Denialist Agenda (Part 3): Think tanks, oil money and black ops

Clive HamiltonHere is the part 3 of Clive Hamilton’s expose of the denialist movement.  He explores the role of special interests funded ‘think tanks’ …

Clive Hamilton, ABC Unleashed.

The army of denialist bloggers and cyber-bullies is sometimes accused of being the tool of fossil fuel companies. Although there is certainly a concordance of interests, that is as far as the relationship goes. The bloggers are motivated not by financial gain (indeed, their activities may have a financial cost) but by political grievances and an anti-elite worldview at odds with the mainstream.

Nevertheless, it is true that the raw material that feeds their anger is generated overwhelmingly by a network of right-wing think tanks and websites in part funded by Big Carbon. These links, which have been heavily documented, are close enough to provoke the Royal Society to take the unprecedented step of writing to Exxon Mobil asking the company to desist from funding anti-science groups.

Yet the funding continues, often through foundations that in effect launder oil and coal money to make it more difficult to trace to its sources. One of the more important conduits is the Washington-based Atlas Economic Research Foundation. Atlas supports financially a network of some 200 libertarian think tanks around the world, including (according to an investigation by US magazine Mother Jones) the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies in Australia.

Atlas co-sponsored the Heartland Institute’s climate sceptic conference in Washington last June attended by a number of prominent Australian skeptics. The Heartland Institute has received funding from Exxon Mobil and earlier received funding from Philip Morris to campaign against smoking restrictions. It has superseded Frontiers of Freedom and the Competitive Enterprise Institute as the foremost US “think tank” working to discredit climate science and stop action on climate change.

Black ops

The deployment of think tanks and sceptic websites to attack climate science has been a carefully planned strategy that was developed in the United States in the mid-1990s. It was refined with the advice of political consultant Frank Luntz who in 2002 urged the Republican Party to undermine the credibility of climate science by commissioning “independent” experts to “make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate”. The strategy is comprehensively exposed by former PR insider Jim Hoggan in hisrecent book Climate Cover-Up.

The strategy’s use of operations that fall into the “grey area” of political campaigning – such as the creation of fake citizens groups to advance the interests of fossil fuel companies – is well-known and continuing. Only now is light being shone on a far more sinister campaign of black operations.

The hacking into computers at the Climatic Research Centre at the University of East Anglia is only part of a more extensive campaign of black ops organised by elements of the denial industry in the run-up to the Copenhagen meeting. Others include break-ins to the offices of climate scientists, an attempt to infiltrate the computer system at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis at the University of Victoria by two people posing as technicians, and industrial espionage directed at US green groups.

The think tanks

Although Australia does not have the proliferation of well-funded conservative think tanks that have been so influential in US politics, local counterparts have served effectively as conduits for the stream of anti-science pouring out of their kindred organisations in the United States. They have also been instrumental in publicising and promoting the work of Australian sceptics such as Ian Plimer and Bob Carter. There are three established think tanks and a new one emerging.

Lavoisier Group: Perhaps better described as an advocacy group than a think tank, theLavoisier Group was founded in 1999 by Hugh Morgan, then CEO of Western Mining Corporation and a former president of the Mining Industry Council, and his long-time political operative Ray Evans. Its board consists mostly of mining industry figures. Evans has close links with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, for some years the most active denialist think tank in the United States.

Evans, with Morgan’s backing, had created a string of organisations promoting conservative causes, including the anti-union H.R Nicholls Society (with which the Lavoisier Group shares a postal address) and the Samuel Griffiths Society, committed to defending states’ rights.

The Lavoisier Group brings together leading sceptics at its conferences, promotes sceptics’ books, and publishes material such as “Nine Lies About Global Warming”, penned by Evans and parroted by sceptical columnists in the newspapers. A book edited by Evans was last year launched by Senator Barnaby Joyce, now the shadow finance minister.

Institute of Public Affairs: The oldest think tank in Australia, and with close links to the Liberal Party, the IPA took up the denialist cause early. The IPA is coy about its funding sources, but is known to have received the bulk of its income from mining, resource and tobacco companies. In addition to promoting the work of Australian sceptics like Ian Plimer, the IPA has hosted international visitors such as Bjorn Lomborg and Mark Steyn, events attended by Liberal Party heavyweights.

The IPA also sponsored the visit to Australia of President Putin’s former adviser Andrei Illarianov who fulminated against “fraudulent science” and described the Kyoto Protocol as a “death pact”, “an interstate Auschwitz”, “a sort of international Gosplan, a system to rival the former Soviet Union’s”, an argument bizarre even in the world of climate denial, but reasonable enough to be reproduced by The Australian.

Centre for Independent Studies: The CIS projects itself as a more moderate conservative think tank, but has not been able to resist promoting climate scepticism. After struggling in its early years, it was reprieved by a major funding boost from six mining companies, a rescue facilitated by Hugh Morgan. Among its board members is Sir Rod Eddington, a senior business adviser to the Labor Government. It has hosted a string of climate sceptics from overseas and Australia.

Brisbane Institute: The Brisbane Institute has for some years been a middle-of-the-road think tank but appears to have been taken over by climate sceptics. Some of its followers were shocked to hear that the Institute would host the Brisbane leg of Christopher Monckton’s Australian tour.

Last year the Brisbane Institute hosted a public lecture by Dr Jay Lehr, Science Director of the Heartland Institute. As we saw, the Heartland Institute is now the most active climate denialist organisation in the United States. Lehr was presented by the Brisbane Institute as an “internationally renowned” scientist, which is simply untrue; he has been heavily criticised for distorting and misrepresenting climate science. He is better known for spending three months in jail for defrauding the US Environmental Protection Authority in 1991.

The Brisbane Institute is perfectly entitled to take the denialist road. The puzzle is why the University of Queensland, the Institute’s primary sponsor, would support an organisation that promotes anti-science. Paying for Monckton and Fehr to trash climate science in Brisbane does not seem compatible with the University’s aim “to achieve internationally-acknowledged excellence in all forms of research”.

Several scientists from the University serve as authors or reviewers for the IPCC, a body attacked as fraudulent by Monckton and Lehr. The University of Queensland appears unconcerned about linking itself with climate denial. In 2008 it accepted a donation of $350,000 from a climate change sceptic, channeled through the IPA, who wanted it to be spent on funding doctoral research on climate change. Of course, the University said there would be no strings attached.

These think tanks are at the heart of the denial movement in this country. They provide funding and organisational capacity, they convene conferences and private meetings, they commission sceptical scientists to write papers, they publish and promote sceptical papers and books, they supply “experts” to the media and they lobby at every opportunity.

Every sceptical scientist, no matter how independent he starts out, is sooner or later drawn into the web formed by these think tanks. In Australia, Bob Carter is a favourite of the Heartland Institute and the Lavoisier Group, Ian Plimer is an associate of the Institute for Public Affairs and an adviser to Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation, and William Kinninmonth (the Australian sceptic with perhaps the strongest claims to being a climate scientist) allowed his book to be launched by the Lavoisier Group.

The links of these sceptics to political organisations with strong ideological agendas stands in sharp contrast to the vast assemblage of legitimate climate scientists who have no political connections. Yet it is the latter who are accused of being politicised.

Backlash against the 60s

Despite their financial support from Big Carbon, it would be wrong to believe that the conservative think tanks operate solely at the behest of the fossil fuel industries. Their objectives are principally ideological and they would still be campaigning against climate science without funding from Exxon Mobil and others; they would just be less effective. In the United States and Australia, it is probably true that they have received more funding from right-wing foundations with no links to Big Carbon than from oil and coal companies (although some, like the Scaife Foundations, owe their wealth to oil).

So, in the end, their motives are political rather than commercial. The arms of the denialist war on climate science – the bloggers and letter writers; the right wing columnists like Andrew Bolt, Christopher Pearson and Miranda Devine; the Murdoch broadsheets; and the conservative think tanks – are united by one factor, a hatred of environmentalism. Environmentalism is variously seen to be the enemy of individual freedom, an ideology of smug elites, an attack on capitalism and consumerism, and the vanguard of world government.

This antagonism towards the real or assumed ideas of environmentalism is spiced with a loathing for “green culture” represented by the image of the long-haired tree-huggers who want to impose their ascetic lifestyle on others.

Politically, climate denialism represents a backlash against the advances begun by the social movements of the 1960s and their destabilisation of traditional social structures and beliefs, including those of the right of humans to exploit the natural world, which helps explain why its activists are overwhelmingly older. Raging against climate science fits perfectly with the worldview, style and audience demographic of populist shock-jocks like Alan Jones, Australia’s answer to Rush Limbaugh.

To turn back the tide of denialism, perhaps the most significant step would be for those conservative leaders who accept the science to speak out loudly and clearly about the need to take action. It is in their hands to break down the belief that global warming is somehow a left-wing cause.

Tomorrow: How to manufacture a scientific scandal.

5 thoughts on “Denialist Agenda (Part 3): Think tanks, oil money and black ops

  1. The curious thing about the responses to this piece on Unleashed was the complete denialism (to use a word from a different context) involved. The obvious response to Clive’s factual, and matter of fact, account of think tanks and right wing columnists would be to say “That’s right, we believe Australia should be run by neoconservatives, for corporations. Greenies should get out of the way. No way we are going to let a little thing like a warming planet get in the way of corporations getting bigger and wealthier and the rich getting richer. And if I keep helping Andrew Bolt hold back the tide of environmentalism then one day the big corporations will take care of me and I’ll be rich too. Nyah. Nyah.” I mean, that would be honest – loud and proud (again, context).

    Instead they claimed Clive was a conspiracy theorist, that he was crazy, should be disowned by environmentalists, absolutely nothing was going on. Which must come as a source of some surprise for the right wing think tanks, the shock jocks and jockettes, and the energy companies, who not only make no secret of what they are doing but are proud that they are helping keep back the green hordes who want to stop corporation profits reaching the trillions.

  2. Here Clive goes again, the same tired rant against The Heartland Institute and other organizations whose position is not to deny climate change, as Clive wants his readers to believe, but that climate change is occurring, always has occurred, and is natural, moderate, and likely to be beneficial.

    If funding drives an organization’s position on this issue, surely Heartland and other “skeptical” organizations would be raving global warming alarmists by now, since that’s clearly where the money is. As <a href=""Alexander Cockburn has noted, “Billions in funding and research grants sluice into the big climate-modeling enterprises and a vast archipelago of research departments and ‘institutes of climate change’ across academia. It’s where the money is.”

    Give it a rest, Clive. If this is all you’ve got, you should find another horse to beat.

  3. That wouldn’t make any sense given the funding that the Heartland Institute is a front for big oil interests. For example, contributions from Exxon Mobil include:

    $30,000 in 1998;
    $115,000 in 2000;
    $90,000 in 2001;
    $15,000 in 2002;
    $85,000 for General Operating Support and $7,500 for their 19th Anniversary Benefit Dinner in 2003;
    $85,000 for General Operating Support and $15,000 for Climate Change Efforts in 2004; and
    $119,000 in 2005; and
    $115,000 in 2006.

    Check it out for yourself.

  4. but that climate change is occurring, always has occurred

    Pro AGW scientists dont dispute that the climate has always changed. That statement is just an over simplification. What they are saying now is, that the rate of change is faster than previously found & its because of a variety of actions of mankind that are causing the globe to warm faster than it would normally.

    Scientists are not trying to make out that the rise in Co2 will suddenly render earth like Mars in “total recall” where our eyes will pop out of our head & we all choke. The Holocene period has ensured a very stable climate on earth where we humans have been able to thrive. Especially in low lying regions & coastal zones. If we artificially change that stable environment, we risk population movement due to flooding & lack of resources, namely food & water.

    For some of these concerns, check out this document from a U.S military advisory board to George Bush in 2007 on their national security fears.

    and likely to be beneficial.,/blockquote>

    Maybe to plants, but not humans. Also, not all crops benefit from higher Co2, on top of the fact that plants also need another essentially ingredient……water.

    If funding drives an organization’s position on this issue, surely Heartland and other “skeptical” organizations would be raving global warming alarmists by now, since that’s clearly where the money is

    How do you figure? Money spent by governments on grants, satelites instrumentation etc is for the purpose of conducting science. Whereas Heartland is paid to lobby politicians on behalf of industry & basically act as a front group to put pressure on politicians & convince the public of pro industry positions, which have nothing to do with science & its entirely political. Last time I checked, the Heartland Institute is not a scientific organization.

    Heartland, Cato, IPA, Lavoisier, APCO, Freedom works,Competitive Enterprise Institute,Frontiers of Freedom, The Heritage Foundation,AEI,The Marshall Institute, The Fraser Institute & many more are lobby groups. They dont conduct science & they certainly dont publish any scientific papers. They are front groups, pr & lobbyist groups.

    Like Carter, Plimer, Ball, Christy, Michaels, Monckton, Lomborg who tour the world trying to convince people of the science…..where is their papers refuting it?

    Give it a rest, Clive. If this is all you’ve got, you should find another horse to beat.

    Its encouraging to see people like Clive with his gloves off approach. Thumbs up Clive, we need more of you.

  5. Failure to take these ‘climate creationists’ seriously has already put the world’s ecosystems in unprecedented danger. Thanks to Clive for alerting us to their tactics. How much more delay can we afford? Had we acted when prudence demanded,(about15 years ago) we would be well on the way to a relatively painless transition to a post ‘fossil fool’ world. As it is we have allowed ourselves to get into a serious fight just to allow the proper science to continue without being sabotaged by the screaming mob.

    Is this the worst they can do? Not if some of the mindless violence alluded to in this series is anything to go on.

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