• Katie Babson

The Cost of Conservative Fossil Fuel Think Tanks


Fossil fuel think tanks, like the Cato Institute, rely on climate doubt to perpetuate messages of pro-fossil fuels by attacking climate scientists, denying the integrity of climate change, and relying on biased scientists, such as Patrick Michaels. Overall, this enables Big Oil to continue exploiting fossil fuels and worsen global warming. Therefore there must be more transparency from “climate experts” and think tanks to provide the American public with credible information and enable us to critically evaluate what is being said.

Fossil fuel lobbying aggressively seeks to instill climate doubt in the American public through fossil fuel-funded front groups, also referred to as conservative “think tanks” or “institutes”. These fossil fuel-sponsored think tanks use pro-fossil-fuel messages to influence the media and public opinion on issues centered around climate change and energy to foster climate doubt. The goal of instilling climate doubt is incredibly successful because fossil fuel corporations do not need to prove climate change is not happening; rather, only that there is insufficient evidence to warrant regulation on fossil fuels. Thus, this strategy enables fossil fuel companies to gain public support to suppress effective climate legislation through think tanks. This is so effective because it obscures the link between the think tank and the fossil fuel industry, making these entities appear separate when, in reality, think tanks are sponsored by Big Oil. Conservative think tanks provide a method for fossil fuel corporations to attack climate science and deny the credibility of global warming without explicitly stating anything, allowing them to remain in the background.

According to the Checks and Balances Project, which created an analysis of fossil fuel-funded organizations in major publications, fossil fuel interests spent $16.5 million between 2007 to 2011 on 10 organizations that described themselves as “think tanks” or “institutes”. Subsequently, it was found that such organizations were conveying messages that were pro-fossil-fuel and outright denied the existence of climate change. Such organizations include big names like the Cato Institute, Heartland Institute, and Marshall Institute, all of which attacked clean energy, solutions to climate change, and environmental issues. These donations primarily came from four fossil fuel organizations: the Charles G. Koch Foundation and the Claude R. Lambe Foundation, both of which are directly controlled by the Koch family who owns the major fossil fuel conglomerate Koch Industries, as well as from the Earhart Foundation and ExxonMobil. This demonstrates the colossal efforts taken to sponsor fossil fuel think tanks and forge a narrative of scientific distrust to advocate for fossil fuel use.

Such advocacy for fossil fuels and climate change denial is apparent in the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank founded by activist Ed Crane, economist Murray Rothbard, and businessman Charles Koch. The Cato Institute has made it clear that fossil fuel use is the only option for energy, commenting in 2012 that “fossil fuels not only saved humanity from nature’s whims but nature from humanity’s demands”. This statement takes common concerns people have about the consequences of fossil fuels on the environment and twists them in such a way to say that not having fossil fuels is even more harmful. In addition, despite being funded a cumulative $1,385,975 by the four previously listed fossil fuel organizations, there remains no mention of this funding from fossil fuels on any of their climate denial articles, fossil fuel advocacy papers, or website. Despite accepting Big Oil’s money, the Cato Institute asserts they seek to “build a society that is freer, happier, and more prosperous”. But the science is clear: climate change is happening and threatens our freedom, happiness, and prosperity. The Cato Institute explicitly asserting that they strive to improve society, while also having close connections to the fossil fuel industry, highlights the deep-rooted hypocrisy present within these think tanks.

To reinforce climate denial, the Cato Institute worked closely with climate scientist Patrick Michaels, who is described as the previous director of the Center for the Study of Science. He also has a list of impressive credentials, including a Ph.D. in ecological climatology, and served as a reviewer on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But what is most distressing is that despite being an environmental scientist, Michaels has estimated that 40% of his work is funded by the petroleum industry, when interrogated in an interview about where his funding comes from. This clearly demonstrates a serious conflict of interest. Michaels also has a long history of distorting other climate scientists' work, dishonestly misrepresenting climate research, and even going so far as to manipulate other scientists’ work by erasing inconvenient data.

While this has occurred several times, the most blatant example involves the 1988 Congressional testimony of Dr. James Hansen, where Hansen presented his study on projections of future global warming to Congress. Hansen developed three different scenarios, A, B, and C, to demonstrate how the planet would respond based on greenhouse gas growth: Scenario A assumed exponential greenhouse growth, Scenario B assumed linear growth rate, and Scenario C assumed a rapid decline in greenhouse emissions. However, ten years after his testimony, Michaels was asked to testify a separate time before Congress. In doing this, Michaels removed Scenarios B and C, which wholly misrepresented Hansen’s projections and accuracy and incorrectly argued that the planet had warmed “more than four times less than Hansen predicted”. This resulted in incredibly detrimental ramifications. Michaels’ testimony misled policymakers as they decided whether or not to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the Kyoto Protocol. Ultimately, Michaels got what he sought, and the Kyoto Protocol was never ratified.

It is clear that the Cato Institute’s involvement with Patrick Michaels was meant to further perpetuate climate denial by appearing to have a “credible” environmental scientist, thus making their encouragement for fossil fuels more appealing to the public and reinforcing the status quo. Fossil fuel companies’ involvement with sponsoring think tanks has buried science through stifling research, distorting information, and influencing governmental policies. To combat the conflicting interests apparent with think tanks and associated experts, there must be more transparency. As suggested by the Checks & Balances Project, we must ask supposed climate experts “Do you get money, directly or indirectly, from interests that stand to benefit from what you are saying?” This will inform the American public on whether an opinion is biased or not, as well as enable the public to critically analyze what is being asserted.

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