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Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism

While this really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has had even a passing interest in environmental issues, a new study in the journal Environmental Politics has concluded that over 90% of books downplaying the seriousness of environmental problems (also known as denial) had direct links to conservative think tanks (CTT).

Following on earlier work by co-author Riley Dunlap and colleagues, the study examines the ability of conservative think tanks to use the media and other communication strategies to successfully challenge mainstream expert agreement on environmental problems. –Framing Science


This paper demonstrates what I believe is the major flaw of many present day conservative movements; their willingness to fabricate or suppress facts in order to support their ideology, and while progressive movements aren’t immune (eg: the mostly irrational fear of nuclear power), they have yet to show the level of fact manipulation shown by the conservatives. In fact with ‘progressive’ groups such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Defense Fund, and the Natural Resources Defense Council their biases are laid out for everyone to see, but many conservative groups hide behind an oft-changing web of front groups that claim to be fully independent when that is simply not the case. They do their best to hide their biases from the public.

This should be unacceptable to everyone, even to those that share conservative values, as it reduces the credibility of conservatives and virtually ensures that conservative policies end in failure, because policies based on fantasy are bound to fail. We all must demand a science based government, even (or especially) when the science arrives at unpopular conclusions. To do otherwise is to invite failure.

Here is the abstract of the study:

Environmental scepticism denies the seriousness of environmental problems, and self-professed ‘sceptics’ claim to be unbiased analysts combating ‘junk science’. This study quantitatively analyses 141 English-language environmentally sceptical books published between 1972 and 2005. We find that over 92 per cent of these books, most published in the US since 1992, are linked to conservative think tanks (CTTs). Further, we analyse CTTs involved with environmental issues and find that 90 per cent of them espouse environmental scepticism. We conclude that scepticism is a tactic of an elite-driven counter-movement designed to combat environmentalism, and that the successful use of this tactic has contributed to the weakening of US commitment to environmental protection

Here is what they found:

of the 141 books which promote environmental scepticism, 130 (92.2 per cent) have a clear link to one or more CTTs -either via author affiliation (62 books) or because the book was published by a CTT (five books) or both (63 books). Furthermore, most of the remaining 11 books clearly reflect a conservative ideology, but are not connected to a CTT [publicly, at least] and are not coded as such here. Indeed, it appears that only one of the 141 books was written by a current self-professed liberal – Greg Easterbrook (1995).

and this is what they concluded:

Our analyses of the sceptical literature and CTTs indicate an unambiguous linkage between the two. Over 92 per cent of environmentally sceptical books are linked to conservative think tanks, and 90 per cent of conservative think tanks interested in environmental issues espouse scepticism. Environmental scepticism began in the US, is strongest in the US, and exploded after the end of the Cold War and the emergence of global environmental concern stimulated by the 1992 Earth Summit. Environmental scepticism is an elite-driven reaction to global environmentalism, organised by core actors within the conservative movement. Promoting scepticism is a key tactic of the anti-environmental counter-movement coordinated by CTTs,designed specifically to undermine the environmental movement’s efforts to legitimise its claims via science. Thus, the notion that environmental sceptics are unbiased analysts exposing the myths and scare tactics employed by those they label as practitioners of ‘junk science’ lacks credibility. Similarly, the self-portrayal of sceptics as marginalised ‘Davids’ battling the powerful ‘Goliath’ of environmentalists and environmental scientists is a charade, as sceptics are supported by politically powerful CTTs funded by wealthy foundations and corporations.

A key question should arise from reading this study: are the skeptical books published by CTTs supported by the peer-reviewed literature? The answer is no, and this is precisely why CTTs focused on publishing books, where there is no peer-review to ensure a minimum standard of accuracy.

In establishing a foot hold in the scientific arena, peer review was an obstacle. The science of environmental skepticism was weak. So the full length book became the preferred vehicle. No independent reviewers.

This point underscores something that I have repeatedly stated. The scientific debate happens in the peer-reviewed literature, anything else is just noise, and regardless of how loud the noise becomes, can safely be ignored. Unfortunately, because politicians and much of the public do not understand that basic truth, the results of the unscientific environmental scepticism promoted by CTTs have done incredible harm.

If you want to see what difference environmental protection enforcement makes, just go to eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union. Or China. In the 1970s the US led the world in cleaning its environment and was consolidating its gains with well-staffed, motivated federal and state environment agencies. But that was then. Last weekend the US Senate couldn’t even manage a paltry 60 votes to stop a filibuster of a bipartisan and none too strong global warming bill. This kind of failure isn’t new. The US slow motion fall in environmental leadership has been going on for decades. In the Bush administration it is no longer covert but displayed blatantly and without shame…

The success and potency of the assault on environmental science is not due solely, or even primarily, to the persuasiveness of the arguments. Refuting the arguments of environmental skeptics is usually easily done but the volume of their assertions is so large and so indifferent to counter-argument that cutting off the heads of the CTT hydra has become a major distraction for environmental science and a significant cost in time and money. That is a side show, however, a “watch the birdie” effect that tends to obscure another major factor. The Republican take-over of Congress in 1994 resulted in a major ally for the Right Wing attack, and the subsequent control of the Executive Branch in 2001 by George Bush allowed the CTTs to become the source for political appointments into the regulatory and research agencies central to environmental regulation. With the conversation sufficiently confused by years of right wing static supported by CTT publications and the preoccupation with “national security” in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the same kind of dismantling attempted by the Reagan administration could be carried out with less opposition. It is a tribute to the strength of public support that even under these conditions the attack has not gone smoothly and without significant pushback.

While it is no secret, that the US Bush administration has been openly hostile to science, it is very troubling that the Canadian Conservatives seem to be heading down the same road. We need more science in government, not less. As I said in the beginning of this post, we must all demand that our politicians base their decisions on science instead of fantasy, to do anything else is to ensure our own slow but inevitable decline.

4 Responses to Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism

  1. No it isn’t. Even though I don’t agree with many conservative values or polices, I know full well that there are some very intelligent conservatives.

    As for conservative think tanks, they serve a valuable purpose. Their analysis and proposal of policy from a conservative point of view is incredibly valuable (mainly to conservatives of course). Where they have gone astray (and where much of the conservative movement also gone astray) is in finding facts that support a particular ideology or policy, instead of gathering as many facts as possible and generating the best policy (from a conservative view point) based on those facts. Or in other words make the policy fit the facts, don’t make the facts fit the policy. And as this study shows many conservatives have fit the facts into their policies, instead of the other way around. If conservatives were to revers this trend they would go along way into shedding their anti-science stereotype, and we would all be better off. Even progressives.

  2. Hi Dan. I believe what you are saying, and want to present evidence of this to a friend of mine who things global enviromnental change is stage for money and power grabbing democrats. Do you happen to know of a couple of recent, well-researched and peer-reviewed articles which point out the evidence of global climate change? I would greatly appreciate any help you could provide on the subject. Oh, yes, and Hopfully ones coming from a neutral political source; science-based would be good.
    Thanks, Val

  3. The most thorough literature review on the subject is definitely the IPCC AR4. The chapter on understanding and attributing climate change is perhaps the most relevant. If your friend doesn’t trust the IPCC, then point him to the cited reference section, so he can verify the claims made by the IPCC himself.

    I might also recommend my post on why I accept the consensus, and the many links I have included in my comment policy, for a more layperson view of the science.

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