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Neoliberal Think Tanks

The Corporate Masters of Climate Denial

Illustration by Rocco Fazzari.

July 09, 2018

Long before post-truth politics and the “death of expertise,” there was climate denial. Over the past 30 years in the United States and Australia, we’ve seen the sprouts of these insidious phenomena take root and blight the landscape of public debate: the construction of a false scientific controversy in the news media (in essence, fake news based on the testimony of fake experts); a partisan war on science-based knowledge; contempt for the academic and scientific production of knowledge; and conspiracy theories designed to vilify scientists, destroy public trust in science, and fuel an anti-science social movement so hysterical and hostile that climate mitigation policies seem all but impossible.

Portland March for Science, Portland, USA, 2017.

Climate denial has been most strident and successful in the US and Australia, where neoliberal think tanks funded by the fossil fuel, mining, and energy industries operate as political entrepreneurs in the news media – where most people get their information about science. In Australia, climate denial can be traced to the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a neoliberal think tank based in Melbourne. Once a sleepy conservative think tank that raised funds to support the politically conservative Liberal Party, the IPA was the object of a hostile corporate takeover in the late 1970s, led by mining executive and neoliberal enthusiast Hugh Morgan. After the coup, the IPA was relaunched as a newly minted radical neoliberal think tank that waged public battles in the news media to achieve favorable policy outcomes for its donors. Since the late 1980s, the IPA has become the most high-profile opponent of climate science, climate change mitigation, and the renewable energy industry in Australia.

The US-led invasion of the scientific field

The IPA is also part of a transnational neoliberal network that includes a high concentration of US think tanks. In 1998, Morgan’s right-hand man, Ray Evans, participated in a critical meeting of the American Petroleum Institute and the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) to help draft the Global Climate Science Communication Action Plan. The strategy involved engaging public relations expertise, recruiting scientists who reject the scientific consensus on climate change to participate in media outreach, and producing a steady stream of press releases, opinion pieces, and letters to the editor to dispute climate science and oppose the introduction of policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The following year, the IPA welcomed a senior representative of the GCC’s public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller, onto its board of directors. Soon after, the IPA advertised for a new Executive Director who would elevate the IPA’s public profile as a key participant in national debates to influence policy outcomes, personally engage as a persuasive public presence in the news media, and increase funding by identifying potential sponsors who might benefit from these activities. The successful applicant could expect a 50% bonus over and above the base salary of $140,000 if the Key Performance Indicators of media engagement and fund raising were met.

John Roskam, appointed Executive Director of the IPA in 2004, had previously worked as Director of Corporate Communications for the mining giant Rio Tinto and as a staffer and campaign manager for the Liberal Party. Roskam not only raised the public profile of the IPA by routinizing its access to the Australian news media: he also successfully registered the IPA as a non-partisan, non-profit research institute whose secret sponsors could claim their donations as tax deductions.

Meanwhile, Roskam established IPA front groups including the Australian Climate Science Coalition (ACSC), which was funded through the Heartland Institute in the US. The mission of the ACSC was to contest the global scientific consensus on climate change and prevent the Australian introduction of policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emission and mitigate climate change.

The war-by-media on climate science

On closer examination, the “scientific advisors” of the ACSC did not mount a science-based argument against the scientific consensus on climate change. On the contrary, as long-term associates of the IPA and regular contributors to the IPA Review, they continued to rely heavily on ideologically-based narratives that framed climate change as a leftist conspiracy. These same narratives spread out from the IPA to the general public via right-wing members of the press, who came to regard the IPA and its front groups as intellectual and ideological role models. Thus, the IPA’s rhetorical arsenal furnished right-wing journalists and editors with narratives that demonized climate scientists and the political left.

This can be seen clearly in the lead-up to the first parliamentary debates on introducing an emissions trading scheme (ETS) in Australia in 2009. One of the ACSC’s scientific advisors, mining geologist and mining company director Ian Plimer, published a book through an IPA associate press which argued that anthropogenic climate change was impossible. He further claimed that climate change is a conspiracy between scientists and the political left, and ridiculed anyone who supported policies to mitigate climate change.

The publication of Plimer’s book followed a similar pattern to that of US think tanks, known to publish environmentally “skeptical” books in the lead-up to major policy debates. As in the US, Plimer embarked on a press tour, generating 219 articles in Australian newspapers. Notably, his association with the IPA was never mentioned.

While Plimer’s book was hailed by right-wing journalists and editors as an unassailable counter-argument against the scientific consensus view on climate change, scientific reviewers universally panned the tome as pulp fiction. Meanwhile, Plimer’s public statements simply denigrated climate scientists and anyone who supported climate change mitigation policies. In one media interview, he commented that “with some rabid environmentalists, human-induced global warming has evolved into a religious belief system […] so I make a great comparison between the way creationists operate and the way some of the environmentalists and global warmers operate.”

Despite his lack of expertise in climate science and his inability to mount a meaningful challenge to the scientific consensus on climate change, Plimer struck a chord with his constituents. Following the publication of his book, public trust in climate science decreased, the ETS was defeated, and right-wing politicians embraced Plimer as a modern-day Galileo.

Elaine McKewon, University of Technology Sydney, Australia <elaine.mckewon@gmail.com>

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