Loved by the crowd, but will the new Climate Council be truly independent?

Former Chief Climate Commissioner Tim Flannery with a solar array at the University of Queensland’s St Lucia campus in 2011. AAP/Dave Hunt

The newly-formed Climate Council has been swamped with A$160,000 in donations and so many followers that its Twitter account has been repeatedly suspended.

But experts warn that concerns about its independence may dog the new body, which will replace the Climate Commission, set up by the Gillard government and axed by the Coalition last Thursday, in its first week in power.

The news broke on social media last night that all of the former Climate Commissioners - including conservationist Professor Tim Flannery, climate expert Professor Will Steffen and former president of BP Australasia - would work for free to set up a new crowdfunded organisation to provide clear public advice on climate science.

Having crowdfunded A$160,000 from 5,400 founding donors between midnight last night and around 1pm today, the new council is now aiming to raise A$500,000 by the end of the week.

It has also put out an appeal for people with scientific research and report writing, design, photography and crowdfunding experience.

“No one’s really done this before”

Following the Climate Council’s launch in Sydney, Professor Flannery told The Conversation that the former Climate Commission “received a tidal wave of support saying how valuable our work was and how people would like us to continue”.

“We decided we were doing exactly what we wanted to do in the future and that we would continue doing it but under a different vehicle.”

He said the council hoped to keep building on the past two and a half years’ work in which the commission produced 27 reports, met with more than 20,000 people face-to-face and engaged online.

“We’re apolitical. We do not and never have offered advice to government. We’ll brief government on our reports but we don’t offer advice and we don’t do analysis of government. There’s no other organisation I can see in Australia that’s really filling that role. There are advocacy groups that overlap with us, but these are not quite the same.”

Asked about how the council would maintain its independence while seeking donations from people concerned about climate change - opening it up to accusations of being just another lobby group - Professor Flannery conceded “no one has really done this before”.

“We hope to continue using public donations, but we need to invent a new method.

"Our common resolve is that the second that anyone asks us to do anything or say anything they will get their money back. Independence is central to our credibility. We shall see as we go along what mechanisms are required.”

Transparency concerns

But Deakin University’s Chair of Media and Communication Deb Verhoeven said that by rushing its launch and seeking donations through its own website, the Climate Council was taking a risk with its reputation.

“Crowdfunding can protect you from accusations of bias by using a crowdfunding platform, which provides an arm’s length relationship between the donor and the recipient,” Professor Verhoeven said.

“By going directly there’s not that same level of transparency. That worries me because the Climate Council has been set up as an organisation that was meant to counter accusations of bias in climate science – it’s meant to be authoritative and independent. By not having a transparent funding mechanism they open themselves up to accusations of bias.”

Professor Verhoeven, who recently shared tips from being part of a successful research crowdfunding project Research My World, said crowdfunding was a “fantastic option” for the council. But in order to be seen as an independent body, she suggested the council would be better to go through a popular crowdfunding platform such as kickstarter.com or pozible.com.

“The recipient and the donor don’t have a direct relationship. You can say you’re not prepared to accept donations from a particular type of organisation, and they will be filtered out. You can ask people to identify themselves, or choose anonymity. If they’re choosing anonymity the funding seekers can’t be accused of creating pressure, because the donors are anonymous.”

Apolitical, or another voice from the left?

Asked on Lateline last night about the resurrection of the formerly taxpayer-funded commission as not-for-profit body, Environment Minister Greg Hunt said:

“Look I wish them good luck. Tim Flannery rang me earlier this evening just to let me know that they were continuing on, on a voluntary basis. And I said, ‘That’s the great thing about democracy. It’s a free country and it proves our point that the commission didn’t have to be a taxpayer-funded body’. There is perfect freedom for people to continue to do this.”

Mr Hunt said the Abbott government would primarily take its independent scientific advice from the Bureau of Meteorology.

Tony Wood, the director of the Grattan Institute’s Energy Program, said it was too early to know how apolitical the new council would be, but he suspected that many people would have already made up their minds about it.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the Coalition government will treat the Climate Council’s material as less than independent,” Mr Wood said. “But until we’ve seen the nature of the material the Council puts out it will be difficult to make that assessment.

"Much like the new government’s position on climate change can be perceived as a step to the right, the fact that the Climate Commission has become the Climate Council will be perceived, at least by the current government, as a step to the left. They will therefore discount the value of their work.”

How the story unfolded: scroll below to see how news of the Climate Council’s launch spread on social media from this afternoon back to late last night.