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Conservative think tanks have played a central yet largely unexamined role in the corporate battle against environmental policies and reforms. Conservative think tanks are generally set up as private, research and advocacy institutes, and are largely funded by foundations and corporate money. Local examples include the Tasman Institute and the Centre for Independent Studies that have been active in Australia and New Zealand (Kelsey 1995).
Think tanks have successfully placed neoliberal remedies to environmental problems on the policy agenda. Neoliberal environmental policies focus on deregulation and utilising private property rights and include policies such as pollution charges and tradeable pollution rights. They have come to be accepted by most of the major players in the policy arena, including the mainstream environmental groups who have largely ceded the territory of environmental policy to conservatives.
Sustainable development policies have been extensively studied from the point of view of their effectiveness at achieving environmental protection but the political basis of their formulation and adoption—the agenda setting process—has been neglected. Think tanks, particularly US think tanks, have played a key role in providing policy entrepreneurs to organise advocacy coalitions, and promote neoliberal policies as solutions to environmental problems.
Neoliberal environmental policies appeal to certain 'deep core' beliefs associated with the need for reduced government intervention and an increased dependence on the market. These core beliefs hold the advocacy coalition promoting neoliberal policies together. It was not till sustainable development reached the policy agenda, in a context of broader neoliberal reform, that this advocacy coalition was able to expand the interest in these proposed policies to other participants in the relevant policy networks (Beder 1996).
Think tanks have proven to be more powerful policy entrepreneurs than environmentalists because they have more direct access to decision-makers (Beder 2000); they have the resources to devote to years of policy development and promotion; and they have been more strategic in ensuring that environmental problems are framed in terms that suit their choice of solutions.
Agenda setting is essentially an exercise in power and influence. Setting the agenda involves not only getting issues onto an agenda but also being able to determine the way those issues are defined and the solutions that are considered to be suitable. Agenda setting theory generally requires advocates to expand interest in a particular issue or policy (Cobb & Elder 1983, pp. 105-8). The role of environmental groups in this respect is more evident than that of think tanks acting behind the scenes.
Whilst environmental groups effectively use the mass media and protest actions to get environmental problems onto the public agenda, they are relatively ineffective at shaping the policy agenda. More powerful policy entrepreneurs and communities with more direct access to decision-makers can utilise the momentum created by the environmentalist networks to give their own policy changes impetus.
Cobb et. al. (1976) propose three models of agenda building:
Whilst environmentalists tend to utilise the first model, it is this third model that the neoliberal policy entrepreneurs utilise, helped by their superior access and insider networks.
To be effective, think tanks insert themselves into the networks of people who are influential in particular areas of policy. This is facilitated by the fact that many think tank personnel come from these networks, having formerly been bureaucrats and politicians themselves. They organise conferences, seminars and workshops, publish books, briefing papers, journals and media releases for policy-makers, journalists and people able to sway the policy makers. They seek to provide advice directly to government officials and to government agencies and committees, through consultancies or through testimony at hearings. Ultimately think tank employees become policy-makers themselves, having established their credentials as a vital part of the relevant policy/issue network.
Kingdon's notion of a 'policy window' is an important part of agenda setting theory (1995). A policy window is when the opportunity arises to change policy direction. Policy windows can be created by triggering or focussing events, such as accidents and disasters, as well as by changes in government and shifts in public opinion. The policy window that was most useful for neoliberal environmental policies was created by the raising of environmental issues onto the policy agenda by the media in the late 1980s combined with the publication and UN approval in 1987 of the Brundtland Report, which put environmental policies onto the policy agendas of many governments.
A 'policy window' offers opportunities to any group able to mobilise support for a particular set of policies. In the case of sustainable development environmental groups mobilised to influence the policy agenda as did a conservative coalition of corporate and ideological players. The question that remains unanswered however, is how did neoliberal policies come to triumph over other alternatives, particularly those promoted in earlier times by environmentalists, such as tougher legislation that reduced that power and autonomy of corporations?
McCombs & Shaw (1972) define a ‘primary’ level of agenda setting, when issues reach the public or policy agenda, and a ‘secondary’ level of agenda setting, which involves the assignment of attributes to issues that reach the agenda. The way issues are framed and problems defined shapes the understanding of what causes the problems and the relative merits of various solutions. Primary agenda setting is about ‘what to think about’ or salience whilst secondary agenda setting has to do with ‘how to think about the issues’ or framing.
The way an issue is defined or framed will clearly influence how people assess various solutions. The success of neoclassical economists in framing environmental problems as a "failure of the market to properly value the environment" (for example Pearce et al, 1989) led to neoliberal solutions dominating the policy agenda. By allowing this redefinition of the environmental problem, environmentalists and others not only forestall criticism of the market system but in fact implicitly agree that an extension of markets is the only way to solve the problem.
The root of the environmental problem, however, is the priority given to economic considerations over environmental considerations. Neoliberal environmental policies ensure that priority is still given to economic goals and they enable firms to make decisions that affect others on the basis of their own economic interests. Even if those economic interests have been slightly modified to give a small economic value to environmental impacts, the basic paradigm remains unchanged: whenever big profits can be made environmental considerations will be sidelined.
The environmental policies promoted by the conservative advocacy coalition were in turn part of a wider package of neoliberal policies that was already being implemented in Australia and New Zealand. This also provided a context which favoured the adoption of neoliberal policies to deal with environmental problems.
The market solutions being advocated by neoliberal think tanks provide corporations and private firms with an alternative to restrictive legislation and the rhetoric to make the argument against that legislation in terms that are not obviously self-interested. While legislation is aimed at directly changing the behaviour of polluters by outlawing or limiting certain practices, market-based policies let the polluters decide whether to pollute (and pay the cost) or not.
Far from being a neutral tool, the promotion of market-based neoliberal environmental policies serve a political purpose in that they reinforce the role of the ‘free market’ at a time when environmentalism most threatens it and they head off more environmentally protective measures that might necessarily restrict business activity.
 For a discussion of Advocacy Coalitions and core beliefs see Sabatier & Jenkins Smith 1994, p. 180.
 The formal agenda is a "set of items explicitly up for active and serious consideration of authoritative decision-makers." (Cobb and Elder 1976, p. 86)
Beder, S. 2000. Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism (Melbourne: Scribe).
Beder, S. 1996. 'Charging the earth: The promotion of price-based measures for pollution control', Ecological Economics, Vol. 16, pp. 51-63
Cobb, R. W. and C. D. Elder, 1983. Participation in American Politics: The Dynamics of Agenda-Building, 2nd ed (Boston: Allyn & Bacon).
Cobb, R. et. al. 1976. 'Agenda Building as a Comparative Political Process', American Political Science Review, Vol. 70, No. 1, pp. 126-38.
Kelsey, J. 1995. Economic Fundamentalism (London: Pluto Press)
Kingdon, J. W. 1995. Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies, 2nd ed (New York: HarperCollins)
McCombs, M. & Shaw, D. (1972) ÒThe Agenda Setting Function of the Mass MediaÓ Public Opinion Quarterly Vol. 37, pp. 62-75.
Pearce, D., A. Markandya and E. Barbier, 1989. Blueprint for a Green Economy (London: Earthscan)
Sabatier P. and H. Jenkins Smith. 1994. 'Evaluating the Advocacy Coalition Framework', Journal of Public Policy, Vol. 14, No. 2.