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.