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Pragmatism vs Idealism? Behind the division between environmental groups and the Greens over the safeguard mechanism


Old tensions arose between Green groups on the way to the hard-fought Labor-Greens deal on the industrial emissions policy safeguard mechanism.

At the height of the negotiations, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) started. lobbying the Greens to accept a deal. Greens Senator Nick McKim accused the ACF of undermining the Greens’ negotiating strategy and ultimately the legislative outcome, saying:

The environmental and climate movement must collectively join forces. There is an urgent need for a new model of change and the clock is ticking loudly.

These splits are not uncommon, especially when there is a rare opportunity to actually improve environmental protection.

But why don’t Australian environmental groups agree on reform?

Greens senator Nick McKim recently exposed tensions in the environmental movement.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Who is actually part of the Australian environmental movement?

In the late nineteenth century, the nascent green movement was led by naturalists, bushwalkers, adventurers, and government-appointed botanists. They led the first campaigns for national parks and the wise use of resources, especially forestry.

As urban pollution problems escalated in the next century, other reformers campaigned for better living conditions. We have forgotten it now, but it was not so long ago that our great rivers were filled with waste from tanneries and slaughterhouses and hazardous chemical waste. Epidemics of diphtheria, scarlet fever and typhus spread through growing cities like Melbourne and Sydney.

As development intensified after World War II, popular environmental campaigns focused on unsustainable resource extraction or destructive forms of development such as sand extraction on Stradbroke Island/Minjerribah and proposed uranium mining in Kakadu. The Greens emerged as a political force of Tasmanian battles, such as the plan to dam the pristine Franklin River.

Historically, environmentalists belonged to the professional class. The “social base” of the movement consists of people with a lot of formal education and jobs, such as lawyers, doctors, scientists, civil servants and teachers. And nowadays environmental campaigning itself is a profession.

Many people in the environmental movement are conservative on both counts, wanting to preserve nature as well as maintain current patterns of wealth and privilege. Other environmentalists are progressive, linking concern for the environment with a commitment to social justice and reconciliation. There have also been attempts at green union work, such as the Green forbidden used in conflicts over the development of Sydney in the 1970s.

sand mine at Stradbroke
Sand mining on Stradbroke Island did not stop until 2019.
Dave Hunt/AAP

Pricing carbon, dividing green groups

The green movement is now split twice over carbon prices.

In 2009, a group of Australia’s largest environmental groups, including the ACF and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, formed a coalition to try and influence the Rudd government’s carbon pollution reduction program.

Prior to the parliamentary debate, these groups spoke out in favor of the scheme. They saw the problem as a trade-off. The movement would agree to lower targets and weaker carbon market rules in exchange for getting a carbon regulation framework in place. Something was better than nothing, they reasoned.

But this led to a difficult split. While the largest environmental groups supported the government’s reforms, medium-sized organizations such as Greenpeace supported them do not agree with, as well as groups like GetUp!, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, Friends of the Earth and more. They did not want to settle for what they saw as a weak carbon target and weak carbon market rules.

At the time, the Greens stated that the plan was “worse than doing nothing”.

Read more: Labour’s plan to cut industrial emissions is worryingly flexible

Sounds familiar? We’ve seen a version of this in the 2023 safeguard mechanism debate. A Labor government, a proposal to cut emissions, criticism from environmental groups of the plan’s weakness, a push from the Greens for much more, and a split in the movement.

As in 2009, larger environmental groups such as ACF took a pragmatic approach: take what you can get. This is what the Greens have seen as betrayal – and worse, undermining their ability to make a better deal. But there’s more going on. The groups that supported the 2009 carbon market reforms have historically been close to Labor or to both major parties.

For their part, the Greens point to their best ever democratic mandate as proof of their right to negotiate a stronger deal on behalf of the movement.

Kelly O'Shanassy ACF
Major environmental groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation supported Labor’s climate reforms in 2009 and 2023. Pictured is ACF CEO Kelly O’Shanassy in 2018.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Disputes are more about strategy than ideology

In their excellent history from the Australian environmental movement, Greens activists Drew Hutton and Libby Connors show that the most heated battles are more about short-term and long-term strategy than ideology or political persuasion.

We see this in the carbon price debate. Since 2011, green groups have been involved in the debate on the design of carbon market tools. But the economic ideology of solving climate change with market mechanisms is not the main point of discussion between groups.

While ideology and political beliefs certainly dictate the situation, most are green campaigners identify as pragmatists who simply want the best possible climate result.

Today, the broader movement is less torn apart by the carbon price debates. But strategic tensions between groups like the ACF and the Greens remain.

Are these tensions constructive or not?

The current model of the environmental movement is pluralistic, meaning conservative and progressive campaigners can usually work side by side. They avoid tensions by focusing on different areas. The environmental movement is opposed to climate change three different arenas: negotiating expansion of renewable energy markets, opposition to fossil fuel expansion and climate policy.

But when a rare opportunity for large-scale reform presents itself, these differences can no longer be avoided.

Larger groups such as ACF and their associated experts are clearly pinning their hopes on slow, steady improvements to carbon market regulation over time. In contrast, the Greens and their younger, action-oriented supporters have tried hard to enshrine hard rules in law rather than rules, which are easier to change.

So what’s the solution?

While these groups sometimes form coalitions or dissolve around specific debates, it is quite ad hoc. In contrast, the long-established trade union movement addresses frequent ideological, factional and personal disagreements through caucusing (forming alliances and committees among like-minded people) to influence open debate on movement policy.

As green groups negotiate strategy more formally and openly, there may be room to become more ambitious.

After all, green groups have a lot in common. All too often, each group fights alone, when perhaps they are stronger together.

Read more: Australia’s safeguard mechanism deal is only half a victory for the Greens and for the climate

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