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Atlas Network strategies: how fossil fuel is using “think” tanks to delay action

Australians should be wondering why the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), one of the country’s proudest think tanks, has just established a body promoting nuclear energy that appears to have little to justify it. If the CIS truly believes in the project, surely it would have sought a leader with a stellar resumé?

Earlier this year, environmental journalist George Monbiot warned that the chance of simultaneous harvest failures in the world’s major breadbaskets was “much worse than we thought.” He poured his fury onto the old industries deploying as many Atlas Network-style “junktanks (‘thinktanks’), troll farms, marketing gurus, psychologists and micro-targeters as they need to drag our eyes away from what counts, and leave us talking about trivia and concocted bullshit instead.”

The 500+ global “partner” bodies of the Atlas Network have, for decades, been forming metastasising entities such as “think” tanks to create the sense of a chorus of academic or public support for the junk science and junk political economies that serve their funders. The primary goals have been to liberate plutocrats from any tax or regulation, and fossil fuel bodies have been amongst their most prolific donors.

By contrast with the billions spent to “stop collapse from being prevented,” the effort to prevent Earth systems collapse is led by people “working mostly in their own time with a fraction of the capacity.”

The Atlas strategy involves networking promising ultra-free market spruikers with the astonishing sums of money that fossil fuel and similar industries spend to promote their goals. The spruikers can be trained and cross-connected. Some are helped to create benign-named bodies that describe themselves as think tanks or academic institutes (beachheads) in universities. They found fake grass roots bodies (astroturfing) to pressure politicians into believing that there is public support for a policy. Youthful scholars or strategists co-opted and funded by the machine go on to export the work into politics and the media.

One Australian example is the founder of the Australian Taxpayer Alliance, Tim Andrews. He was a graduate of the Koch Associate Program, a year-long training program at the Charles Koch institute, and worked at the Atlas-partner Americans for Tax Reform for two years. Koch is one of the most significant figures in the Atlas Network’s spread. Andrews is now a member of the UK Atlas Partner, the Taxpayer Alliance Advisory Council.

High profile mining figures in particular unite many of these bodies. In Australia, Hugh Morgan’s name, for example, is present in many of their histories. He assisted Greg Lindsay in turning the CIS from a “part-time hobby” into the more serious institution that it became. Morgan was described in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1985 as “the most important conservative figure in Australia. He is not merely an outspoken captain of industry, he is at the centre of a large and growing network of activists who are seeking to reshape the political agenda in this country.”

In America there is an extensive web of such networks and bodies that interact together. The Atlas Network is important for its international forays into 100 countries, working to infect debate with this American ideology that overwhelmingly promotes the right of corporations to extract resources at any cost to the nation exploited.

The CIS claims to encourage “debate among leading academics, politicians, media and the public.” It announces itself to be “proud to be associated with some of the greatest leaders in business and academia as visiting lecturers or as CIS members, staff or Directors.”

The CIS tended to maintain the dignity that mission statement conveys. It has traditionally acted in the background by contrast with the blowsy, brawling Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). The contrast is even starker with the farcical LibertyWorks Inc which created the local Trumpist circus, the Australian Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). These two Atlas partners are best known for devising “low” strategy campaigns identifiable as a “war on woke.”

The HR Nicholls Society, like the CIS, pitched its campaigning as “high” strategy: intellectually framed and directed at the upper echelons of civic debate. West Australia’s Mannkal Economic Education Foundation is tightly connected with the Mont Pelerin Society. Queensland’s Australian Institute for Progress, the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Australian Libertarian Society are all amongst the benign-sounding bodies that have been recorded as partners to Atlas.

The Bert Kelly Research Centre, which was linked to the Family First ultraconservative movement, and the Bennelong Society, which acted to fight any First People policy apart from assimilation, are defunct Atlas-connected operations.

Bennelong (denying First People’s self-determination) and HR Nicholls’ (shackling workers) shared a post box and phone number with the Lavoisier Group which continues to post climate denial material. The websites for Lavoisier and Bennelong were designed by a functionary at the IPA.

GetUp! was founded to give the electorate a voice against Dark Money in 2005. This challenge to state capture could not be allowed to stand: to counteract the progressive electorate’s voice, figures associated with the CIS established Advance Australia. As Advance, it led the No campaign for the Voice referendum, reflecting fossil fuel money’s fear of First Peoples’ rights working in cooperation with environmental goals. Dr Jeremy Walker highlighted the Atlas connections and strategies involved while investigative journalist Anthony Klan tracked the people and money that connect the various shadowy bodies that spawned from the parent.

It is not CIS’s fault that this tawdry astroturf collective shared founders, funders and “researchers” with the more dignified CIS.

The CIS Communications Director Karla Pincott recently informed that the CIS was not founded nor funded by Atlas, neither of which has been asserted. Amongst the body’s proudly “public record” and “peer-reviewed” research, she claimed that the CIS’s only “carbon research to date has recommended a carbon tax.”

In the light of this comment it is interesting that the CIS has just announced the creation of its new “CIS Energy Program” which “will offer tangible energy solutions to address concerns about climate change, focusing on nuclear power and the clean energy transition.”

With CIS’s proud tradition of proclaimed reputable research, one would imagine that such a program would be led by a notable figure in the energy field, perhaps a leading academic or professional.

The figure selected to head up this project describes himself as “not a professional with any sort of industry inside experience” nor does he have any “particular credentials.” Instead he is a “kind of interested, enthusiastic layperson.” He says he “sort of stumbled across” the Twitter (X) debate and “threw my two cents in.” While he has a physics degree, he sums himself up thus: “I follow things on Twitter a little bit. I’m interested in economics. I’m interested in energy. I’m interested in physical systems. I’m interested in military technology.” When discussing his climb to relevance as a Twitter debater this year, Morrison said, “I barely even know…I know a couple of the energy debaters.” One would imagine that a person selected to head up a CIS research project would know the thought leaders in the field.(1)

Morrison’s latest video production is much more sophisticated than earlier efforts.

Incidentally, a 16 year-old who is another leading voice via “Nuclear for Australia” has been harnessed by Sky News for the Coalition.

Tom Switzer, departing presenter of the ABC’s “Between the Lines” gave the youth the full 55 minutes of his show. Switzer is also executive director of the CIS where he announced his thinktank’s new “Energy Program” as an opportunity to use the “market” to drive clean energy goals instead of “pitting economic growth against climate goals.” He did not speak to how Morrison himself was selected.

The Liberal Party is promoting the “small modular reactor” as an alternative to renewables. It has long been established that this is a distraction rather than an affordable change. It is believed that the LNP and associates’ support for nuclear power is another in the long list of distractions that the fossil fuel industry has funded to delay and prevent change.

Figures from “think” tanks are platformed on current affairs programs and quoted as though they have expertise. Their important or benign-sounding body’s names give gravitas to their declarations. Their donors are generally concealed and thus their intent can be treated with some suspicion.

On the 18th December, Chris Kenny on Sky hosted “CIS Energy Program Director Aidan Morrison” as a “data scientist” who has conducted an “expert review” of the grid planning. Morrison’s study, in Kenny’s summary, “has concluded these documents play all sorts of tricks to try to ensure that renewables look like the cheapest option, when in fact they’re not.” (2) Kenny stated Morrison’s data science “work has been so impressive he’s just been appointed to head up the Energy Research Program for the Centre of Independent Studies.” Kenny incorrectly accuses that the renewable energy push has “already caused huge supply problems and cost increases in our electricity grid” and is “now set to make problems even worse.” The pair both criticise the exclusion of nuclear as a solution, portraying it as an ideological decision rather than a pragmatic one. Kenny uses Morrison’s work to conclude: “we have expert confirmation that it might not even work. We might not have enough energy available when we need it. An energy rich country without enough energy…What a shambles.”(3)

Australia must legislate to ensure that such bodies are transparent about funding. Charity status should only be granted to bodies that work with integrity. Figures who represent these bodies ought to be labelled at every appearance as representing vested interests if they cannot meet the required standard for integrity.

Fossil fuel has delayed the global community acting in a calm and relatively painless way last century, in order to ensure it extracts profit as long as possible. Far North Queensland is right now experiencing unprecedented floods, another in a concatenation of “unprecedented” catastrophes. It will soon be too late. We are long past tolerating delaying strategies.

If “think” tanks want to be treated as having credibility, then this new “CIS Energy Program” is a troubling signal.

And we truly hope their mission statement remains: “The Centre for Independent Studies promotes free choice and individual liberty, and defends cultural freedom and the open exchange of ideas.”

Postscript: The Leader made an incorrect assertion about the new Gencost report on a 2GB interview on the 21st December criticising it for examining costs through an investment lens. That incorrect assertion was later repeated by a senior Liberal figure.

———————-

(1) This is Morrison’s full introduction to himself when asked to provide his relevant background to be a guest on a podcast about baseload energy. I have cleaned it up for clarity by removing repetition and most linguistic fillers. The sound was quite distorted at some points but I listened to it repeatedly to achieve the fairest representation of Morrison’s words. “I’m not a professional with any sort of industry inside experience or anything like yourself. I’m a data scientist at the moment. I work writing computer code to trade in futures and other assets. So I don’t have any special technical insight other than [physics degree?] which I suppose helps in deciphering some of these things. So I’m an …kind of interested, enthusiastic layperson. People can hold that against me if they want but I hope they do their best to focus on the arguments and engage with them as opposed to just writing off [people and credentials?] on me. I do have a physics degree. I studied [at ANU…?] I’ve always been a bit of a fan of nuclear power since I studied nuclear physics. I found that it was a really compelling thing. All the solutions to make the problems, which it has, well managed, just seem extremely elegant, extremely satisfying. And I think when you engage with those from a physics perspective, it’s easy to get quite excited by it. But so I follow things on Twitter a little bit. I’m interested in economics. I’m interested in energy. I’m interested in physical systems. I’m interested in military technology. I have a little nascent, fledgling YouTube channel called Miltechntac that I’m working on getting some more videos out for. But yeah, that’s me. I just sort of stumbled across this and threw my two cents in.”

(2) Morrison’s review of renewable’s arguments in the same podcast sounds like this: “Their whole model and what they’ve done there to me is totally opaque and it could be a complete and utter mess. I don’t think I can fix it by just adding in one thing. Maybe it’s right though, and I can’t see exactly other ways in which it’s clearly wrong. I’ve got a few ideas actually. But they need to come back and produce a credible and transparent model that does incorporate all the costs we actually incur for those later stages of renewables, not riding on sunk cost. And there could be other problems still maybe, but they can start with this that they have definitely not included the cost of building the infrastructure up to 2030…”

(3) Threats to the power grid remain rare. The warning in NSW last week was the result of two units at the Mr Piper coal power station being offline, one unexpectedly. The blackout did not eventuate. Power prices have largely resulted in massive windfall profits for the gas sector. The other talking points spread by nuclear boosters are addressed in the latest Gencost report just released.

It is important to remember Brandolini’s Law.

 

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7 comments

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  1. RomeoCharlie

    The pernicious, widespread, incredibly funded spider web of right wing ‘think’ tanks, hurts my head thinking about it. So many people funded to find so many ways to fight and frustrate the completely necessary transition to a renewables sourced power, versus the under-funded truth tellers makes me despair for the future my grandchild will experience. What hope is there when even the government we thought cared for the environment, just even a little bit, has apparently capitulated to the fossil fuel industries?

  2. Christina Macpherson

    A very welcome article.
    The ATLAS Network has its tentacles all over the place, and now, especially in Australia.
    The ATLAS Network doesn’t so much tell its affilates what to say, but, more effectively and sinisterly – HOW TO SAY IT.
    George Orwell would have been in awe of its brilliant NewSpeak.
    Its simplicity is indeed awesome. You just repeat a word phrase over and over again – the more meaningless, vague and ambiguous the better, though a straight out lie is effective too.
    Examples – “CLEAN” nuclear energy , “IF YOU DON’T KNOW, Vote No” – in relation to referendum on Aboriginal Voice to Parliament.
    I’m betting that the nuclear push will continue, with these top phrases “Part Of The Energy Mix” “Part Of The Energy Solution”

  3. Andrew Smith

    Classic fossil fueled deny, delay, deflect & disrupt transition to renewable sources, even though the latter is more economic, but submerged by these RW media PR stunts on nuclear and related, that also change how Australians think on, or perceive public issues.

    Regarding links and ‘astroturfing’ by coincidence ’22 UK’s ByLine Times TV hosted Zion Lights, formerly of Extinction Rebellion, promoting nuclear, but without their science guy but (guess) two humanities graduates hosting, did not push back; quick search found her previously promoting same on Sky News After Dark…..small world?

    An Australian is also employed by Atlas in Washington, Vale Sloane their Director Development https://www.atlasnetwork.org/our-people/vale-sloane (related, 18 months ago they disappeared the click through directory links for their presence in each country, after being shared too often; aversion to transparency?).

    On Monbiot’s comments about media, locally we’re ‘boiling frogs’, subjected to media ‘filling the zone’ with rubbish, but many presume they are informed, yet can suffer information overload, precluding context, analysis and understanding of core policy issues e.g. deferring to beliefs, sentiments and heuristic shortcuts; see ABC News Just In for a horror mash of violence etc. in regions while offshore issues attract bland looks….

    On the media, across the Anglosphere it’s the same predictable issues or ‘levers’ reemerging and being pushed including ‘cost of living’, ‘housing’, ‘immigration’ etc. ‘crises’, generally apportioned to or focus is on undefined ‘immigrants’ and ‘wedging’ the centre, but it’s not just an electoral strategy (also an ideology, see Cafe con leche Republicans* warning of Tanton in ‘Smoking Gun Memo’ a decade ago).

    The neo nativism of Tanton Network, shares donors with Atlas or Koch Network in US; he was described by former Reagan aide Linda Chavez as ‘the most influential unknown man in America’ (NYT), white nationalist John ‘passive eugenics’ Tanton, admired white Australia policy, visited and hosted by NGO SPA.

    Like Koch’s economic muse ‘segregation economist’ Buchanan whose policies according to Mayer, were so unpalatable he had to be kept in the background (behind Friedman, von Hayek, Rand et al.), ditto Tanton, but the latter’s agitprop is expressed indirectly via words and slogans of e.g. Bannon, Farage et al..

    However, it’s quite simple to recognise Tanton’s ideology (or synthesis of others) echoed through talking points i.e. already deeply embedded amongst too many in media, academia, politics and society. *His lobbying & PR advice was simple, get people talking about refugees, borders and immigrants negatively, to reinforce the messaging vs. the centre, for the far right.

    No coincidence that Atlas – Koch shares donors with Tanton (with Christian CNP in between), as Tanton emerged from the Rockefeller Bros. Fund (Standard Oil/Exxon) supported ZPG Zero Population Growth and complement each other in media or public ‘one twos’.

    For example, carbon emission pricing policies derailed by RW media campaigns, nuclear, faux economic arguments, shooting messengers etc. and including the old ‘sustainable population’ dog whistle to deflect by suggesting that (post 1970s) immigrants & population growth are the ‘environmental’ (hygiene) issues of our time; in Europe seen via ‘pensioner populism’ and Brexit.

    Both networks clearly share the ‘science’ of eugenics and the pecking order, to keep fossil fuels and <0.1% in clover, or in other words corrupt Christian nationalist authoritarianism and ‘collective narcissism’ of too many older voters, to keep youth, educated, diverse and the future, at bay.

  4. Lucy Hamilton

    Hey, Cangaru, Leefe, Phil Pryor and New England Cocky. This one’s for you, chaps.
    At least focus on the second half. 😉

  5. leefe

    Thanks Lucy, that was a fascinating read. I appreciate your dedication to this level of research.

  6. Canguro

    re. leefe’s comment; “I appreciate your dedication to this level of research,” that’s far more generous than the Communications Director for a certain ‘think tank’ of recent focus could offer, preferring instead to globally categorise this community of commentators on The AIMN as the ‘tin foil hat brigade’, which, inferentially, implies we’re all a bunch of numbnuts without a quorum of functioning brain cells between the entirety. Ad hominen attacks are the mark of intellectual lowbrows, and it is most certainly not to the credit of this self-described ‘think tank’ that they would tolerate such public utterances by a member of their staff.

    As for Lucy’s latest essay, it’s yet another example of her diligent commitment to winkling the truth out from the surrounds of obfuscation and concealment within language spoken & written. Well done! Another Koala stamp coming your way.

  7. Ken Fabian

    Advertising, PR, Lobbying, Strategic Donating, Tactical Lawfare, Post Politics Payoffs and Tankthink – a well honed kit of tools for influencing politicians and amoral media platforms and public opinion.

    But it took politicians holding the highest Offices abandoning their responsibility for confronting it as their duty of care – and Highest Courts in turn unwilling to hold them to it – to make climate change a matter of public opinion, where every aspect can be doubted and questioned and ThinkTank spin has equal standing with the considered conclusions of the world’s leading science agencies. And it took amoral, partisan media to market BS as the product. One of the key lies is that the global warming problem is something driven by extremist green politics (and greatly exaggerated) and not by the top level science based advice – the advice that governments commissioned themselves in order to (supposedly) make informed decisions.

    As for why nuclear is the option pro-fossil fuels climate science deniers and opponents of renewable energy say they like best?

    Promoting the most expensive and difficult and slow to build option in parallel with mocking derision for people who take global warming (and renewable energy) seriously isn’t even the most dissonant of the contradictory and delusionally dissonant things the Doubt, Deny, Delay crowd deal in – but when everyone knows they don’t really mean it it stops being dissonant or even especially noteworthy.

    They pretend they have put up a better-than-anything course for emissions reductions and pretend to be standing firm whilst furiously backing down (we’ll just have to keep supporting fossil fuels but it is green’s fault) in the face of the inevitable and especially the more extreme anti-nuclear sentiments their idiot pronouncements were intended to incite.

    Meanwhile their local member on the ground efforts focus is on opposing and obstructing the things that will make renewables work reliably (batteries, wind farms especially off-shore, transmission projects) and using astro-turf nimby style campaigns, trying to turn environmentalist against renewable energy and other environmentalists. Because, having made it up that the climate issue is driven by green politics instead of the science based advice I think they greatly mis-estimate how much is driven by people apart from environmentalists who take it all very seriously.

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