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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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A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.
"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."
The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.
My god, White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted today for first time since 2001. My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it. Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable. #whiteisland pic.twitter.com/QJwWi12Tvt— Michael Schade (@sch) December 9, 2019
Michael Schade / Twitter
At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.
The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.
Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.
"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."
Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.
Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.
"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.
"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."
The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.
Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.
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