How Oil Giant Exxon Bought Influence Over the Swedish Moderate Party

A new investigation reveals Atlas Network funneled money from ExxonMobil to Swedish right-wing think tank to spread climate disinformation.
Documents show ExxonMobil channeled money through Atlas Network to spread climate disinformation in Sweden. Credit: Axel Adolfsson/Moderaterna, Unsplash, Wikimedia (montage)

Editor’s note: This story, released in Swedish on June 4, is republished here in English for the first time. Following publication, the story prompted a request for a formal parliamentary inquiry into Exxon’s possible influence over the current leadership of Sweden, editorials in the country’s largest news outlets, including DN, and demonstrations outside Timbro’s offices. The CEO of Timbro, PM Nilsson, wrote a reply that alleged this article was part of a conspiracy theoryGo to this link for the follow up story that includes uncovered documents found during the investigation.

Original version

While current Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson was marketing director and his minister for justice, Gunnar Strömmer, was project manager, the Swedish libertarian think tank Timbro received money from oil company ExxonMobil at a time when it was actively engaged in spreading disinformation about climate change. The money was passed on via the American think tank Atlas Network, which also granted access to scholarships for top members of the Swedish Moderate Party. This has been revealed through hundreds of emails, faxes, and copies of transactions reviewed by the news sites Supermiljöbloggen and Dagens ETC. And the collaboration between Atlas and Timbro continues.

Everyone who is anyone is here. Two ministers from the newly appointed Moderate government, business leaders, and members of parliament. In the grand salon at Grand Hôtel, Minister for Foreign Affairs Margaretha af Ugglas is smiling enthusiastically into the camera next to the guest of honour, Alejandro Chafuen, president of the secretive Atlas Network. He has been flown in from the U.S. and accommodated in an apartment in central Stockholm provided by the Swedish Employers’ Association, now the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise. 

It is August 1993 and Timbro is celebrating its 15th anniversary by co-hosting an international conference with Atlas Network. The guest list includes Gunnar Hökmark, secretary of the Moderate Party, and PJ Anders Linder, advisor to the Swedish government and future CEO of Timbro.

Forging Ties with a New Generation

Two Atlas executives had visited Stockholm before, a visit that included a meeting at Prime Minister Carl Bildt’s office on March 18, 1992. But the event at the prestigious hotel was the starting point for closer collaboration between Timbro and Atlas, which in the following years gave access to generous scholarships and prestigious American universities to a new generation of right-wing opinion leaders and young Moderates.

At the Grand Hôtel, as well as later in the 1990s, loyalty ties were forged between leaders in the Atlas network and several Moderates who later gained positions of power in contemporary government – relationships that would come to be exploited by the fossil fuel industry.

Demonizing Greta Thunberg

For decades, Atlas Network has been misleading and sowing doubt on the climate issue. In 2015, for example, it was revealed that its members were involved in the fossil fuel industry’s campaign to stop the U.S. from signing the Kyoto Protocol. The network was also involved in the coordinated attacks on Greta Thunberg after Fridays for Future grew strong in 2018, as well as in the push to criminalize other climate movements such as Extinction Rebellion.

“Think tanks are very, very involved in shaping the global climate debate. They are useful because they can say the things that the oil industry can’t openly stand for anymore. They are spreading a lot of the heavy climate denial and sowing doubt, especially in the media and among senior politicians,” says U.S. journalist Amy Westervelt, a long-time Atlas investigator.

The campaigns began 40 years ago, after ExxonMobil’s research team, with great precision, produced evidence that fossil fuel emissions would lead to a climate crisis. However, the company hid the internal expert report. Instead, ExxonMobil and other oil companies paid millions to Atlas as the organization was working to cast doubt on climate science. Atlas funneled money to the network’s more than 500 member organizations around the world for advocacy, lobbying, and political influence.

The Highest Political Rooms

Supermiljöbloggen, in collaboration with Dagens ETC, can now reveal that Atlas has been funneling hundreds of thousands of Swedish crowns to Timbro for several years, much of it directly from Exxon, with the stated goal of influencing Swedish public opinion.

At the same time, Moderate politicians and others in the Timbro sphere have in turn given oil lobbyists access to the highest political offices in Sweden. A review of hundreds of correspondence documents, checks, and internal communications between Exxon, Atlas, and Timbro shows how Atlas earmarked oil money from Exxon to run campaigns in Sweden through Timbro.

“There is no other reason for Exxon to give Timbro money except to try to influence politics and public opinion,” says Amy Westervelt.

The Moderates Saw the Climate as a Fateful Issue

In 1978, Timbro was founded by the Swedish Employers’ Association and Mont Pelerin Society member Sture Eskilsson, who shortly afterward started working closely with the American network. In a fax from 1991, he wrote to the head of Atlas, Leonard Liggio, that “among the personal friendships that have developed over the years, yours has been of particular importance.”

Relationships were further strengthened when Atlas executives vacationed with a Timbro manager in the Stockholm archipelago. The contacts with Atlas began at a time when the Moderates showed a clear commitment to the climate issue. Toward the end of the 1980s, the party put forward several proposals to combat the greenhouse effect. Among them was a national carbon dioxide ceiling introduced in 1988 as a Moderate initiative.

In a 1991 motion from, Moderate politicians Carl Bildt and Hökmark, among others, wrote that the greenhouse effect and climate change were the greatest threats to the global environment and “a matter of the fate of our planet.” Climate policy must be accelerated, they said, proposing stricter carbon taxation and an environmentally friendly transition of the entire transport sector. The motion also criticized the Social Democrats’ plans to replace canceled nuclear power with fossil gas.

In 1996, conservative media figure and writer PJ Anders Linder was recruited to be CEO of Timbro. In the same year, Timbro hired a young Moderate party member named Gunnar Strömmer, who later became project manager. Today, he is the Swedish minister for justice. The think tank also employs the current Swedish prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, who had just become a member of parliament for the Moderate party.

“As a part-time marketing manager, [I] try to keep my business knowledge alive by selling books and building networks,” Kristersson said in an interview with Swedish newspaper Arbetet.

What he didn’t reveal is that Timbro’s book publishing and other endeavors for political influence were partly financed by oil money.

Hökmark Has Dinner with Atlas

In 1996, Timbro launched a climate initiative with the “intention of conveying counter-images to the doomsday prophecies.” In the same year, Gunnar Hökmark, secretary of the Moderate Party and later member of the European Parliament, traveled to Washington, D.C., and through Atlas made contact with the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and other influential think tanks funded by the oil industry. In a fax to Atlas director Leonard Liggio, Hökmark thanked him for a “charming and interesting dinner” and wrote:

“I would also like to thank you for your help in arranging a very interesting program.”

Timbro Receives $40,000

Under the leadership of Timbro’s CEO, Anders Linder, the American media personality John Stossel was invited to Sweden. The climate denier arrived in Stockholm in August 1996 and was interviewed by Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet, warning against “hysterical environmental organisations.”

Secretly, Atlas paid for the trip and transferred the equivalent of $40,000 in current-day U.S. dollars to Timbro. In a later fax, Atlas told Exxon about “Stossel’s successful trip to Stockholm” and added that “these valuable connections with scientists and foreign institutes could grow significantly with proper nurturing.”

The following year, the oil giant increased their funding of climate denial. Atlas contacted Exxon and described the major regulatory and environmental challenges facing the oil industry. The think tank asked for money to “assist Atlas’s efforts to reach opinion leaders and policymakers about the widespread problem of politicized science, particularly global climate change.”

Timbro was mentioned in the application as “a potent ally in spreading market-oriented ideas across Europe, especially on regulatory and environmental issues.” Exxon, looking to invest its resources outside the U.S., increased funding to Atlas, specifically asking for its funding to be disseminated abroad.

Exxon Increases Funding

Correspondence from 1998 describes a transfer from Exxon of $10,000 in today’s money to Europe, with Timbro one of four recipients. 

In the same year, Kristersson left Timbro, but the payments from Exxon continued to flow to Sweden. In a 1998 report, Atlas wrote that Exxon’s financial support provided the opportunity to influence “even more opinion makers and legislators on very important issues like climate change.”

In 1999, Exxon increased European grants to $14,000 in today’s money, with Timbro one of two recipients. The oil company raised the level of ambition, and the goal for Europe included an increased focus on environmental reform in Scandinavia. The project proposal to Exxon for 1999 described a recent meeting between Atlas founder Liggio and Timbro’s management, during which Atlas welcomed continued cooperation on environmental issues in Europe.

The Moderates Swing on Environmental Policy

At the same time, many right-wing parties in the Western world began to tone down their concerns about the devastating consequences of the greenhouse effect. The Swedish Moderates went from advocating for carbon taxes and reforestation to emphasizing market solutions and criticizing government intervention in climate and environmental policy.

In 2001, MP Hökmark and several Moderates once again wrote a climate policy motion. But instead of worrying about climate change, they now argued for opening the fossil gas market to free competition and removing subsidies for wind power.

“Don’t Blame the Weather”

At the same time, Timbro continued its public-opinion work in the climate field. In the fall of 1997, Per Ericson from Timbro visited an Atlas conference in Athens and met Fred Singer, one of the fossil industry’s most hired researchers at the time.

In the 1998 report mentioned above describing how Exxon spent its money, Atlas wrote that the funds sent to Timbro went to produce the environmental newsletter “Ekvilibrium,” with Ericson as editor, among other things. r. Ericson sent out a large number of climate-denial texts with headlines such as “Green tax threatens health” and “Don’t blame the weather.” Singer, a consultant to Exxon and other oil companies, was a recurring source.

Timbro also published an anti-wind power book written by Ericson, in which he dismissed the claim “that a warmer climate is generally harmful.” According to a later fax to Exxon in 2001, money from Atlas also went to the Swedish translation of the book Free Market Environmentalism. In the book, the authors wrote that “excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to cooling, not warming.”

“Cuddling with Polar Bears”

In the 21st century, leading figures within Timbro continued to question climate research. Those who sought to bring other perspectives were opposed. One of these was Ebba Lindsö, who in 2003 became CEO of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, which funded Timbro via the Free Enterprise Foundation. She wanted the confederation to take the climate issue more seriously.

At a conference at the employers organization Almega in January 2005, Lindsö presented graphs of the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and noted that these data correlated well with global warming. “Several of my hysterical colleagues came into my room in a cold sweat and asked how I could address something as unscientific as a climate crisis,” she wrote in her autobiography.

The editorial page of the Swedish newspaper Dagens Industri (“Today’s Industry”) mocked Lindsö for her “cuddling with polar bears.” A month later, the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise board, in agreement with Lindsö, decided she would resign, which occurred a few months later.

The following year, 2006, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report warning that the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was the highest in at least 650,000 years. In response, Timbro organized the seminar “Facts or Faith” in Stockholm to present “dissenting voices” on the issue of climate change. Among the invited speakers was the American climate denier Richard Lindzen from the Cato Institute, also financed by Exxon.

“Hakelius Borrowed Money”

Meanwhile, Atlas continued to pursue its strategy of identifying young right-wingers to support. The network granted generous scholarships to Moderates, Timbro employees, and right-wing debaters to study at prestigious American universities.

One of the recipients was a young Timbro employee and editorial writer at Svenska Dagbladet, Johan Hakelius. In 1994, he was mentioned in a fax from Atlas CEO Leonard Liggio, who wrote that “Johan Hakelius seems to have come into his own, and I was happy to be able to help him with his program at George Mason University.”

“I knew Leonard Liggio from before, having been active in the Swedish neoliberal movement as a teenager. I met him a few times in Washington and, I think, borrowed money from him from time to time,” Johan Hakelius said in an email to SMB and ETC.

Back in Sweden, Hakelius devoted his Svenska Dagbladet columns to ranting about the “carrot left” and “environmental propagandists.” As the current editor-in-chief of the magazine Fokus, he continues along the same lines, publishing several pieces that spread disinformation about the IPCC’s climate research reports. Hakelius is married to Svenska Dagbladet writer Susanna Popova, who has defended climate denier Fred Singer and in an editorial called Greta Thunberg a “girl Hitler.”

Can’t Remember Who Paid for It

In 2010, Alice Teodorescu Måwe received the Timbro Scholarship, which included a trip to the U.S. and studies at the Atlas member group, Institute for Humane Studies. She was recently elected a member of the European Parliament for the Swedish Christian Democratic Party. In May 2011, Håkan Tribell, another Timbro executive, attended an Atlas think tank MBA program in Fairfax, Virginia.

“[It was] an exchange between think tanks from all over the world – there were various forms of international contacts,” said Tribell, who cannot remember who paid for the trip.  

No Mention of Atlas on the Site

Timbro’s financial ties to Atlas remain ever-present today. Atlas paid for the trip when Timbro economist Jacob Lundberg attended the network’s conference in Warsaw in 2022. Lundberg later came to serve as an advisor to the Swedish minister for finance. The Swedish think tank also participated in the network’s meetings in Athens in 2021 and Copenhagen in 2018.

As recently as 2021, Timbro’s CEO, Karin Svanborg Sjövall, was a member of the Atlas “Council of Mentors” before leaving her post to become an advisor to Prime Minister Kristersson. However, the close collaboration is not mentioned on Timbro’s website or social media.

After the election victory in 2022, Kristersson gathered several Timbro affiliates and Atlas-connected people for the formation of the government. Gunnar Strömmer, who previously ran the Atlas-member organization Center for Justice, was appointed minister for justice. Romina Pourmokthari, who was educated in Timbro’s training program “Stureakademin” and traveled to Washington to meet with Atlas-affiliated think tanks, was appointed minister for climate and environment. Karin Svanborg Sjövall accepted the post of state secretary to the minister for culture.

Anders Linder, who was CEO when Timbro received hundreds of thousands of kronor from Atlas, was recruited to the government’s expert council. As editor-in-chief of the magazine Axess, he’s pursued a climate-skeptic line and has given space to Atlas collaborator and climate skeptic Björn Lomborg. None of the above-mentioned people agreed to an interview.

Supermiljöbloggen and Dagens ETC have tried to reach Timbro’s current CEO, PM Nilsson, for weeks, but he was not willing to give an interview. Instead, he offered a brief statement:

“Timbro prioritizes the climate transition – it is important that Sweden reduces its carbon dioxide emissions and that the use of fossil fuels is phased out quickly,” he said.

Press secretary Ebba Koril added that Timbro does not currently accept any contributions from other funders and referred questions about the 1990s “to those who were responsible then.” She emphasized that the organization is completely independent and funded by the Free Enterprise Foundation, which in turn is funded by donations from the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise.

“Together with other reputable thinktanks in Europe such as Cepas from Denmark, we are part of the Atlas network, for example, Cepos from Denmark,” Koril wrote. “No membership fee is paid and there is no exchange of financial resources.”

Supermiljöbloggen and Dagens ETC sought comment from Gunnar Strömmer, Ulf Kristersson, PJ Anders Linder, Gunnar Hökmark, Romina Pourmokhtari, Alice Teodorescu Måwe, and Karin Svanborg-Sjövall. None responded.

After the story was first published in Swedish, PM Nilsson, Timbro’s current CEO, wrote an opinion piece in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter in which he disregards the findings as a conspiracy theory, downplays the importance of Atlas, and states that he has not personally had any contact with the network since he began his position as CEO. He claims that “we have not seen any evidence” of such funding. A reply from a Dagens Nyheter editor called the attack on the story “an outrageous accusation.” Worth noting is that PM Nilsson previously served as secretary for Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson for a short period, but resigned after he was arrested for illegal eel fishing.

Jan Lindsten reported for Supermiljöbloggen and Eigil Söderin for Dagens ETC

See links to the Swedish version of this article on Supermiljöbloggen and Dagens ETC.

Read more stories from Supermiljöbloggen (in Swedish) on Timbro’s links to Atlas Network and their contribution to the Swedish climate debate:

First part: Tankesmedjan som fördröjer Sveriges klimatomställning

Second part: Timbro, Bryssel och klimatet

Third part: Svenskt Näringslivs inflytande i media – vilseleder om klimatet

Fourth part: Svenskt Näringslivs kamp mot miljörörelsen: en historisk genomgång

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