The New Engineer

Examining the role of think tanks

Sharon Beder

Citation: This is article was published as Sharon Beder, 'Examining the role of think tanks', Engineers Australia, November 1999, p. 66.

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

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Think tanks have played a central yet largely unexamined role in the corporate battle against environmental policies and reforms. Think tanks are research institutes that are often partisan because of their funding or their ideological stance. Conservative, corporate-funded think tanks, in particular, have sought to spread confusion about the scientific basis of environmental problems, to oppose environmental regulations and promote free market remedies to those problems.

These conservative think tanks have played a key role in providing credible 'experts' who dispute scientific claims of existing or impending environmental degradation and therefore provide enough doubts to ensure governments 'lack motivation' to act. For example, most conservative think tanks have argued that global warming is not happening and that any possible future warming will be slight and may have beneficial effects.

Brian Tucker, a Senior Fellow at the Australian think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), argues "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." Patrick Michaels, perhaps one of the best known international contrarians on global warming, is repeatedly trotted out at think-tank organised conferences such as the Countdown to Kyoto conference in Canberra in 1997 to undermine the pressure for greenhouse gas reductions.

Conservative think tanks have similarly challenged the scientific consensus on a number of other environmental problems such as species depletion, acid rain and 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.

Most of the conservative think tanks also attack environmentalism in some way. In its journal, Policy Review, the US Heritage Foundation has labelled the environmental movement as "the greatest single threat to the American economy". Several think tanks equate environmentalism to religious belief in order to discredit its scientific basis. 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."

Conservative think tanks have consistently opposed government regulation and promoted the virtues of a 'free' market unconstrained by a burden of red tape. They 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 and to rely on economic incentives rather than legislation to protect the environment.

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 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.

The changing consensus wrought by conservatives has meant that economic instruments, once associated with market economists and conservative bureaucrats, have now been widely accepted. In fact many environmentalists have been persuaded by the rhetoric of free market environmentalism. Yet their promotion by corporate funded think tanks needs to be seen in the context of the efforts by these same think tanks to spread confusion about environmental problems, to oppose environmental legislation and to undermine the credibility of environmentalists.

Do these think tanks really care about environmental protection or is their promotion of market solutions and property rights just a way of advancing an ideological agenda which is generally opposed to government intervention? To what extent does their reliance on corporate funding make their promotion of market solutions profitable? 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.
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