Juan de Mariana Institute: epicentre of climate action obstructionism in Southern Europe

Jose A. Moreno

Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain

The Juan de Mariana Institute (JMI) was founded in 2005. Based in Madrid, Spain, it promotes economic liberalism and free markets. The think tank has a staff of around 20 people, of which 5 actively work in the centre. It is directed by journalist José Carlos Rodríguez and presided by economist Gabriel Calzada. Since its formation, the think tank has campaigned against climate action. In fact, its founding event underlined their disapproval of the Kyoto Protocol and the adoption of climate policies in general. One renowned participant was the climate action contrarian Christopher Horner, a former senior fellow at the US think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute. JMI stands out for its networking capacity in the international neoliberal landscape. This has allowed JMI’s arguments to reach not only a Spanish audience, supported by conservative media, but also an international scene.

One of the most controversial aspects of the JMI is its financing. In 2009, the JMI published a report entitled Study of the effects on employment of public aid to renewable energy sources. The authors of the study argued that  green jobs harm the economy. This study was sponsored by the US Institute for Energy Research (IER), which is received funding from Koch Industries and more than $300,000 from ExxonMobil. This case exemplifies why JMI is a critical part of an international network of climate action obstructionism: a think tank with the appearance of a non-partisan academic institution, which is able to place elite interests on the public agenda.

The JMI is part of the Atlas Network, a US-based federation of neoliberal organisations that campaigns for economic liberalism on a global scale. In November 2010, the Atlas Network awarded JMI a prize for its “Green Jobs and Green Energy” campaign. A number of Atlas members including the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, and the American Energy Alliance (which also received funding from Koch Industries) used the “Spanish case” to make a point against green jobs and renewable energy. The networking between the JMI and US think tanks is perfectly illustrated by its co-sponsoring of several Heartland Institute’s climate scepticism summits. Heartland is one of the major centres of global climate obstructionism.

A network analysis of relationships of board members and employees in the Atlas Network think tanks reveals vital connections of JMI: The Spanish organization is linked to the international Mont Pelerin Society, to Students for Liberty (USA), the Centro de Estudios Económico-Sociales (Guatemala), the Club de la Libertad (Argentina) and El Ojo Digital (Argentina). Similarly, according to data from the THINKClima project of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, the JMI is also connected to the main obstructionist think tanks of climate action in Europe.

JMI’s networking capacity enables discursive coalitions and strategic capacities at the international level. JMI’s arguments are generally very similar to those constantly repeated by other European think tanks opposing climate action. In turn, these discourses resemble those of the US climate countermovement. An object lesson is the UK meat tax debate. Whereas environmental think tanks, universities and research centres argued the need for a meat tax on climate and health grounds, the meat industry and the conservative political class opposes it. In this debate, neoliberal think tanks, such as the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs, spread concerns against the meat tax without a solid scientific basis. In Spain, it is the JMI that has staged this battle against the “demonisation” of meat consumption and the threat of new consumer taxes with arguments similar to those used by British Atlas members. Sweden’s Atlas member Timbro is behind the regular publication of a “nanny state index” to oppose restrictions on controversial consumption in the name of consumer choice and freedom.

The JMI has been identified on several occasions as one of the focal points for the spread of anti-climate action ideas in Spain. Studies of their discourse indicate that the main arguments JMI uses are the disqualification of activists and politicians, the denial of scientific consensus, the attack on climate policies and the defence of the free market as a solution to environmental problems. The strong opposition to government intervention to curb the climate crisis is based on an ideology that emanates from the Austrian School of Economics, with which this think tank is aligned. The JMI has a close relationship with the Rey Juan Carlos University of Madrid (URJC), alma mater of JMI President Gabriel Calzada. The URJC has a master’s degree in Austrian School Economics, directed by Professor Jesús Huerta de Soto, who was Calzada’s doctoral supervisor. Likewise, the president of the JMI, Gabriel Calzada, has been rector of the liberal-oriented Francisco Marroquín University in Guatemala between 2013 and 2021, which has allowed him to link up with different organisations in Guatemala.

In its early days, JMI has been notable for its dissemination of ideas contrary to the scientific consensus on climate change, such as denying that climate change is significant or that temperatures will rise. In these early days, JMI bashed politicians, environmentalists, and scientists, blaming alleged biases about temperature models and policies, sometimes even using ad hominem attacks. For example, there was an attack on Al Gore building on JMI criticism of Gore’s documentary film An Inconvenient Truth launched in 2006:

Megalomaniac as he is, he assumes that history will remember him, and he lives for it. But altering the planet is not synonymous with destroying it, which is rather more difficult than it seems. Since he mentions the future (our children and grandchildren provide the right emotional touch), it is worth thinking that the growth of wealth is such that future generations will be much richer than us and it will be hard for them to understand how so many people wanted the present poor to sacrifice themselves for the rich of the future.

Another feature of JMI have been stringent attacks on specific environmental policies. JMI’s launched a campaign to boycott the renewable energy policies of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s socialist government in Spain. JMI’s assertions, in this case, aimed at protecting the market from possible taxation or barriers for free trade: “It is highly unlikely that the high level of environmental sustainability provided by the free market will be overcome by policy planning”, the think tank commented on Zapatero’s environmental policy.

Today, these main lines of the JMI’s anti-climate action discourse still remain valid with slight contemporary adaptations. Given the overwhelming and growing scientific evidence on climate change, JMI no longer disseminates much content criticising climate models or rejecting academic findings regarding rising temperatures. On the other hand, JMI still tends to downplay the importance of climate change or the rise in global temperatures. Attacks against activists or politicians, although not as ferocious as those on Al Gore or Zapatero, continue to exist, over leaders such as Greta Thunberg. Likewise, disapproval of environmental policy continues. The focus still is on renewable energy and emerging issues such as the taxation on animal food, which they label as “sin taxes”.

Throughout its existence, the JMI has relied on the conservative spectrum of Spanish media, such as Libertad Digital, Expansión or Procesos de Mercado. In these newspapers, members of JMI had op-ed columns or wrote opinion articles. The case of Libertad Digital stands out, where the JMI has widely disseminated ideas contrary to the scientific consensus on climate change. At times, the organisation presents itself as a mainstream media victim that “has been single-handedly fulfilling its duty” by “informing readers of this pseudo-scientific canard subsidised by politicians”.

In short, the JMI is a think tank that, while not having an infrastructure and capacity comparable to that of the big US anti-climate action think tanks, has managed to influence public debate in some respects. JMI stands out as an epicentre of climate policy obstructionism and is very well connected to the US, Latin American and European think tanks. Although there are other hotspots of anti-climate action discourse in Southern Europe, such as the Bruno Leoni Institute in Italy, JMI’s networking capacity gives it a certain prominence. In Latin America, Guatemala stands out. With strong links in three world regions, the JMI has an advantageous position for the transnational dissemination of discourses against climate action. Identifying these networks and their public relations strategies is increasingly important given the urgency of a democratic and rigorous public debate on the measures to be taken against the climate crisis.