Climate Change Deniers Without Borders

How American oil money is pumping up climate change skeptics abroad—and how they could derail any progress made in Copenhagen.

<a href="">Flickr / yomanimus</a>; <a href="">Atlas Foundation</a>

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Writing two weeks ago in Poland’s most popular tabloid, the Super Express, an economic analyst named Tomasz Teluk claimed that a potential climate agreement in Copenhagen might double Poles’ electricity bills, hobble his coal-dependent country, and even lead to one-world government. Fortunately, he wrote, the “‘global warming’ scare” has been hugely overblown: “As each of us learned in elementary school, carbon dioxide is a gas essential to the development of life, not a poison, so you do not have to eliminate it at any price.”

Teluk, the founder of the Globalization Institute, a libertarian think tank, is Poland’s most prominent climate change skeptic. He has become a hero to Polish conservatives, who have convinced their government to resist strong emissions cuts and block the European Union from giving climate change assistance to developing nations. A leading Polish financial newspaper recently named his institute the country’s best think tank. But Teluk is hardly a homegrown climate skeptic. Much of his rhetoric, such as his claim that CO2 is good for you, echoes the well-worn claims of American skeptics. And much of Teluk’s newfound visibility can be traced back to his long-standing ties with conservative patrons and energy interests in the United States.

Americans have provided Teluk with jobs, fellowships, professional contacts, and money. This year, the Globalization Institute won a $10,000 grant from the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think-tank incubator that’s funded by ExxonMobil. Teluk isn’t alone. The Globalization Institute is part of a loose network of some 500 similar organizations in dozens of countries that are often bankrolled by American foundations that are, in turn, backed by carbon-spewing American industries. The foreign groups’ finances are opaque, yet an Atlas Foundation spokesman acknowledges that some of them wouldn’t exist without dollars being pumped in. In the coming months, these groups will lead the fight in their own countries to derail the shaky deal made in Copenhagen—which will likely prompt American skeptics to cite widespread international opposition to taking action on climate change.

With US-backed overseas think tanks parroting denier talking points in dozens of languages, the echo chamber is already up and running. “The correct policy approach to [the] non-problem [of climate change] is to have the courage to do nothing,” writes British skeptic Lord Christopher Monckton in an article summarized in Chinese on the website of the Beijing-based Cathay Institute for Public Affairs. As the United States stonewalled sub-Saharan African countries’ demands for more climate-related foreign aid in Copenhagen, the IMANI Center for Policy and Education in Ghana and three other African think tanks backed by American interests signed on to a letter blaming poor nations for invoking “the climate change scapegoat to explain hunger, sickness, and climate vulnerability.” 

This September, after President Obama repeatedly cited Spain’s success creating green jobs, congressional Republicans flew in Gabriel Calzada, president of Spain’s Instituto Juan de Mariana, to present a study claiming that each green job created in his country destroyed another 2.2 jobs. “Europe’s experience actually suggests that this is precisely the wrong approach,” he testified before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. (The study was debunked by the Spanish government.) 

At the center of this feedback loop is the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, which has supported more than 30 other foreign think tanks that espouse climate change skepticism. Atlas has given the Instituto de Juan Mariana more than $100,000. In 2008, it gave the IMANI Center for Policy & Education a $100,000 grant. It has also funded skeptic groups in the four nations whose governments just inked a controversial, last-minute climate deal with the United States in Copenhagen: the Cathay Institute in China, the Liberty Institute in India, the Free Market Foundation in South Africa, and the Instituto Liberdade in Brazil. 

Founded in 1981 and named after Ayn Rand’s free-market amorality tale, Atlas Shrugged, the Atlas Foundation has spent more than $20 million seeding some 200 libertarian think tanks across the globe as part of its Atlas Network. Much of its money has come from Phillip Morris; foundations tied to the Koch family, oil magnates who are leading funders of denier groups; and the Earhart Foundation, which was created from the profits of the now-defunct White Star Oil Company. Since 1998, ExxonMobil and its foundations have given Atlas nearly $1 million. Between 2002 and 2008, the last year for which tax records are available, Atlas’ budget more than tripled, nearly hitting $7 million, with the largest single portion going to grants for “think tanks in different regions of the world.” 

The Atlas Network overlaps with other international networks that share its climate change skepticism and fossil fuel funders. Foundations linked to ExxonMobil, the Koch family, and other conservative interests have donated more than $1 million to Canada’s Fraser Institute, which in turn supports a network of think tanks in 71 countries that promote “economic freedom.” Exxon, the Kochs, and other foundations tied to American oil money have also helped bankroll the British-based International Policy Network. In 2007, IPN created the Civil Society Coalition on Climate Change, a group of 59 “independent civil society organizations” from 40 countries, “as a response to the many biased and alarmist claims about human-induced climate change.”

Some US companies and climate denial groups have taken a more targeted approach to funding their foreign allies. In 2004, ExxonMobil gave $80,000 to the Centre for the New Europe-USA for its “global climate change education efforts.” In 2007, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, which has received money from Exxon, granted $135,000 to four skeptic think tanks in Canada and New Zealand, followed by $182,000 to foreign groups in 2008, according to tax filings (it didn’t say which groups received the money). The Washington, DC-based Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow supports a German affiliate, CFACT-Europe, which put on a conference for climate change skeptics in Berlin earlier this year and protested the climate talks last week. “We want to get rid of this whole climate topic to focus on environmental problems again,” CFACT-Europe director Holger Thuss said before marching with about 30 other demonstrators through downtown Copenhagen.

Thuss is reluctant to admit his ties to American donors. “We are not funded by the same people [as CFACT-US],” he said, though CFACT’s president told Mother Jones that he gives the European group “a little bit of support when we can.” Other leaders of foreign think tanks are similarly dodgy. Emmanuel Martin, who edits the French-language website Un Monde Libre and frequently disputes climate science on his blog for the newspaper Le Monde, at first told me that “Atlas has not given me any orders or any financing on anything to do with the subject” of climate change. When told that an Atlas employee in Washington had described him to me as “our editor” and said that “he gets a lot of support from Atlas,” Martin clarified that “Atlas effectively finances a good part of our events” but maintained that his writings are entirely his own.

Yet Martin’s Un Monde Libre website is part of the Atlas Global Initiative for Free Trade, Peace, and Prosperity, a program that operates websites in 14 languages. (Atlas inherited the program from the libertarian Cato Institute in January.) Martin and other local “intellectual entrepreneurs,” as Atlas calls them, translate and syndicate Atlas-generated content, such as a recent interview about Climategate with Cato’s resident global warming skeptic. “We provide the literature and ideas,” says Global Initiative general director Tom Palmer in a recent video promoting the program. “We go and find the entrepreneurs, and then we can slot them right into all of the flagship programs that have made Atlas so successful.”

“There are some [think tanks] that wouldn’t be able to survive without us,” says Austin Petersen, Atlas’ new media program manager. “But they get grants from all kinds of different places, not just from Atlas. There is no way we’d be able to support the whole network by ourselves.”

In an email, Teluk of Poland’s Globalization Institute writes that direct financial support from American funders “was not crucial” to launching his group. Yet he’s clearly benefitted from their support in other ways. Teluk says he was first exposed to free-market think tanks at a conference in Rome hosted by the International Society for Individual Liberty, a libertarian group based in Arizona. He later won a scholarship at George Mason University’s Institute for Humane Studies, a haven for climate change deniers that receives funding from the Koch family foundations. In 2003, while working toward his doctorate in philosophy in Krakow, Teluk got a job with TCS Daily, an online opinion journal published by the DCI Group, a PR firm known for its corporate Astroturf campaigns. TCS received $95,000 for “climate change support” from ExxonMobil that year. “Quite frankly, someone that doesn’t have their PhD, they aren’t a noted academic yet,” says Todd Kruse, who hired Teluk while serving as a vice president at DCI, “and getting published on a journal like that gets them noticed and helps them branch out.” 

Recounting his professional history on the Atlas website this summer, Teluk thanked Kruse for helping to launch his career. He also mentioned current DCI vice president Henrik Rasmussen and TCS founder James K. Glassman, a former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy in the previous administration who now leads the George W. Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University. (Neither responded to requests for comment.) Teluk wrote that “it would have been impossible to create” his own organization without them.

In 2005, Teluk founded the Globalization Institute in Gliwice, a small city near the Czech border. Shortly before international climate negotiators gathered in Poland for a final round of pre-Copenhagen negotiations in late 2008, the Globalization Institute published a book in Polish titled The Mythology of the Greenhouse Effect. The book spawned more than a dozen articles in leading Polish media outlets; several were op-eds penned by Teluk under headlines such as “Environmentalists Cause the Greenhouse Effect.” More recently, the Globalization Institute and its allies circulated an open letter to the Copenhagen negotiators demanding “Free trade, no climate taxes!” and calling climate change “nothing more than a scientific hypothesis.” The institute’s science advisory board includes Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation staffers.

Teluk is confident that he’s helping keep Poland out of a global suicide pact. “We are one of the most recognized groups opposing ‘global warming’ hysteria,” he writes in an email. “We are present in all mainstream media, dailies, TV, radio and Internet. Decision-makers read our reports, books and comments.” He adds: “There is no scientific evidence that current global warming is caused by humans. CO2 is a gas of life, not a poison. We believe that a movement that calls a gas of life ‘a poison’ is a movement against human life.”

The Atlas Economic Research Foundation has supported more than 30 foreign think tanks that espouse skepticism about the science of climate change. Groups in this list promote climate change skepticism or are members of the Civil Society Coalition on Climate Change, which was organized “as a response to the many biased and alarmist claims about human-induced climate change.” 


Argentina: La Fundación Atlas 1853

Australia: Institute of Public Affairs; Centre for Independent Studies

Brazil: Instituto Liberdade

Bulgaria: Institute for Market Economics

Burkina Faso: Le Centre des Affaires Humaines

Canada: Frontier Centre for Public Policy

China: Cathay Institute for Public Affairs

Chile: Libertad y Desarrollo

Costa Rica: Asociación de Consumidores Libres 

Czech Republic: Liberální Institut

Denmark: Center for Political Studies

Ecuador: Instituto Ecuatoriano de Economía Política 

Georgia: New Economic School

Ghana: IMANI Center for Policy and Education

Honduras: Instituto Veritas

Hong Kong: Lion Rock Institute

India: Liberty Institute

Israel: Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies

Italy: Instituto Bruno Leoni

Lithuania: Lithuanian Free Market Institute

Nigeria: Initiative for Public Policy Analysis

Pakistan: Alternate Solutions Institute 

Paraguay: Centro Paraguayo Para la Promoción de la Libertad Económica y la Justicia Social

Peru: Instituto de Libre Empresa

Poland: Globalization Institute

Slovakia: Institute of Economic and Social Studies

South Africa: Free Market Foundation

Switzerland: Liberales Institut

Turkey: Association for Liberal Thinking

Venezuela: Centro de Divulgación de Conocimiento Económico Para la Libertad 

Mother Jones reporter Kate Sheppard contributed reporting to this story.


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