The Intellectual Sorcery of Think Tanks

Sharon Beder


Citation: Sharon Beder, 'The Intellectual Sorcery of Think Tanks', Arena Magazine 41, June/July 1999, pp. 30-32.

This is a final version submitted for publication.
Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications


Conservative think tanks have played a central yet largely unexamined role in the corporate battle against environmental policies and reforms. Think tanks are generally private, tax-exempt research institutes which present themselves as providing impartial disinterested expertise. However they are generally partisan, politically or ideologically motivated, and practise the art of 'directed conclusions', tailoring their studies to suit their clients or donors.

In recent times a number of think tanks have become more openly ideological. These conservative think tanks aim to influence government and set the agenda in a variety of policy arenas, including environmental policy. To be effective they insinuate themselves into the networks of people who are influential in particular areas of policy. They do this by organising conferences, seminars and workshops and by publishing books, briefing papers, journals and media releases. They liaise with bureaucrats, consultants, interest groups and lobbyists. They seek to provide advice directly to the government officials in policy networks and to government agencies and committees.

Think tanks often employ former government officials and politicians as this gives them influence in government and credibility in the media and provides their donors with access to and influence in the policy-making process.

Australian Think Tanks

In Australasia the largest think tank is the Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), established in 1976. Although it claims to be independent the Centre is funded by businesses, and its work is shaped by its libertarian/laissez faire philosophy. It is, in its own words, committed to 'an economy based on free and competitive markets'; and 'individual liberty and choice' including 'the right to property'.

The Centre deals with 'practical public policy issues' as well as 'more intellectual issues focussing on the way societies work and the importance of liberty in securing prosperity both economically and socially'. It publishes the work of various conservatives, including media baron Rupert Murdoch; economists such as Friedrich von Hayek (whom the Centre brought out to Australia in the 1970s) and Milton Friedman; Nick Greiner, a former premier of NSW, Gary Sturgess former Director-General of the NSW Cabinet Office under Greiner, and various think tank scholars from the US and the UK. It also distributes, in Australia, material from US and UK libertarian think tanks.

Another prominent Australian conservative think tank, and the oldest, is the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). The IPA describes itself as 'a political organisation in the sense that it influences the political agenda' but claims that it 'avoids political-party partisanship'. It stands for, among other things, 'less regulation and smaller government generally' and 'rational economic policies'.

Almost one third of IPA's $1.5 million annual budget comes from mining and manufacturing companies. It has 700 corporate members and 3000 individual members, some of whom are subscribers to its various publications. Its council has included Murdoch as well as other conservative business leaders. Like many of the US conservative think tanks, the IPA has good connections in the media via right-wing commentators with regular columns in major newspapers. It also has good political connections. Its staff includes former senior public officials and former politicians. John Stone, a former Secretary of the Treasury, is a consultant to the IPA and Dame Leonie Kramer, Chancellor of the University of Sydney, has headed one of the IPA's units. The IPA's current units are on Deregulation, Economic Policy, Indigenous Issues and Environmental Policy.

A number of Australian think tanks are modelled on US think tanks and have close ties with some of them, including the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. The Institute of Public Policy, now amalgamated with the IPA, modelled itself on the Heritage Foundation as well as the British IEA. The Committee for Economic Development in Australia (CEDA) was originally modelled on the US Committee for Economic Development and in 1984 it made a conscious decision to move towards an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) model.

Environmental Agenda

Think tanks have sought to spread confusion about the scientific basis of environmental problems, to oppose environmental regulations and promote free market remedies to those problems such as privatisation, deregulation and the expanded use of property rights. Corporations that wish to portray themselves in public as environmentally concerned often fund such think tanks, whom they are not readily identified with, to oppose environmental reforms.

Corporations have utilised think tanks and a few dissident scientists to cast doubt on the existence and magnitude of problems such as global warming, ozone depletion and species extinction. This strategy is aimed at crippling the impetus for government action to solve these problems, action which might adversely affect corporate profits.

Conservative think tanks have promoted the views of the few scientists who disagree with the vast majority of atmospheric scientists that warming is a likely consequence of increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It uses these dissident scientists, usually not atmospheric scientists, to suggest there is 'widespread disagreement' within the scientific community. This disagreement is used to make a case against taking 'drastic actions' to reduce greenhouse gases.

Brian Tucker, previously Chief of the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric research, is now a Senior Fellow at the IPA where he trades on his scientific credentials to push an ideological agenda. In 1996 in a talk on the ABC's Ockham's Razor he stated that 'unchallenged climatic disaster hyperbole has induced something akin to a panic reaction from policy makers, both national and international'. In the talk he ignored the scientific consensus represented by the IPCC 1995 statement and argued that global warming predictions are politically and emotionally generated:

There is little evidence to support the notion of net deleterious climate change despite recent Cassandra-like trepidation in the Australian Medical Association and exaggerations from Greenpeace. Why then has so much alarm been generated? The answer is complicated. In my opinion, it is due partly to the use and abuse of science to forment fear by those seeking to support ideological positions, and partly due to the negative and fearful perspective that seems to characterise some environmental prejudices.

Tucker's article The Greenhouse Panic was reprinted in Engineering World ,a magazine aimed at engineers. The article, introduced by the magazine editor as 'a balanced assessment,' argues that 'alarmist prejudices of insecure people have been boosted by those who have something to gain from widespread public concern.' This article, which would have been more easily dismissed as an IPA publication, has been quoted by Australian engineers at conferences as if it was an authoritative source.

In August 1997 the Frontiers of Freedom Institute, a conservative corporate funded US think tank organised a conference in Canberra in conjunction with the Australian APEC Study Centre. The conference, entitled Countdown to Kyoto, was organised, according to the Australian, to 'bolster support' for the Government's increasingly isolated position on global warming in preparation for the Kyoto conference. Speakers included US politicians opposed to the treaty, the Chairman of BHP and the Director of the think tank, the Tasman Institute.

Malcolm Wallop, who heads the Frontiers of Freedom Institute, chaired the conference with Hugh Morgan, the head of Western Mining. Wallop said in a letter to US conservative groups: 'This conference in Australia is the first shot across the bow of those who expect to champion the Kyoto Treaty'. He also stated that the conference would 'offer world leaders the tools to break with the Kyoto Treaty'. The conference was opened by Australian Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fisher who argued that tough emission reduction targets could put 90,000 jobs at risk in Australia and cost more than $150 million.

Some think tanks are now trying to repeat their success in thwarting effective action on global warming by challenging the scientific consensus on ozone depletion. For example the American Cato Institute has published Ecoscam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse by Ronald Bailey, which argues that scientists working for NASA have promoted the ozone depletion theory in order to bolster its budget.

Like the critics of the global warming theory, and usually these are the same people, Bailey and others emphasise the uncertainties surrounding the theory and the natural fluctuations in ozone levels that occur over time:

the impact of man-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the ozone layer is a complex question that turns on murky evidence, tentative conclusions, conflicting interpretations, and changing predictions....it turns out that ozone depletion, like the other environmental dooms analyzed here, is less a crisis than a nuisance.

In this way think tanks and their scholars provided the Republicans in the US Congress with the rhetoric to oppose a more general CFC phaseout. The Republicans have sought to retract US agreement to the terms of the Montreal Protocol, the international convention aimed at phasing out CFCs worldwide. And a bill was introduced to repeal the provisions of the Clean Air Act relating to production and use of CFCs.

In its magazine Facts, the Australian Institute for Public Policy attacks recycling. Drawing on an Industry Commission report it argues that packaging only accounts for one tenth of the waste stream 'by weight' and that recycling can be costly and produce pollution problems. In the same issue of the magazine the IPA argues that the amount of pollutants ingested as a result of pesticide use and water pollution are trivial compared with those occurring 'naturally;' 'enhancing the Greenhouse Effect may be necessary for our survival' because nature is not providing enough CO2; and that banning of DDT initiated by greens has 'been accompanied by a blow out of reported malaria cases to hundreds of thousands' in Sri Lanka.

Most of the conservative think tanks also attack environmentalism in some way. In its journal, Policy Review, the Heritage Foundation has labelled the environmental movement as 'the greatest single threat to the American economy'. Several equate environmentalism to religious belief. For example, John Hyde, executive Director of the IPA, claims 'Nature worship is not new, and environmentalism is a religion that may currently have a greater following than any church'. In 1991 Ron Brunton, Director of the Institute's Environmental Unit in Canberra, gave a paper entitled, Environmentalism and Sorcery:

Sorcery beliefs involve the attribution of misfortune to the evil machinations of other humans. These beliefs invariably worsen the problems they are meant to be addressing. They drive people to an obsessive search for scapegoats, to a focus on the wrong causes and the wrong solutions. They create and perpetuate distrust, and so corrode the basis for social co-operation.

Brunton suggests 'greens' are ambivalent about environmental improvements: 'How else can we explain what has happened to John Todd, the director of Ocean Arks International, who developed a process for transforming toxic sludge into drinkable water? Greens are furious with him, and some of his old friends no longer speak to him'. This would indeed be an extraordinary process if Brunton's claims were true, and many waste experts would be astonished to find that such a solution exists!

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). Some think tank economists also argue that there is little incentive to protect environmental resources that are not privately owned. Their solution is to create property rights over parts of the environment that are currently free. Rights-based economic instruments such as tradeable pollution rights, according to an Australian government report, 'create rights to use environmental resources, or to pollute the environment, up to a pre-determined limit' and allow these rights to be traded.

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 one of the foremost proponent's of tradeable pollution rights, Robert Hahn, a resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute, Terry Anderson, who has written for several think tanks in Australia and the US, Robert Stavins and Bradley Whitehead, authors of a Progressive Policy Institute study as well as Alan Moran, from the Tasman Institute, an Australian think tank, and Walter Block from the Fraser Institute, a Canadian think tank.

Many environmentalists have been persuaded by the rhetoric of free market environmentalism. They have accepted the conservative definition of the problem, that environmental degradation results from a failure of the market to attach a price to environmental goods and services, and the argument that these instruments will work better than outdated 'command-and-control' type regulations. The US Environmental Defense Fund has been at the forefront of the push for tradeable pollution rights and the Natural Resources Defense Council has also supported them.

Economic instruments are being advocated as a technocratic solution to environmental problems which is premised on the conservative think tank's view of the problem&emdash;that environmental degradation is caused by a failure to 'value' the environment and a lack of properly defined property rights. By allowing this redefinition of the environmental problem, environmentalists and others not only forestall criticism of the market system but in fact implicitly agree that an extension of markets is the only way to solve the problem. Yet the market, far from being free or operating efficiently to allocate resources in the interests of society, is dominated by a small group of large multinational corporations which aim to maximise their private profit by exploiting nature and human resources.


Professor Sharon Beder is a visiting professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong.
Sharon Beder's Publications can be found at http://www.herinst.org/sbeder/