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What the 'Merchants of Doubt' Don't Want You to Know

Climate

The new documentary film Merchants of Doubtwhich 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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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."