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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.

| Tue Dec. 22, 2009 7:59 AM EST

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.

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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."

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