Brooke Gladstone: This is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone Gladstone, so we've reviewed the current rush to legal remedies for climate change. Where else is the battle being waged? Obviously, if you're a Big Oil, you make your case in the court of public opinion through PR campaigns, extolling your exemplary service to humanity, and greenwashing.
That is, aligning yourself with environmentalists, but when PR can't do the job, there's another way, one more covert and not-so-pretty.
Jeremy Walker: The thing with the think tank method was it allowed corporations to say things that they couldn't say themselves.
Brooke Gladstone: Jeremy Walker is a researcher and senior lecturer at the University of Technology in Sydney.
Jeremy Walker: 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 now you have the criminalization of what was previously seen as legitimate civil protest.
Brooke Gladstone: The think tank in question is actually a confederation of hundreds of think tanks globally known as the Atlas Network. It began as a lone UK-based institute in 1955, but a couple of whopping grants from Royal Dutch Shell and BP enabled its great leap forward to producing white papers, meeting with Politicos, liaising with the media, writing laws, swaying law enforcement, and governments and through them, many of us. For Atlas, it seems no climate action is too small to swat.
In 2019, Australia, for example, in Atlas affiliate called the Australian Taxpayers Alliance sent an intern on to Sky News to denounce the school walkouts in protest of the climate crisis.
News clip: I just don't think a bunch of kids who don't understand the impacts are what they're advocating for waving around posters, telling the Prime Minister to go F himself is the informed debate that we need in this country.
Brooke Gladstone: Elsewhere, Atlas think tanks have pushed the idea that climate activism is a cult antithetical to Christianity. Take this 12-part video series titled Resisting the Green Dragon, produced by the affiliated Tennessee-based Cornwall Alliance.
Amy Westervelt: This so-called Green Dragon is seducing your children in our classrooms and popular culture. It's less for political power, now extends to the highest global levels, and its twisted view of the world elevates nature above the needs of people of even the poorest and the most helpless.
Brooke Gladstone: Climate reporter, Amy Westervelt Westervelt is the host and producer of the podcast Drilled. In her latest investigation, co-reported with climate journalist Geoff Dembicki. She charts the global impact of Atlas think tanks on the public perception of climate activists. Not long ago, Atlas focused on a group called The Last Generation. Amy Westervelt, welcome to the show.
Amy Westervelt: Thank you. I'm so excited to be here.
Brooke Gladstone: Earlier this year, you noticed a swift and somewhat shocking backlash to climate protesters in Germany. Describe what you saw.
Amy Westervelt: The last generation had just started doing protests in 2022. Their main tactic was to block roads and they had what seemed like straightforward and not even particularly ambitious requests, like they wanted to see a speed limit on the Autobahn of 100 kilometers an hour, and they wanted discounted public transit.
Brooke Gladstone: And so what happened?
Amy Westervelt: First, I started seeing footage of other people being violent with the protesters themselves, like grabbing people by the hair and moving them out of the street.
Brooke Gladstone: You wrote that a young woman who had glued her hand to the asphalt of the road was ripped off the road by her hair.
Amy Westervelt: Correct. Yes, there's a video of that.
Brooke Gladstone: And a young man was run over by a truck driver?
Amy Westervelt: Yes.
Brooke Gladstone: A passerby punched protesters and was cheered?
Amy Westervelt: Earlier this year, there were police raids of multiple homes of these protesters. They took laptops and devices, and they froze their bank accounts. It was pretty extreme. They said that it was because they were a criminal organization that was fundraising to perpetrate more criminal acts. I guess those criminal acts were protests. It was particularly interesting because around the same time, there were farmer protests in Germany, where farmers blocked roads with their tractors, and there was none of this kind of response.
Nobody got punched, there were no politicians talking about them as radical anarchists, which is how politicians were talking about the climate protesters.
Brooke Gladstone: As you were trying to work out why this last-generation protest movement so enraged German politicians and media, all the roads led to a politician named Frank Schaffler who you found was linked to this little-known but hugely influential global network of think tanks called the Atlas Network. What was Schaffler doing that was so effective at shaping the perception of climate protesters as dangerous, and what role did Atlas play?
Amy Westervelt: Frank Schaffler is a conservative politician in Germany.
Brooke Gladstone: Now, he is a member of the Bundestag, part of the Free Democratic Party.
Amy Westervelt: I think in the US, we'd probably call him a Libertarian. On his off time, he started a think tank called the Prometheus Institute. He joined that think tank up to the Atlas Network, which is this network of almost 600 now like-minded think tanks. They include lots in the US like the Heartland Institute and the Cato Institute and a lot of the places that are funded by the Koch Brothers Universe. Also, lots of think tanks in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Australia, they give a lot of support to their member organizations. They talk to the people who run other think tanks.
They have regional events where they bring everyone together. They put out regular publications so he would have been getting quite a bit of input from other Atlas think tanks about what's going on with these climate protests. Almost as soon as last generation started protesting, he started comparing them to the RAF, the Red Army Faction. It was also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. They were a leftist Marxist group in the '60s and '70s who kidnapped politicians and assassinated people, bombed people.
Brooke Gladstone: They were terrorists.
Amy Westervelt: Actual terrorists, yes. He even proposed in the Bundestag that the government should investigate them and particularly their fundraising. He talked about it in the exact same way that police doing these raids ended up talking about it, which was, "Look, they're fundraising to commit crimes, and therefore, they should be investigated."
Brooke Gladstone: A number of major German media outlets, including the conservative publisher Welt and more mainstream-named Tagesspiegel, were echoing Schaffler's framing based on nothing much. Is that fair?
Amy Westervelt: In some cases, they have also painted the outside of headquarters. I think at one point they ran onto a runway to try to block a runway for private jets, those kinds of things. Those would be trespassing, but that's pretty much it. We're not talking about violent crime, we're not talking about theft or even property damage.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm thinking of not long ago the Italian branch of last generation seemed to be behind one of the protests in art museums where a young climate activist threw a can of pea soup at a Van Gogh painting in Rome that was protected by glass. Was the reaction in Italy just as extreme as the ones in Germany?
Amy Westervelt: The reaction in Italy was not as extreme as the ones in Germany, and I think part of that is that you did not have a think tank or a particular politician that was really going after it.
Brooke Gladstone: I want to pause here just a moment to note that you've long looked at how oil and gas companies have seeded disinformation about climate change, but you make a point of distinguishing between what PR agencies have done in the past and what was happening here.
Amy Westervelt: The way I see it is that the things that the companies can say publicly, that's what PR takes care of, putting them in company with people that make them look good or crafting messages that make it sound like they're really acting on climate. The think tanks, they push the messages that the companies want to be out there but don't want to be affiliated with. When they wanted to keep pushing climate denial but it was not great for them to be seen doing that publicly, they would work with think tanks to do that.
The same thing has been happening here where it doesn't look good for the oil companies to go after, especially youth climate protesters. That is something that is being left up to think tanks. The more we looked into it, the more we realized, "Oh, that's kind of the entire purpose all along of the think tanks," was to get out corporate messages that the corporations don't really want to be affiliated with and to use that to shape public policy.
Brooke Gladstone: Atlas has had a hand in crafting legislation in Germany, and your piece describes great efforts elsewhere in Europe and Latin South America. It's having an impact.
Amy Westervelt: Yes, in some cases, the think tanks are actually writing the legislation directly. That happened in the UK with a group called Policy Exchange.
Brooke Gladstone: What kind of legislation is it?
Amy Westervelt: It's often referred to as the UK policing bill. It basically increases the jail time and fines for protest. It also limits where people can protest and it gives police new powers to stop and search activists. The very troubling thing about the UK legislation is that it has had a real impact on how activists are allowed to defend themselves in court. They are not allowed to provide any context for why they were protesting in the first place.
Brooke Gladstone: Really?
Amy Westervelt: Yes. Anytime you're limiting how people are able to defend themselves in court, that's a pretty slippery slope.
Brooke Gladstone: Well, I know that a group called Extinction Rebellion, which was famous for shutting down parts of London and calling for aggressive climate action, described as an extremist organization seeking the breakdown of liberal democracy and the rule of law. In the wake of all of these legal pushbacks, they just basically said they wouldn't engage anymore.
Amy Westervelt: They decided not to do any more direct action.
Brooke Gladstone: But they were an aggressive organization.
Amy Westervelt: They were, but again, they were not doing anything violent whatsoever. Were they being annoying? Sure. Extinction Rebellion is such an interesting story because you have this white paper come out from Policy Exchange in 2019 called Extremism Rebellion, where they talk about these people being anarchists and terrorists and pushing for the breakdown of society. You have them really suggested that more needs to be done from a legal perspective to get control of this.
Just earlier this summer, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, at a Policy Exchange party, thanked them for helping to draft this legislation so this rhetorical war has worked really well, and a lot of people think of climate activists as being professional activists who are out there on the fringe but there's a climate scientist who's part of Extinction Rebellion who's been in prison for seven months in the UK for chaining himself to a bridge. Again, it was an act of terrorism, so this is happening to lots of different types of people, and yes, the legal fallout is quite significant.
Brooke Gladstone: You found that the Atlas Network is enormously influential on elites, especially through the media, but it isn't swaying public opinion. They are rather swaying the political perception of public opinion.
Amy Westervelt: Yes.
Brooke Gladstone: Can you tell me more about that?
Amy Westervelt: I was talking to a high-level Biden administration person recently who was saying even a lot of Democrats are worried about pushing for more aggressive climate policy because there's been such a rise in climate denial again, and there's not as much support for the climate activists anymore. I said, "Where are you getting that from because the data on public opinion about these things does not match what you're saying?" He was like, "I know, but that's the perception."
Brooke Gladstone: Politicians are afraid that there is public disapproval of climate action, though there isn't, and so they'll be more likely to block climate action because they think it will reward them, at least with conservative voters.
Amy Westervelt: That's right. The perception is that being too far out in front on climate is a risk, even though I have yet to see a poll that actually backs that up, but these think tanks and the oil companies and the PR firms, all of these tactics working together have really helped to create a sense, both in the media and on social media, that there is less approval for climate action than there actually is and more disapproval for climate protest than there actually is.
Brooke Gladstone: You put a lot of work into this story. How do you want people to use what you found out?
Amy Westervelt: I'm somewhat fascinated by how narratives get shaped in the public mind and in the media because I think that stuff really does impact policy. I think just making people aware of the fact that if they're seeing narratives consistently repeated amongst thought leaders and politicians and media that that's not organic, usually that is some kind of a coordinated effort. It's useful to think, "Okay, well, why? Who's paying for that? What's their agenda? What are they trying to accomplish?"
Brooke Gladstone: Thank you so much, Amy Westervelt.
Amy Westervelt: Thank you for having me.
Brooke Gladstone: Amy Westervelt Westervelt is a climate reporter and the host producer of the Climate Change podcast Drilled. Her latest investigative series is about the global criminalization of climate protest, and it's called the Real Free Speech Threat. Coming up, three decades ago, a radical climate group rocked the West Coast. They were at one point America's Most Wanted, but were they as they were labeled terrorists? This is On the Media.
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