The countermovement formed by think tanks (idea laboratories, in Spanish) that deny climate change has been very active in Europe in the last decade, it has a neoliberal ideological profile and their speech resembles that of denialist organizations in the United States. These are the conclusions of the study that we have published in the journal Climatic Change within the framework of the THINKClima project, led by the Pompeu Fabra University.
At work we identify the eight think tanks deniers most important in Europe that publish in English, Spanish, German and French. To identify the arguments they use, we have analyzed all the texts on climate change published on their websites up to 2018 (1,669 texts over a 24-year period).
Our research aims study the reasons for climate inaction in Europe. The planet is experiencing an unprecedented climate crisis and it is urgent to adopt effective policies to reduce global warming gas emissions. There is evidence of human-caused climate change since the mid-nineteenth century and we have perfectly identified the main climate polluters. So why don’t we act on it?
Among the different economic, political, psychological and social aspects that influence climate inaction, we have long known that think tanks Deniers have had and still do have a very important role in the United States. Numerous studies have identified them as relevant drivers of climate inaction and protection of industries that emit more greenhouse gases in that country.
An investigation of this type has never been carried out in Europe. Through the THINKClima project, we have confirmed that there is also a group of think tanks climate change deniers with the same rhetoric and goals comparable to the US counter-movement.
The think tanks European deniers
The think tanks are organizations that seek impact political decision-making either directly or, more recently, also indirectly by trying to influence public opinion and the media.
Between the eight think tanks Identified as disseminators of denial ideas in Europe are organizations from six countries:
En el Reino Unido, el Centre For Policy Studies (CPS), la Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) y el Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA).
In France, the Institut Économique Molinari (IEM).
In Alemania, el European Institute for Climate and Energy (EIKE).
In Austria, the Austrian Economic Center (AEC).
In Switzerland, the Liberal Institut (LI).
In Spain, the Juan de Mariana Institute (IJM).
These organizations have in common a neoliberal ideology, that is, they defend the free market and minimal government intervention and adopt political positions close to political conservationism or even to the extreme right.
The climate counter-movement that these organizations make up it is of recent creation and it has been active in a relevant way for less than a decade.
Most of the think tanks identified were founded between 2003 and 2009. Despite the fact that the first text analyzed by our study is from 1994, there is no relevant denial content until 2007 and Most of the texts are published between 2014 and 2018.
Both peaks of denial publications (2007 and 2014) correspond to the appearance of the last two major reports of the IPCC (the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which would indicate a reaction to them.
Good relations between think tanks deniers and neoliberal and conservative political parties and the links between the denialist counter-movement in the US and British denialist organizations evidence the support and inspiration that European organizations may have received from American ones.
More importantly, the emergence of European denialism coincides with the emergence of far-right populist currents in Europe, with whom he sympathizes and has very good relations.
Rejection of scientific evidence
Research conducted over decades in the United States has revealed the main arguments used by climate change deniers in that country. Our study has confirmed that these arguments appear repeatedly in the think tanks deniers in Europe, who use the same rhetoric and ideas than American denial organizations.
Among these ideas, we have identified that even the most radical argument of all, the denial of the existence of climate change, which appears in up to 22.23% of the texts of the think tanks studied.
The resource most used by the European counter-movement is the unscientific criticism of activists and politicians that fight global warming, present in 63.93% of their publications.
Despite the existence of an almost total scientific consensus regarding the human origin of global warming, 37.30% of the texts of these think tanks defend the opposite, point to other causes or relativize the problem. Furthermore, 29.24% question the legitimacy of the IPCC.
European organizations also question the scientific dissemination of information related to climatology, something that happens in 49.43% of the texts. Finally, the argument that any policy is worse than global warming, which appears in 38.83% of the texts, is also widely used.
Almiron et. by 2020, Author provided
Relationship with neoliberalism
The eight European organizations identified as deniers reflect an ideology aligned with the neoliberal and conservative ideology. Arguments against climate action based on this ideological line appear in 39.25% of the texts we analyzed in the study.
Among these arguments stands out economic growth as a solution, the self-regulation of the market, the non-intervention of governments and the non-taxation of polluting products, among others.
The neoliberal orientation is similar to that shown by the think tanks American deniers, though the European climate counter-movement is more modest in number of organizations and resources. Despite this, it cannot be considered as a version light that of the United States, since it proclaims the same arguments in Europe, which are defended with the same belligerence.
Both we and the experts in the United States wonder about the reasons for this close symbiosis between neoliberalism and denialism. Some researchers have provided some answers. Among them is the complexity of the climate change phenomenon. Right-wing populism would view global warming as a threat to national interests and as a problem that cannot be reduced to simple solutions to be transmitted to the population.
There are also studies that associate the relationship between neoliberalism and climate change denial to the vulnerability of certain industrial masculinities. These masculinities are solidly anchored in technological rationality and the free market, as well as in the rejection of government intervention. According to these explanations, this identity would feel attacked by the climate movement and environmental demands, which would also justify its reluctance to assume the climate emergency.
Two sides of the same coin
In our opinion, another explanation could be that neoliberalism and climate change denialism they are not actually two separate phenomenabut a single evolving one.
Neoliberalism has been accumulating denialist arguments for decades regarding market capacity, social inequality, and the depletion of natural resources. Denying the climate crisis, its anthropogenic causes or its severity would be part of this irrational logic for protect the interests of some elites that they think they are safe. Elites who have benefited from the efforts of the think tanks on more than one occasion in the past.
It is important to note, however, the need to flee from the temptation to blame only the think tanks deniers, from here or from the United States, of climate inaction. Although their role has been very relevant in the United States, even there they cannot be considered the only culprits of the climate disaster. And it is evident that the political influence of the think tanks Deniers in Europe have been less, at least until today.
Climate change denialism is a complex phenomenon that encompasses different types of denial, as we have explained from THINKClima in a volume published in early 2020. Citizens and the media must be aware of the existence of an active denialist counter-movement formed by think tanks also in Europe, while remembering the responsibility that we all have in this crisis.
* Núria Almiron, professor of the Department of Communication, Pompeu Fabra University and Jose A. Moreno, predoctoral researcher in Communication, Pompeu Fabra University
** This article was originally published on The Conversation.