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Meet the Shadowy Global Network of Right-Wing Think Tanks

For decades, the think tanks associated with the little-known Atlas Network have pushed to criminalize climate protest around the world.

Maja Hitij/Getty Images
Activists of the Last Generation (Letzte Generation) climate action movement are blocked by police during a demonstration on April 21, in Berlin.

Earlier this year, news footage began making the rounds on social media of young activists from the German climate organization Letzte Generation (Last Generation) being assaulted as they obstructed streets in an effort to draw attention to the German government’s inaction on climate. A young woman, with her hand glued to the asphalt, was ripped off the road by her hair; a young man was run over by a truck driver; a passerby punched protesters and was cheered on. A few months later, German police raided the homes of Last Generation activists and froze their bank accounts. 

It all seemed like a gross overreaction to a pretty tame form of protest. Blockading roads is not a new tactic: Suffragettes, civil rights activists, and anti-war activists have all blocked roads in past decades. Last year, Dutch and German farmers blocked roads with their tractors to protest a renewable energy policy that they said doesn’t provide enough incentives for biogas. Not a single farmer was punched in the face. What was making everyone so irate about Last Generation? 

It’s a lot easier to justify ripping an activist off the road by their hair, or punching them, when a prominent politician is comparing them to violent terrorists and a major media outlet is repeating that frame. Frank Schäffler, of the Free Democratic Party, or FDP,  is a member of the German Parliament who’s well known for hard-right positions; he once described himself as a “climate skeptic.” He’s been the primary block to a national green building policy that would shift the country away from gas heating in new buildings. Schäffler has used a lot of the same anti-regulatory rhetorical tactics in Germany that the fossil fuel industry has employed to fight gas bans in the United States, including accusing the government of taking away citizens’ freedom of choice and spreading fear that the bill amounts to a “heating ban.”

Almost as soon as Last Generation began staging protests, in early 2022, Schäffler began describing them as terrorists, calling the group a “criminal organization” and publicly demanding it be investigated for organized crime. Media outlets, including conservative publisher Welt and the more mainstream Der Spiegel, soon echoed Schäffler’s framing. Just six months later, in May 2023, German police conducted nationwide raids on Last Generation activists; police said the group was “a criminal organization that was fundraising for the purpose of committing further criminal action.” It was almost exactly the response to Last Generation that Schäffler had recommended.  

Given his relatively short time in office, Schäffler’s outsize influence may seem surprising. But something important happened in recent years that lent him a large amount of reach when it comes to the treatment of climate protesters: Schäffler’s think tank joined the little-known but enormously powerful Atlas Network, a global network of more than 500 partner think tanks advocating for “free market” policies.

What’s happening in Germany—public rhetoric vilifying climate activists, which the media then picks up and amplifies and, ultimately, leads to the criminalization of those activists—is a pattern we’ve seen play out in multiple countries, new research from climate news sites Drilled and DeSmog reveals. That pattern is thanks in no small part to the influence of the organizations in Atlas, which have powerful allies in the oil, gas, and extractive industries

The Atlas Network describes itself as “a nonprofit that aims to secure the right to economic and personal freedom for all individuals” through its global network of think tanks. But before it was a network, it was just one think tank.

Antony Fisher, Atlas’s founder, was born into a wealthy mining family. After service in the Royal Air Force during World War II—where, legend has it, he watched his brother plummet to his death after his plane was shot down—he was inspired to fight for a freer and more prosperous world in order to end war. Shocked that the British public elected the Labor Party in their first postwar election, Fisher decided he must make sure people voted the right way next time around. He was further inspired by conversations with Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, who blamed socialism for all of society’s ills. Fisher considered running for office in the early 1950s, but Hayek told him to forget about getting into politics himself and to engage instead in a “war of ideas” by targeting the intellectual class.

After starting the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1955, Fisher landed the think tank’s first big corporate donor in the early 1960s: Royal Dutch Shell. BP soon followed suit, and suddenly the IEA started to have some real impact. 

In its early years, the IEA “would get these professors to write short, digestible articles, often around things like currency conversion or, sort of, things that were fairly technical to the noneconomists,” said Jeremy Walker, a senior lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, longtime Atlas Network researcher and author of the book More Heat Than Life: The Tangled Roots of Ecology, Energy and Economics. “But then they would have these wealthy donors to the IEA who would buy copies and send them to all the schools and the universities.”

Not disclosing their corporate donors was a key to IEA’s success too. “The think tank method allowed corporations to say things that they couldn’t say themselves without appearing to be merely speaking to their own profit motives,” Walker said. These tactics allowed the IEA to amass influence in the U.K. and to help spread conservative free-market ideology in British politics throughout the 1960s and ’70s. 

Given the IEA’s growing success in quickly pushing U.K. politics to the right, Fisher decided to take the show on the road. In 1970, he did a speaking tour in the U.S. with the Institute for Humane Studies—an organization funded by Charles and David Koch, early on in what would be a decades-long career in massively reshaping American politics for industry’s benefit. In those U.S. talks, Fisher encouraged American businessmen to fight back against the social movements of the 1960s. In 1974, Fisher traveled to Canada, co-founding his first think tank outside Britain: the Fraser Institute. The same year, the IEA loaned one of its leaders, Nigel Vinson, to rising conservative politician Margaret Thatcher to start a sister think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies in the U.K. 

Back in the U.K., Fisher co-founded the Adam Smith Institute, another IEA copycat, in 1977. In 1978, he returned to the  United States, where he co-founded the Manhattan Institute in 1978 and the Pacific Research Institute in 1979, again with help from the Koch brothers and the extractive industry. By this point, his work with the IEA and the Centre for Policy Studies had succeeded in getting Margaret Thatcher elected. Famed “free market” economist Milton Friedman would later say that “the U-turn in British policy executed by Margaret Thatcher owes more to Fisher than any other individual.”  

Fisher wanted to connect all the IEA-style organizations he’d started into a network so that they could more easily work with each other, and asked Hayek for introductions to his “friends in Houston”—oil executives—for funding. The Atlas Network, which launched in 1981, initially only included the first dozen or so think tanks Fisher had helped to found himself, but quickly expanded to include hundreds of like-minded member organizations, including all the Koch-affiliated think tanks in the U.S. (The Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Legislative Exchange Council—some of the most influential forces shaping U.S. conservative politics—have all been members at one point or another.)  

With access to powerful people came funding from powerful sources. A review of Atlas’s publicly available financials, data from the Conservative Transparency database, and 990 tax forms filed by various foundations reveals that Atlas has received significant funding from a number of Koch-funded foundations and the Sarah Scaife Foundation, which has a long history of funding climate denial since its founding. As with the Fraser Institute in Canada, the various Koch-backed think tanks in the U.S., and the Centre for Independent Studies in Australia, many of the individual member think tanks that form the Atlas Network are separately funded by foundations affiliated with extractive industries—and, in some cases, directly supported by donations from industry—as well. 

Fisher focused in the early years of the Atlas Network on expanding internationally—particularly in Latin America, where oil executives were concerned about leftist movements. One of the first investments Atlas made was in Venezuela, where it funded the launch of the Center for the Dissemination of Economic Information, or CEDICE,  in 1984. Decades later, CEDICE was instrumental in ousting Hugo Chávez. 

Atlas also set up shop in Brazil in the 1980s, working with various agribusiness groups to push back against the environmental regulations and Indigenous rights proposals being made by the Workers Party. Decades later, Atlas helped to spur the “Free Brazil” movement in 2014, which helped to propel Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency. This year,  at an annual regional event put on by Atlas, agribusiness influencers and think tank heads spoke about finding a path back to power and stopping the current president, Luiz “Lula” Da Silva, from what they described as a “land invasion”: his campaign promise to protect Indigenous land rights from agribusiness and to transfer private farmland to worker ownership.

With more than 500 member think tanks globally, the network remains robust. Atlas members are in regular contact with each other, sharing ideas, tips, and strategies. (The network has even bragged about being an early adopter of the internet.) Representatives from member think tanks meet up at annual right-wing events in the U.S. and elsewhere. Ideas are shared between member think tanks via various publications, including the quarterly Freedom’s Champion magazine, a Latin America podcast, and various books in both English and Spanish (even a cookbook!). 

Alejandro Chafuen, an Argentine American businessman who took over the Atlas Network presidency in 1991 and remained in charge until 2018, once described the network’s audience in one word: elites. 

“To answer the question ‘Who is the real customer of a think tank?’” he said,” I will refer to the often ignored passage of Ludwig von Mises, in his book Bureaucracy. In it he describes a type of person—elite—who I believe is not only the real customer of Atlas and many think tanks, but also our ideal customer, who benefits us and is served by us.”

Atlas Network executives and member think tanks have always painted environmentalists and the regulations they seek to place on polluting industries as a cancerous growth on society. According to Chafuen’s online biography of the Atlas Network, the Pacific Research Institute was started in California in 1979 specifically to focus on environmental issues. 

Anti-environmentalism is baked into much of the rhetoric of the network. A 1991 report from Atlas member the Mackinac Institute calls early environmentalists “reactionaries” who are “anti-human.” A 1994 Pacific Research Institute report posited that “contrary to environmentalists’ apocalyptic gloom, the improvement in the environment is perhaps the single greatest public policy success story of the last generation.” 

When Chafuen left his position as Atlas Network president in 2018, he went on to run one of the most prominent Atlas Network member think tanks: the U.S.-based Acton Institute, which has long pushed a Christian-flavored brand of climate denial. Acton also incubated the Tennessee-based Cornwall Alliance, an association of Evangelical think tanks with close links to another Atlas member, the Heritage Foundation. In a 12-part DVD series called Resisting the Green Dragon, released in 2010, the Cornwall Alliance described environmentalism as “spiritual deception” and warned of “dangerous environmental extremism.”

This kind of rhetoric is exactly what we see today in countries moving swiftly to criminalize environmental and climate protest. While industries and governments around the world had plenty of their own reasons for categorizing environmentalists as extremists separate from the think tank influence, Atlas Network organizations have capitalized on that framing for decades. In recent years, they’ve packaged it in ways that have been turned into anti-protest legislation. 

Schäffler in Germany is only the most recent example. In Guatemala, Atlas think tank Fundación para el Desarrollo de Guatemala, or FUNDESA, has spent many years decrying the impact that environmentalists and Indigenous rights activists have on “investment” in the country. In response to massive Indigenous-led environmental protests in 2015 and 2016, FUNDESA’s director wrote various pieces about extremist environmentalists, describing environmentalists across Latin America as a “terrorist network” and calling out the leader of the protests, Bernardo Caal Xol, as an outside agitator. Xol was sentenced to seven years in prison for his role organizing protests. 

U.K.-based think tank Policy Exchange, a former Atlas member that left the network in 2016, put out a report in 2019 describing Extinction Rebellion, an organization famous for shutting down parts of London to call for aggressive climate action, as “an extremist organization seeking the breakdown of liberal democracy and the rule of law.” As happened in Germany, several U.K. politicians and conservative media outlets have since repeated that framing. It wasn’t long before people began cold-cocking Extinction Rebellion activists as they blocked roads or staged other forms of nonviolent, disruptive protest. Four years later, during a speech at Policy Exchange’s annual summer garden party in 2023, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak thanked Policy Exchange members for “helping us draft legislation” that significantly criminalized various forms of protest, increased police power, and created the criminal offense of “willful obstruction of the highway” to curb protests that block roads. In the wake of the law’s passage and several arrests and court cases, Extinction Rebellion announced it would no longer engage in disruptive protest. 

This pattern also took place in Canada and the U.S. over the past decade, in response to First Nations and Indigenous-led protests rejecting the expansion of tar sands extraction, as well as the anti–Dakota Access Pipeline movement. A series of papers put out by Atlas member think tank the MacDonald-Laurier Institute in 2013 and 2014 paints First Nations activists as potentially violent, cautioning of the havoc these “warrior societies”could wreak on Canada. During a 2017 meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which connects conservative politicians and corporations and was an Atlas Network partner at the time, a high-level oil lobbyist described protesters at Standing Rock as “dangerous and destructive,” claiming that a large number of the activists had criminal records. 

By the end of 2017, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a trade group representing oil refiners, pipeline companies, and petrochemical manufacturers, had drafted legislation criminalizing protest near “critical infrastructure,” the state of Oklahoma had passed it, and ALEC was pushing it to other state lawmakers. Canada took a similar approach, with various provinces passing anti-protest legislation and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police forming a new unit—the Community Industry Response Group—to shut down protest camps and arrest protesters. 

“The Macdonald-Laurier Institute is an independent and non-partisan think tank,” a spokesperson wrote in response to detailed questions from Drilled. Neither the Atlas Network nor any of the other member think tanks mentioned in this piece replied to requests for comment before this article was published. However, Atlas responded after publication, saying, “Atlas Network has no partnerships with extractive industries such as oil and gas companies, we receive no funding from oil and gas companies and have not received funding from oil and gas companies for nearly 15 years.”

The strategies these think tanks have pursued aren’t all about criminalization: Atlas partners are also involved in crafting sophisticated P.R. campaigns to ally extractive industries with the very communities they are targeting. In its white papers on the threat of First Nations protest, MacDonald-Laurier called for security forces to employ counterinsurgency tactics against Indigenous protesters in order to protect critical infrastructure. But the think tank also urged companies and governments to make First Nations “equity partners” in natural resources projects on their territories, allowing communities, some with high rates of poverty, to have partial ownership and enjoy a greater share of revenues from mining, oil, and gas projects. The idea was that a higher share of revenues would convince some First Nations groups to become vocal supporters of oil and gas projects. This tactic is known as “redwashing.” 

In Australia, the Centre for Independent Studies, or CIS—an Atlas-affiliated group that was founded with grants from Rupert Murdoch, Shell, BHP, and Rio Tinto—has placed op-eds in various outlets over the past five years trying to stoke fear of “Aboriginal Terrorism” related to land defenders and Indigenous land rights. At the same time, CIS has sought out and hired Aboriginal spokespeople who can argue in favor of controversial projects.

Peruvian Atlas member Instituto Libertad y Democracia, or ILD, puts its own free market, private property spin on redwashing with a theory pioneered by the think tank’s president, economist Hernando de Soto. Following a bloody 2009 standoff between police and Indigenous activists protesting oil and gas drilling in the Amazon as well as other infringements on their land rights, DeSoto argued in a 2011 TED talk that the solution to the conflict was to bring Indigenous people into the “rule of law” via property rights. Private property will enable Indigenous people to realize value from their land and resources, DeSoto argued, which will make them less likely to protest extraction from that land because they will also benefit from it. On its website, the ILD argues that this strategy will help Indigenous people “work within the market and defend their interests—without losing their customs or identity.” 

Magatte Wade, who heads an internal Atlas project called the Center for African Prosperity, frequently cites de Soto as an inspiration for her take on Africa and climate change. In multiple op-eds over the past few years, and in an interview this year with Canadian professor and right-wing figurehead Jordan Peterson, Wade, who was born in Senegal but moved to Germany when she was 7, describes climate activists as the new colonialists, arguing that climate action will keep Africans poor and deprive them of access to energy. Wade often depicts those who would deny the continent its current fossil fuel boom as out-of-touch elitists and regularly claims that climate action will kill a billion Africans—all while refusing to engage with the fact that African climate activists are being arrested at an alarming rate. 

In 2018, a report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that governments had about 12 years to implement aggressive decarbonization policies if they wanted to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. That alarm bell mobilized a global movement of young people taking to the streets—and sparked a whole new wave of anti-climate-protest campaigns from Atlas Network think tanks. 

It’s not surprising that Atlas-affiliated think tanks took action: Its network’s funders were shaken up by the youth movement. Internal BP marketing documents leaked to Drilled in 2020 revealed just how much the industry was caught off guard by the youth climate movement—seeing its authenticity as the biggest threat to oil and gas. An army of think tanks, many of them funded by the industry, turned to the media, social media, and any other platform they could access to mock, criticize, or fearmonger about the activists. (BP is not an Atlas funder.)

In Sweden, where Greta Thunberg founded Fridays for Future, a youth climate group that went on strike each Friday to demand climate action, Atlas think tank Timbro and its research arm, Ratio, began branding climate activists as “climate populists.” They compared youth climate activists to Nazis and warned that their doom and alarmism will make them likely to turn to extreme tactics.

U.S.-based Atlas think tanks mobilized against youth climate protesters almost immediately as well. In the year after her school strikes movement began, the Cato Institute, Heartland Institute, Heritage Foundation, Acton Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, and American Enterprise Institute all released various anti-Greta screeds. The vilification of youth climate activists has continued since then—particularly of Thunberg, who U.S. Atlas members have accused of everything from simply not understanding how the economy works to being part of a media conspiracy. In 2020, U.S.-based Heartland Institute, which left Atlas that year and is funded primarily by the various Koch Industries–related foundations, even secretly hired German YouTuber Naomi Seibt to spread climate denial and pro-oil and gas messaging, promoting her as an “anti-Greta.”

In Australia, Atlas members took to  the media en masse to protest the young protesters. The Australian Taxpayers Alliance—which usually sticks to, unsurprisingly, issues around taxes—got a young intern to go on Sky News and sneer about how climate strikers should stay in school. The Centre for Independent Studies worried in a blog post that literacy was taking a backseat to activism in Australian schools. The Institute for Progress suggested teachers take the opportunity to inform the students who weren’t striking that “our world would collapse without fossil fuels.”

The neat trick of Atlas members’ rhetorical warfare against environmentalists for so many years is that it’s not just about preaching to the choir. On the contrary, it has convinced even those who may feel urgency around the climate crisis that protesters are being too “radical,” too disruptive.

The media has mostly gone along with this framing as well. According to a new study from Media Matters, MSNBC was the only major news network in the U.S. to mention the criminalization of climate protests, airing a single segment since the trend began in the wake of the Standing Rock protests in 2017. When they do cover climate protest, mainstream outlets have tended toward stories that discuss whether it’s “appropriate” to throw tomato soup at the display case of a famous painting or glue oneself to a road—and whether these tactics endear climate activists to the public or not—rather than on what the protesters are actually trying to accomplish. 

Media Matters’ analysis found that fewer than half of U.S. media stories on climate protest included anything about the scientific basis for climate change or the political stalemate driving the surge in protests. Meanwhile, the study found that Fox News has run four times the combined coverage of its competitors CNN (27 segments) and MSNBC (9 segments); all of the network’s 144 segments on the topic have painted climate protesters as dangerous radicals. 

Social scientists who study movements and social change have largely been confused by how much questions over the “civility” of climate protesters’ tactics have dominated the discourse. “There really hasn’t been much destruction of property—the climate movement’s tactics have been very tame so far,” says Dana Fisher, who heads up the Center for Environment, Community, and Equity and has been researching protest in general and climate protest in particular for years. 

The fixation on whether climate activists are “radical” makes a lot more sense in the context of the Atlas Network’s history. “It’s this method that you see over and over again over the years,” Walker, the Atlas researcher, says. “They’ll throw something out into the public sphere, which will get a little bit of press, and then before you know it, a new law has been written, possibly by one of them. And now you have the criminalization of what was previously seen as legitimate civil protest.”

This article has been updated and corrected to clarify Atlas’s relationship with its partner think tanks, the dates of some of those partnerships, and the origin of Atlas; to remove an erroneous sentence about the founding of the Centre for Independent Studies; and to add a statement from Atlas.

This story was produced in collaboration with independent investigative news sites Drilled and DeSmog.

Julianna Merullo and Lyndal Rowlands contributed additional reporting to this story.