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Separating climate fact from climate fiction has become difficult due to the misinformation and disinformation rampant across contemporary media. Climate change denial has recently become a relatively fringe viewpoint but is now regaining popularity and influence. Various actors, whether they are media personalities or think tanks, have been central in legitimizing climate denialism.

Think tanks are mainly non-governmental research organizations that create economic or social policy recommendations. Still, this definition is broad and demonstrates how their focus and mandate will be unique to each institution. Many think tanks partner with lobbying groups for major natural resource industries to influence public discussions regarding climate change. In this way, think tanks often impact environmental degradation worldwide in hidden ways.

As the media coverage on climate change has increased, think tanks have taken advantage of the attention it receives to affect environmental policy quietly. As their influence has substantially grown in international environmental politics, this has delayed government action on a global and time-sensitive issue. 

Although special interests in politics will always exist, the problem with think tanks lies in their secretive nature. The average person is unlikely to know the name of a think tank, let alone their political stances, where their information comes from, and who they donate to. Understanding the ongoing influence of think tanks and lobbyists on environmental policy are thus crucial to our ability to assess statistics, information, and bias obtained from various forms of media going forward.

Understanding Think Tanks

Though research groups of academics and scholars have been around for about as long as formal Western education has, think tanks, in their current form, have existed since before World War I. These early institutions researched policy issues and recommended ways to maintain peace and globalization. At a time when total war between Western countries was much more common, this noble objective lent them credibility. As a full-on war in Europe became rare, these think tanks slowly shifted their focus towards ensuring their country’s success on the world stage. Most of them were based in the United States, which meant that cooperation was less of a priority and that they were more likely to pursue their own interests and relationships.

As the Cold War concluded in the late 1980s, the number of existing think tanks rose dramatically. The credibility and influence these institutions had gathered, combined with their greater tendency to pursue their interests in areas beyond just economic policy, came to a head in their effects on environmental policy. For example, the numerous conservative-leaning think tanks sponsored by the Koch brothers, a pair of American billionaires, have been central in creating the blueprint for climate change denial since at least the 1990s. Their ability to lobby politicians globally for less environmental regulation continues climate inaction in numerous ways. 

Think Tank Overreach – When Influence Becomes Control 

A think tank may appear beneficial in theory. Allowing groups independent of the government with expertise and up-to-date knowledge to some level of input in the decision-making process on important issues can strengthen democracy. Fewer and fewer think tanks operate in this way, however. The obscure ties between think tanks and government and corporate elites are a serious blow to their credibility, with many legislators worldwide aiming to introduce measures to crack down on this. 

The influence of think tanks on government and corporate officials is felt today around the globe. The Atlas Network, an American libertarian think tank, has slowly chipped away Indigenous land rights in Canada. They have repeatedly sponsored efforts to stall the Canadian government’s implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which would grant more decision-making over land use to Indigenous groups across the country. By coordinating with elected officials and special interest groups, Atlas has delayed these efforts to protect the lucrative oil and gas trade that unfolds on Canadian territories. 

This activity is not exclusive to North America. Indian Ocean tuna fishing, governed by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), has recently seen problems with finding a solution to overfishing. Despite the Indian Ocean being thousands of kilometres from Europe, EU officials are overrepresented within the IOTC compared to local Indian Ocean stakeholders. Likewise, industry lobbyists on the commission have been slowly outnumbering the elected delegates. As a result, the efforts of the IOTC to ban the commercial use of fish-aggregating devices, having already contributed to declining tuna populations, have been halted by these pro-industry voices. This case signals the prioritization of overseas profits and growth over sustainable practice.  

While the mismanagement of the environment is no doubt a global concern, decision-making surrounding specific cases of land use needs to be led by those most affected by the outcomes. Instead, we see the opposite, with more multinational and non-governmental organizations becoming involved in these processes and eventually creating more political gridlock.

Cutting Through the Noise

These various instances of think tank influence in real-time demonstrates the dilution of the democratic process. With many different voices and special interest groups being empowered to auction their variously informed opinions to the highest bidder, it is hard not to see how their continued existence fuels climate change inaction. The links between supposedly independent research groups and initiatives against climate change deserve to be more widely known, as they amount to overt bribery at their worst and corruption at best. 

Furthermore, only 3 of the top 25 most influential think tanks skew progressive. Given the overwhelming industry ties in the energy sectors to liberal and conservative think tanks, this demonstrates a worrying trend for climate change prospects. Market-driven policies advocated by these specific institutions have historically missed the forest for the trees. By encouraging lawmakers to pursue economic growth above all else, liberal free-market advocates have created an ecosystem that incentivizes self-interested energy corporations to continue the harmful production of fossil fuels beyond what society needs. Corporations are also simultaneously discouraged from investing in clean infrastructure because they are not profitable in the short term. When so many of these institutions skew to one end of the political spectrum without disclosing their biases, their work eventually resembles more of a propaganda machine than an independent research group. 

While they may intend to provide a level playing field for discussing environmental issues, our contemporary media landscape has ensured that the opposite is true. Some think tanks advocate for climate denialism, while others are spelling out the imminent doom for our world without immediate action. As such, it is not difficult to understand that most people are having trouble separating what is real from what is not. 

Though think tanks may have been operating out of the best interest of democracy in the past — and may still be able to strike a better balance moving forward — something needs to change. Media consumers can do their part by engaging with resources that follow the money and interests of institutions like this to combat both misinformation and unnecessary alarmism. Holding these faceless organizations accountable will help ensure their information can be trusted moving forward. Regarding an important issue like climate change, the general public ultimately needs to hold think tanks and other media institutions to a higher standard of transparency, accuracy, and accountability. 

Edited by Zander Chila

Henry Stevens

Henry is originally from Waterloo, Ontario and is currently attending UBC in Vancouver where he is completing his B.A in history with a minor in international relations. His studies focus closely on global...