On February 15, the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, a think-tank located here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, will bring global warming skeptic Fred Smith to Grand Rapids for a lecture as part of the Institute’s 2007 lecture series. Fred Smith is the founder of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a rightwing think-tank that promotes free-market ideals over human concerns and opposes government regulations on everything from fuel economy to pesticides. However, both Smith and the Competitive Enterprise Institute are most known for their role in attacking the idea of global warming. In its opposition to government regulation and opposition to global warming, the Competitive Enterprise Institute has much in common with the Acton Institute. While the Competitive Enterprise Institute has received attention for being given more than $2 million by ExxonMobil to fund its operations, the Acton Institute has received $160,000 from ExxonMobil. The Acton Institute’s Reverend Gerald Zandstra has even gone so far as to praise ExxonMobil as a company with an “excellent” record on “human rights” and the “environment.” However, more troubling than its praise of ExxonMobil, is the Acton Institute’s work in promoting policies that minimize environmental concerns.
The Acton Institute’s booking of Fred Smith to deliver one of their Acton Series lectures fits into their overall pro-market and anti-environment ideology. Smith will deliver a lecture challenging the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility, likely expanding on assertions he has made previously that Corporate Social Responsibility is a “misguided” response to an allegedly pervasive attack on business by the media and the left. Throughout its history, the Competitive Enterprise Institute has taken a number of strong positions opposing environmental regulations, opposing increased fuel efficiency, attacking environmental education in the schools, claiming that dioxin is healthy, and publishing a study claiming that naturally-produced chemicals from plants are as dangerous as those produced by industry (source). However, it is the organization’s work in attempting to debunk the concept of global warming that has received the most attention. Fred Smith himself, who founded Competitive Enterprise Institute in 1984, once described global warming as looking “pretty good” and signaling a shift towards “Warmer winters, warmer nights, no effects during the day because of clouding, sounds to me like we’re moving to a more benign planet, more rain, richer, easier productivity to agriculture” as part of a world that is “a lot closer to heaven than hell.” While Smith’s quote is from 1992, the politics of the Competitive Enterprise Institute with regard to global warming, despite increasing amounts of research demonstrating the negative impacts of global warming, have remained incredibly consistent since 1992. Smith himself has continued to minimize the impacts of global warming, saying that “periods of warmer weather have actually coincided with periods of human flowering” and attacking what he calls the “eco-socialism” of environmental activists, while the Institute has opposed the Kyoto Protocol and has lobbied against regulating emissions. In a 2006 campaign designed to coincide with the release of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, the Institute released television advertisements praising carbon dioxide as essential to life and even stating that “carbon dioxide is our friend.” The Institute’s positions fit into the larger rightwing lobbying effort to mask the realities of global warming, an effort that has recently included offers of cash payouts to scientists willing to speak out against the and pressure by the Bush administration on government scientists to deny global warming.
The Acton Institute has a history of promoting politics friendly to ExxonMobil and others seeking financial gain through the denial of global warming. The Institute also has relied on Smith in the past for analysis, with a lecture by Smith being featured on the Acton Institute’s website as a resource on “Economics & Environmentalism.” Two organizations represented on its board, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, have received more than $1.6 million from ExxonMobil. The Acton also offers a list of ExxonMobil funded entities as resources on “Environmental Stewardship” including organizations like the Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Pacific Research Institute. Ties to the oil industry also extend beyond ExxonMobil, with its present Board of Advisors featuring former executive with BP-Amoco, James L. Johnston and its Board of Directors featuring Sidney J. Jansmaa, Jr., of Wolverine Gas and Oil Corporation.
In 2000, the Acton Institute convened a conference and published a document titled “Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition: Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant Wisdom on the Environment” that seeks to steer the religious debate over the environment towards one that promotes industry-friendly policies. As part of this effort, the Acton Institute and the conference participants issued the Cornwall Declaration, a document that sought to provide a theoretical and religious justification for free-market environment policies under the guise of biblical support. The document described how “certain misconceptions about nature and science, coupled with erroneous theological and anthropological positions” “impede the advancement of a sound environmental ethic” and undermine “reason” in environmental matters. The Declaration defines “reason” as including “sound theology and sound-science” before justifying human and capitalist domination of the earth. The Declaration takes three major positions–that economic progress is essential and that humans should be viewed as “producers and stewards” rather than “consumers and polluters,” that “human stewardship unlocks the potential in creation for all the earth’s inhabitants” and that humans should manage the environment, and lastly that there are “well-founded” environmental concerns such as the improper disposal of nuclear or other hazardous wastes in countries lacking regulatory safeguards, inadequate sanitation, primitive practices in agriculture, industry, and commerce, and the use of primitive biomass fuels such as wood and dung, but that there are “unfounded or undue concerns” including global warming, overpopulation, and species loss. Of these “founded” and “unfounded” issues, the Declaration characterizes the “unfounded” ones as speculative, the concern only of environmentalists in wealthy nations, of low and hypothetical risk, and with solutions that are costly and of dubious benefit. Far from advancing discussion on how to deal with the destruction of the earth, the Declaration–especially in its “Our Aspirations” section–lays the groundwork for a laissez-faire approach to environmental problems. The Declaration ends with its “Aspirations” calling for the elimination of any government role in managing the environment, economic freedom, an elimination of collective ownership of property and resources under the guise of fostering “stewardship,” and technological advancements in industry and technology to lessen pollution and to “improve the material conditions of life for people everywhere.”
The Cornwall Declaration is just one of several methods that the Acton Institute has used to shape the religious debate on the environment and to combat efforts by the religious community to challenge the destruction of the environment. The Acton Institute regularly publishes commentaries opposing environmental activism on its website and has attacked evangelical environmentalism, promoted genetically modified crops and strong laws protecting seed manufacturers, opposed the Kyoto protocol, opposed cuts in CO-2 emissions, and attacked animal rights activists. Its journal, Religion & Liberty, has published similar articles while Acton’s website sells a host of materials promoting a these views. The Acton Institute also issues occasional press releases challenging religious-based environmental activism and frequently appears on rightwing radio shows attempting to debunk global warming.