Getting the sack could prove a blessing in disguise for the Climate Commission, which might operate more effectively now it is out of the government’s tent.

One of the Abbott government’s first actions was to axe the commission, set up by Labor to educate the public on climate change. The commission has been reborn as the Climate Council and is now funded by public donations. It had raised $420,000 from 8500 donors as of 9am today (the website only opened to donations 33 hours previously). This should fund the Climate Council for at least six months, probably longer.

So it’s a goer financially. And here’s why going it alone from government might help the former commission.

The Climate Commission, led by Tim Flannery with help from climate science heavy-hitters Will Steffen, David Karoly and Andy Pitman, had a hybrid role. It was set up “to provide all Australians with an independent and reliable source of information” on climate change. Here are two snippets from its terms of reference:

“The Commission will not comment on policy matters nor provide policy advice or recommendations.

“The Commission will provide information and expert advice to … explain the purpose and operation of a carbon price and how it may interact with the Australian economy and communities.”

So it was explicitly not supposed to comment on policy, while focusing on the carbon price. This created a grey area, where some commissioners (see them here), and some sections of the commission’s reports, did veer into policy.

Had the Abbott government maintained the Climate Commission and provided all its funding, the commission might have struggled to know what to say. Much of the commission’s work focused on the need for significant cuts to emissions (Flannery says the science shows Australia should cut emissions by more than 5% by 2020, which is the bipartisan target), plus the global extent and domestic ramifications of carbon pricing. The commission might have been hampered in articulating that message while Prime Minister Tony Abbott was paying its bills. It might have ended up either muzzled or clashing with the government in a way that frustrated its core task of knowledge broker to the public.

Now the Climate Council is free of government shackles. It can say what it likes, although its website insists it is “fiercely independent and apolitical” and “our mission is to provide authoritative, expert advice …”.

Environmental NGO veteran Alec Marr says the ex-commission might now be better off. “Any body that’s set up separate to government funding, so there is no government influence on the advice given, is a good thing,” Marr, who headed up The Wilderness Society for 15 years, told Crikey.

“I think it would be a mistake … if it merged into the NGO activist sector.”

Peter Christoff, associate professor of climate policy at Melbourne University, says there are positives. “It has the benefit of being freer to speak on critical issues,” he told Crikey. But there are downsides: “It will be more insecure financially … and it loses the authority of being directly associated with government. It’s more easily marginalised as a partisan voice.”

Christoff has a point; the council will likely have less access to, and sway over, government. Meetings with ministers will be harder to arrange, and messages more easily dismissed. But would Tony Abbott have paid much heed to the Climate Commission’s advice if he had kept it on?

The council is an experiment in environmental NGOs: a crowdfunded body that sees itself as a science clearing house, rather than an advocate for action. Will this experiment work in practice?

The money’s there, at least for now. The commission’s budget was about $1.35 million a year, which included salaries paid to some commissioners. They have all pledged to work with the council for free (initially, at least), so the council’s budget should be under $1 million a year. A spokeswoman says the council has no budget and no funding target yet. Money will be needed to hire a “small team of staff”, print reports and cover overheads — not hugely expensive. A key question is whether universities will make significant in-kind donations to the council by giving scientists time to do the council’s work. Unis are considering this now. Melbourne University has been considering picking up the Climate Commission / Council and running it out of the uni (the fact it was to be abolished has been known for some time).

Other environmental NGOs are raising much more than the council’s budget, largely through crowdsourcing and membership fees. The Australian Conservation Foundation’s income for 2011-12 was $12.7 million. The Wilderness Society earned $13.8 million that year. The Climate Institute earned $3.4 million. But while there are significant funds for environmental NGOs available in Australia, the council is competing with long-established organisations with distinctive, tried-and-true marketing strategies (photos of furry animals, etc).

And how the new council funds itself past the honeymoon could be tricky. It has not yet accepted any donations from companies and corporates, although it appears to be leaving the door open (Flannery stresses all donations are “no strings attached”. Most environmental NGOs allow donations from some corporates). “There is a problem as to what the source of the funding will be,” Christoff said of the council, adding that any source of funding brought obligations and could devalue the council’s authority.

“Where’s the money coming from — Rio Tinto?” Marr said when asked about this by Crikey. “If they [the council] end up simply taking money and greenwashing what the big energy-users want to do, then it’s a big problem.” However, upon reflection he added that he thought it very unlikely the council would accept corporate donations that were ethically questionable.

Another challenge for the Climate Council will be how it creates a distinctive niche in the array of environmental bodies (government and non-government). Climate information is available from the Bureau of Meteorology, the CSIRO and universities, and there are any number of NGOs that advocate for stronger action on climate change.

Brendan Gleeson, director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, sees a gap the council could fill. “We need an authoritative and fluent, independent source of advice on climate change,” he said. “I think it would be a mistake … if it merged into the NGO activist sector.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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