In the context of Australia’s struggling climate movement, the achievements of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) have been significant.
When the Murdoch press would rather report Lord Munckton’s denialist nonsense, a group that connects more than 70,000 young Australians to raise awareness and combat climate change is commendable.
However, AYCC’s politics are not without problems.
AYCC has proven effective in its strategy of appealing to young people, but the way it engages young people in discussions around climate change often lacks depth in political and economic analysis.
This was apparent at the recent Powershift conference, which I attended along with 1000 other young Australians.
At the conference, the tone was upbeat and focused on delivering empowering messages of campaigning success. But this came at the expense of fronting up to the hard facts of the fossil fuel industry’s monopoly within a profit-based system, and the “revolving door” between polluting corporations and government.
Another concern about AYCC’s politics is its assumption of an “apolitical” stance.
On the surface, this is meant to assert the group’s independence from political parties. But to say AYCC is “apoliticial” is still a naive position, which obscures the way any movement is grounded in politics and can often be a way of disguising a conservative agenda with progressive rhetoric.
The AYCC’s apolitical stance was also tarnished given the Australian government’s Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency was one of the principal partners of the recent Powershift conference.
In an article in the September issue of The Monthly, Guy Pearse unearthed how many big Australian climate NGOs, including AYCC, rely on funding from sources that strongly favour market-based solutions to climate change.
The “Purves Environmental Fund and the Poola Foundation … bankroll most of Australia’s best known environment groups,” Pearce said.
AYCC has played down the influence of this funding on its campaigns. But other instances, such as AYCC’s acceptance of funds from Westpac for the 2009 Powershift conference, are hard to dismiss.
Westpac is the largest shareholder in BHP Billiton, the word’s biggest mining company and second biggest coal exporter.
Important in this debate is to understand that whether or not these funding sources directly influence AYCC’s position, accepting this money compromises AYCC’s politics and limits its ability to ask more fundamental questions.
This problem is evident in its new Repower Australia campaign.
The campaign aims to make sure the $10 billion newly available from the Labor government’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation is actually spent on renewable energy and not so-called cleaner fossil fuels, such as “clean” coal and coal seam gas.
Of course, this is an important matter: the money should be spent on producing zero emissions energy.
The renewable energy industry in Australia needs as much support as possible, especially because it faces stiff competition from a booming gas industry backed by Liberal and Labor governments.
However, the one-off investment of $10 billion into a finance corporation has to be put into context.
The government is currently subsidising the fossil fuel industry at $12.2 billion a year, a single $10 billion fund for renewables is not particularly impressive.
Likewise, Australia’s military spending — the armed forces is a huge emitter of greenhouse gas — is now at $26 billion a year.
None of this was openly discussed at the conference, and the specific issue of coal seam gas, potentially the biggest threat to Australia’s environment and future, was barely discussed.
The Repower Australia campaign represents a troubling sign for the climate movement.
While the big environment NGOs’ “Say Yes” campaign in favour of the Labor/Greens carbon trading scheme has dominated the climate movement for the past few years, the explicit position was generally that, once the legislation was passed, the movement would start to get the front foot again.
Most of those who ran the “Say Yes” campaign said the carbon price was very far from what is needed, but that the climate movement needed a win, however small, before it could get back on its feet.
The Repower Australia campaign shows the back foot politics of the “Say Yes” movement is here to stay, even after the debates on the carbon price.
A campaign with the key demand that the government simply keeps its own inadequate promises is not enough if we are to make the kind of drastic changes Australia needs.