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Influential Australian climate think tank closes

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—Crippled by a lack of funding, one of Australia’s first and most influential climate change organizations will shutter in June, 12 years after its founding, the organization announced this week.

After a major longtime donor discontinued its support, the Sydney, Australia–based Climate Institute failed to find sufficient backing to replace those funds, says CEO John Connor. With a recent shift in political winds toward fossil fuels, potential donors were reluctant to back what they viewed as a losing battle, he says. “History is made by those who turn up, and you have to be in there,” he says. “But unfortunately others with sufficient dollars didn’t concur.”

The dissolution of the independent, nonpartisan institute, which used a mix of research and advocacy to encourage solutions in the public and private sector, will leave a significant gap in the climate change community, other climate advocates say. Since its founding in 2005, the institute played a leading role in shaping Australia’s climate policy. It successfully pushed for expanding Australia’s federal renewable energy target in 2008, helped shepherd a carbon pricing scheme through Parliament in 2011 and aided private businesses in reducing their emissions. It also oversaw the longest-running survey of public attitudes toward climate change in Australia. The institute’s influence reached beyond Australia: When China decided to pursue its own carbon pricing initiative, it used the scheme that the institute helped create as a template, Connor says.

“The Climate Institute has been a really valuable part of the movement in Australia, and it’s had a really big impact on the debate here,” says Amanda McKenzie, CEO of the Climate Council of Australia in Sydney, an independent nonprofit group comprised of climate experts.

Climate advocates have encountered major headwinds and uncertainty in recent years amid a tug-of-war for power between political parties. Under the current Liberal-dominated government, led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, some conservatives have moved to stymie climate change efforts and steer the country back toward fossil fuels. (In Australia, the Liberal Party is the conservative party.)

“It’s been a roller coaster ride,” Connor says. “We’ve made major gains and then major reversals. I think those toxic politics have put off the nonprofit community and affected what they do, and supporting groups like ours wasn’t smiled upon.”

In the months leading up to the institute’s decision to close, the Turnbull administration retreated from a proposal to revive the carbon pricing scheme, which was repealed in 2014. “That certainly was another reason for some potential funders to say, ‘Why would we support advocacy when there’s such stupidity going on in the political sphere?’”

But part of the challenge may also have been that unlike in the United States, Australia has few philanthropic organizations, and a mushrooming of climate organizations over the past decade means there’s more competition for funding today than when The Climate Institute opened its doors more than a decade ago, others in the nongovernmental organization community say.

Connor says he’s hopeful that other groups will carry on some of The Climate Institute’s work. “When we were set up we were the only organization specifically focused on climate. Now there are several others, and hopefully that void will be filled.”