did help in its demise.

October 27, 2012 @ 11:45am
by Jenny Stirling

Rudd never asked the Greens to support his ETS. Gillard asked for co-operation with the Greens and independent MPs: Garnaut came up with the carbon tax, an idea he had flagged at a forum in Townsville prior to the 2010 election. That agreement allowed for a shift from a carbon tax to an ETS in 2014. My point is that this outcomes was the result of tens of thousands of hours of activism by people in the environmental community.

November 12, 2013 @ 4:44pm
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