Perhaps the most pervasive influence of the ideas promoted by conservative think tanks in the environmental policy arena has been in the adoption of elements of free market environmentalism, particularly market-based approaches to environmental problems, in many countries. In the name of free market environmentalism, conservative think tanks have enabled the conservative, corporate agenda of deregulation, privatisation and an unconstrained market to be dressed up as an environmental virtue.
Conservative think tanks have consistently opposed government regulation and promoted the virtues of a ‘free’ market unconstrained by a burden of red tape. They have recommended using the market to allocate scarce environmental resources such as wilderness and clean air and replacing legislation with voluntary industry agreements, reinforced or newly created property rights and economic instruments.
Think tanks have sought to discredit environmental legislation, giving it the pejorative label ‘command and control’, and highlighting its deficiencies and ineffectiveness (ineffectiveness that corporations and think tanks have done their best to ensure). The Cato Institute, for example, stated that one of its main focuses in the area of natural resources is “dismantling the morass of centralized command-and-control environmental regulation and substituting in its place market-oriented regulatory structures...”
During the late 1980s awareness of global and local environmental problems led to increasing demands from environmental and citizens groups for tightened environmental standards and for increased government control of private firms and corporations. The market solutions being advocated by conservative think tanks provided corporations and private firms with an alternative to restrictive legislation and the rhetoric to make the argument against that legislation in terms that were not obviously self-interested.
Although economists have long advocated economic instruments for environmental regulation, their popularity today owes much to the work of think tanks, who have effectively marketed and disseminated these policies. Think tanks have popularised and promoted the work of environmental economists and many of the leading scholars in this area are associated with think tanks, including:
Think tanks have also produced a number of books promoting free market environmentalism including: