What the 'Merchants of Doubt' Don't Want You to Know
The new documentary film Merchants of Doubt—which lays bare the tactics used by the professional climate deniers paid to spread doubt and confusion about the reality of global warming—is essential viewing for everyone who cares about the fight for climate action. It’s even more essential for anyone who still isn’t sure whether climate change is really happening or primarily caused by human activities.
Merchants of Doubt shows how the playbook developed by big American tobacco companies to deny the link between smoking and cancer has been redeployed by the fossil fuel lobby to deny the link between industrial emissions and climate change. Photo credit: Participant Media
A brilliant disinformation campaign by the Merchants of Doubt has stoked public fears about the economic consequences of climate action and kept a fake debate alive—even though the scientific consensus is overwhelming that climate change is happening and humans are the reason why.
Directed by Robert Kenner, best known for his Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc., and based on the fine book by historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt shows how the playbook developed by big American tobacco companies to deny the link between smoking and cancer has been redeployed by the fossil fuel lobby to deny the link between industrial emissions and climate change. Indeed, some of the most prominent climate change deniers are the very same people who spread doubt about the harmful effects of cigarettes decades ago.
It’s enough to make you want to holler: Scientists in the pay of fossil fuel companies; trumped-up petitions claiming scientists don’t really think the climate is warming; “independent” think tanks that are really just industry front groups; self-styled “experts” who are mostly expert at sandbagging real scientists and keeping doubt alive. But there’s one thing these Merchants of Doubt don’t want you to know: When the truth is accepted, Americans will demand action.
Before I worked for Environmental Defense Fund, I spent three years reporting on the professional deniers for my book The Climate War, a history of the great American struggle to get serious about climate change. I tracked many of the same people and groups that Kenner’s film exposes. And every once in a while, one of them would let down his guard (They are overwhelmingly male).
One of the professional deniers who surfaces in the movie is Myron Ebell of the industry-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute. For many years, Ebell’s full-time job has been to stave off climate action by keeping alive the impression that the scientific debate is wide open. During a conversation with me in 2008, Ebell cheerfully asserted that even if climate change were real, we shouldn’t bother doing anything about it (because by his logic it will be cheaper to act in 50 years—never mind that irreversible runaway climate change will have set in by then).
Then he made an astonishing admission.
“The public doesn’t agree with me,” he conceded. “They say, ‘If there is warming then we have a moral obligation to solve it. If there is not, then we don’t.’”
And that, in a nutshell, is what the denier PR machine doesn’t want you to know—and why the Merchants of Doubt have been working for so long to stir up doubts about the science. When Americans realize once and for all that climate change is real, they will demand action. “The science is still the battleground,” Ebell told me. “The battle is still over whether this is really happening and whether we are really causing it.”
And that’s the battle that Ebell and the other Merchants of Doubt are finally losing. Two powerful long-term trends are changing American attitudes:
1. A huge increase in destructive storms, droughts and heat waves made worse by climate change has people connecting the dots like never before—and realizing that we have to act on climate to protect our families and communities.
2. The rise of a clean energy economy that is creating good jobs for people has made the economic promise of the energy revolution tangible. Everyone knows that last century’s dirty economy can’t power our world throughout this new century. The good news is that the new economy is generating jobs along with carbon-free electricity and transportation. What seemed abstract just a few years ago is real—and people want more of it.
An overwhelming majority of Americans, including half of all Republicans, understand that climate change is real and support government action to address it. The Merchants of Doubt are losing the climate war.
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By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
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As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.
We Need More Than Listening<p>By now we have all become sadly accustomed to the current administration sidelining scientists, most prominently Dr. Anthony Fauci, because the facts they provide do not fit with the political rhetoric of the moment.</p><p>I have <a href="https://www.csldf.org/2019/08/22/csldf-helps-climate-scientist-maria-caffrey-fight-for-scientific-integrity/" target="_blank">my own history</a> of filing a scientific integrity complaint with the National Park Service (which falls under the Department of the Interior) after senior ranking employees attempted to censor one of my scientific reports. I know all too well the damage and pain that these actions cause, not just for the individual scientist, but also because these <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/attacks-on-science" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">attacks on science</a> over the last few years have undermined sound, evidence-based decision making.</p><p>President-elect Biden has repeatedly said that he will <a href="https://thehill.com/homenews/521638-trump-biden-will-listen-to-the-scientists-if-elected" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">listen to the scientists</a>. While this is certainly a welcome change, listening can only take us so far. This past week Lauren Kurtz from the <a href="https://www.csldf.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Climate Science Legal Defense Fund</a> and my colleague <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/about/people/gretchen-goldman" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gretchen Goldman</a> published <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ten-steps-that-can-restore-scientific-integrity-in-government/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an article</a> listing 10 actions the new administration should implement to show their commitment to strengthening government science:</p><ol><li>Clearly prohibit political interference and censorship.</li><li>Protect scientists' communication rights.</li><li>Acknowledge that attempts to violate scientific integrity, even if ultimately not fruitful, are still violations.</li><li>Protect federal scientists' right to provide information to Congress and other lawmakers.</li><li>Commit to incorporating the best science as part of agency decisions.</li><li>Elevate agency scientific integrity policies to have the full force of law.</li><li>Publicly release anonymized information about scientific integrity complaints and their resolutions at every agency.</li><li>Institute an intra-agency workforce, potentially under the White House <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/strengthening-science-and-si-at-ostp.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Office of Science and Technology Policy</a>, to coordinate scientific integrity efforts across agencies, foster discussion of policy improvements, and standardize criteria for policies across agencies.</li><li>Strengthen whistleblower protections.</li><li>Ensure that policies cover all actors who will be dealing with science.</li></ol>
Time for Action<p>I have spoken to many scientists, particularly federal scientists, who are eager to turn the page so they can hurry back to the work they had been doing before this administration, but I urge caution in assuming that things can be "normal" again.</p><p>Before Trump, I naively thought the scientific integrity policies established during the <a href="https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/12/19/scientific-integrity-policies-update" target="_blank">Obama administration</a> would be sufficient. I never imagined that any administration could so willfully ignore and attack expert advice and evidence that is intended to protect us and our public lands.</p><p>I have personally witnessed how hard our federal scientists work. They put in long hours with minimal pay (far less that what they could get if they worked in private industry) to pursue one simple goal: to make things better for the nation.</p><p>We need stronger scientific integrity policies to protect these people and their work. But more than that, we need stronger scientific integrity laws because they also benefit society.</p>
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