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Change and charity

13 February 2020 at 8:12 am
David Ritter
The beauty of our shared charity is not going to be enough in the face of the fires – it is only through advocacy that we can prevent the fires of the future, writes Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO David Ritter.

David Ritter | 13 February 2020 at 8:12 am


Change and charity
13 February 2020 at 8:12 am

The beauty of our shared charity is not going to be enough in the face of the fires – it is only through advocacy that we can prevent the fires of the future, writes Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO David Ritter.

If you want a few minutes of sunshine and to be reminded of the very best in human nature, just check out some of the wonderful instances of kindness and generosity that have followed our unprecedented summer of catastrophic fires.

As the Guardian described, these are the “beautiful gestures: the good news stories coming out of Australia’s bushfires”, as our compassion and community spirit have been enlivened by the suffering and disaster. 

Many of us have responded to the plight of our fellow citizens and creatures with charitable gifts of money. Reflecting on the outpouring of financial generosity, Krystian Siebert, writing for Pro Bono News, noted that

“Giving is also an act of community. Community is about the bonds that hold us together, and can exist on multiple levels. When we make a donation, it helps address our feeling of powerlessness, and it helps make a difference ‘on the ground’. Giving is sharing, and sharing is perhaps the ultimate act of community.” 

These are sentiments that define us, as people, in times of crisis. We pull together, we look after one another, we dig deep. 

Sadly though, the beauty of our shared charity is not going to be enough in the face of the fires. Scientists and experts have been warning for years that climate change would generate catastrophic fire conditions. These will worsen, year on year, unless we can rapidly reduce the carbon emissions that are the cause of global warming. And the burning of coal, oil and gas are the greatest sources of the emissions that are driving the climate emergency of which this summer’s fire disaster is symptomatic. 

Seen in this light, some acts of “charity”, look rather more suspect.  Take Chevron, for example. The company donated $1 million to bushfire relief – but given that it is the second highest source of carbon emissions globally, the gift could hardly be more cynical. It has also been pointed out that Chevron’s alleged “generosity” was perhaps not so much, given that the company:

“earned about $15 billion in 2018. So a $1 million donation amounts to about .00667 of its yearly earnings. To the average American, that donation would amount to about $3.96.”

Then there’s the Business Council of Australia, memorably belled by Crikey’s politics editor Bernard Keane as “one of Australia’s most toxic denialist lobby groups”. The BCA decided to create a (presumably fully tax-deductible) trust fund for, among other things, orphans of firefighters killed in action. 

Australian policy makers have long understood the connection between carbon emissions and increasingly catastrophic fire conditions, but this awareness has not stopped the BCA from opposing effective emissions reduction. Now the BCA claim it wants to support the children of volunteers who have died fighting bushfires – the very fires aggravated by global warming. Perhaps it is intended as an act of atonement.

Bushfire “charity” from big polluters and their lobbyists is best understood as a business tactic to try and defend the status quo when, in truth, business as usual is the one thing that must change if we are to avoid a future of fire.  

According to the UN IPCC limiting global warming to 1.5°C will require rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. In other words, if we want to stop the even-worse fires of the future, we need systemic change. 

Fortunately, charity can also be dedicated towards transforming the status quo, through supporting change-driving activities such as activism, campaigning, lobbying, litigation and advocacy. As Philanthropy Australia says: 

“Funding policy advocacy involves working to achieve change in a particular cause area by seeking to influence public policy – including laws, regulations and government practices. It can be a very effective way to address the complex social and environmental challenges we confront.”

Coal is Australia’s biggest domestic driver of climate change. Coal burning power stations contributed almost 30 per cent of Australia’s total domestic CO2e emissions in the year ended June 2018 – far greater than any other single sector.*  We are also the world’s largest coal exporter. When exported and domestic emissions are combined, Australia ranks fifth in the world for carbon dioxide emissions from all extractive fossil industries.

According to separate studies by UTS Sydney and the ANU, the policy and technical solutions now exist for Australia to affordably and fairly shift to 100 per cent clean energy electricity generation within a decade or so. And we know from recent polling that a majority of Australians want action on climate change at the same speed and scale as if we were mobilising for a world war.

The critical barrier to achieving rapid changes is not public sentiment or the availability of technical and policy solutions, but vested interests: the “blocking” influence that the fossil fuel mining and big polluters has over Australian political and corporate decision makers. And philanthropy has a huge role to play in supporting the drive for change.

It is only through advocacy that we can prevent the fires of the future – and instead reorient our nation in the direction of wise stewardship and true prosperity.


*This figure is a calculation from the Clean Energy Regulator corporate emissions and energy data 2017–18 and the Department of Environment and Energy Quarterly Update of Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory: June 2018.


UPDATE: Since this article was written, the BCA has come out in support of Independent member for Warringah Zali Steggall’s Climate Change Bill. Steggall’s bill shows once again we are seeing the sort of bold climate leadership this country needs from outside of Prime Minister Morrison’s office. It is a welcome change from the BCA, however, the federal response to climate change continues to be dragged down by the dead hand of the coal lobby, which has far too much influence on Australian politics.

David Ritter  |  @ProBonoNews

David Ritter is the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

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