Organizing denial: Conservative “think tanks” and the political tactic of environmental “skepticism”


A study published in the journal Environmental Politics finds that 92 per cent of 141 English-language environmentally “skeptical” books, most published since 1992, are linked to conservative “think tanks.” The authors conclude that the environmental skepticism of such organizations “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.”

Thanks to Matt Nisbet at Framing Science (“90% of Enviro Skeptic Books Have Think Tank Roots,” June 4, here), Tim Lambert at Deltoid (“The Denial Industrial Complex,” June 5, here), and others for bringing this study to our attention.

“The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism”

Environmental Politics, Volume 17, Issue 3, June 2008 , pages 349 – 385 (by subscription)

Authors: Peter J. Jacques (a);  Riley E. Dunlap (b); Mark Freeman (a)

(a) Department of Political Science, University of Central Florida, Orlando, USA
(b) Department of Sociology, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, USA

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.

Some extracts (courtesy of Nisbet and Lambert):

In summary, environmental scepticism consists of four key themes. First, environmental scepticism is defined by its denial of the seriousness of environmental problems and dismissal of scientific evidence documenting these problems. This primary theme sets environmental scepticism apart from earlier environmental opposition movements like the US ‘wise use movement’ and ‘sage brush rebellion’ (Switzer 1997). Second, environmental scepticism draws upon the first theme to question the importance of environmentally protective policies. Third, environmental scepticism endorses an anti-regulatory/anti-corporate liability position that flows from the first two claims. Lastly, environmental sceptics often cast environmental protection as threatening Western progress.

A key to the success of CTTs has been their ability to establish themselves as a true ‘counter-intelligentsia’ that has achieved equal legitimacy with mainstream science and academia—both of which have been effectively labelled as ‘leftist’ in order to legitimise CTT’s as providing ‘balance’ (Austin 2002). Beder (2001, p. 129) highlights this, noting that even though ‘think tanks have more in common with interest groups or pressure groups than academic institutions’, their representatives ‘are treated by the media as independent experts and … are often preferred to representatives from universities and interest groups as a source of expert opinion’. This has been a particularly notable accomplishment in the realm of scientific and environmental issues because CTTs are populated primarily by economists, policy analysts and legal scholars rather than natural scientists (Fischer 1991); the George C. Marshall Institute is an exception (Lahsen 2005).

The lack of in-house scientific expertise helps explain why CTTs have been quick to form relationships with the small number of academic scientists who support their views, as in the case of ‘climate sceptics’ (Lahsen 2005; McCright and Dunlap 2003). Doing so helps shield the fact that the sceptical position is strongly aligned with conservatism and the economic interests it represents (Austin 2002; Mooney 2005b), thus hiding from the public the underlying source of what appears on the surface to be another ‘policy debate’ among equally qualified experts (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1996; Lahsen 2005). …

As a result of their ready access to media (Dolny 2003), CTTs were able to create a situation in which major media outlets portrayed climate science as an evenly divided debate between sceptics and non-sceptics (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004) employing what McCright and Dunlap (2003, p. 366) term the ‘duelling scientists’ version of the balancing norm. The result is that US media have given disproportionate attention to the views of a small number of global warming sceptics (Antilla 2005; Boykoff 2007), and as a consequence have been significantly more likely than media in other industrial nations to portray global warming as a controversial issue characterised by scientific uncertainty (Dispensa and Brulle 2003; Gelbspan 2004; Grundmann 2007). …

The timing of sceptical books follows a noticeable trend, as illustrated in Table 2. There is a consistent increase in sceptical literature over time, starting with only six books in the 1970s and 14 in the 1980s. All save two of these 20 are by US authors. The 1990s saw a five-fold increase in sceptical literature over the preceding decade. Further, judging by the number of books published in its first six years, the current decade is on track to surpass the 1990s (see Table 2). …

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.

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