Climate Change Artists: ‘Merchants of Doubt’ play scientists on TV.

Imagine the climate-change debate as a Wagnerian opera, and what we are hearing now—as Pope Francis prepares his encyclical on the environment—is  the overture: the rising and swelling of clangorous themes and motifs, i.e., talking points, about a socialist pope and a leftist church, all of which will set the stage for a full-throated assault on the integrity of the papacy, a chorus of faux-theological rebukes, Rick Santorum carrying a spear and, ultimately, the bluntest attack on Rome since the Visigoths were at its gates.

It may also be, for all Francis’ noble pronouncements about first world greed and third world need, perhaps his sharpest rebuke yet of pure evil.


For those who consider that some kind of gross overstatement, we offer Merchants of Doubt, Robert Kenner’s don’t-we-wish-it-were-fiction film about the lushly financed disinformation industry at work on behalf of U.S. coal, gas and oil and all its attendant industries, working to deny that climate change exists. Peopled by many of the professional liars who used to work for Big Tobacco and now work for Big Oil, it is a business that has, for years, used the ignorance and biases of the American public against it. Grievous enough, as sins go. But the crimes catalogued by Kenner include the rape of creation itself. The film eventually leads its viewer to the new oil fields of the Arctic, areas of exploration that have been made accessible only by global warming and are now coveted by the likes of Exxon-Mobil.

Wait a minute: You mean the deniers—and those who finance them—have been arguing that climate change does not exist in order to give global warming enough time to melt the ice caps and make them more money? Don’t anyone leave this room; I can’t find my wallet.

Right now, there are readers saying, “But isn’t there some question about whether climate change exists?” And as the film reveals, that’s precisely what the eponymous “Merchants” are paid to achieve. And they don’t even bother denying it.

“I’m not a scientist, but I play one on TV, occasionally,” laughs Marc Morano. “O.K., more than occasionally.” Morano is one of the well-paid “experts” who regularly materialize on places like CNN and FoxNews and insist in the face of actual science, and genuine scientists, that the earth is not getting warmer—and if it is, humans are not to blame. (That Kenner got Morano, and got him to say what he says, is a minor miracle.)

It was much the same with cigarettes. As those old masters of disinformation at the public relations giant Hill & Knowlton told their clients at Big Tobacco years ago, all you need to create is doubt. The public and its politicians will do the rest. Because they really don’t want the truth.

That money is the root of all evil is hardly news, but Kenner’s documentary is more than just a plaint against corruption. He is, for one thing, a first-rate filmmaker, who has created—no, conjured—a work of engaging cinema out of what is largely whole cloth. The cloth consists of archival footage and talking heads, but also a lot of visual mischief that keeps the eye as engaged as the mind. Opening the film at Hollywood’s Magic Castle, with the magician Jamy Ian Swiss dazzling the viewer with some sleight of hand (and making some pointed remarks about honest deception versus outright fraud), Kenner employs a palette  of manipulated images—playing cards floating through the air, incriminating documents levitating their way to a Xerox machine—to keep the viewer amused as well as appalled.

There are some arguments to be made with the film, which is based on the book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Oreskes is a bright, intelligent presence on screen and in one sequence addresses the cases of the Freds—the physicists Fred Singer and Fred Seitz, who have become the poster boys for climate-change denial because they are actually scientists. Oreskes says that some years ago she and her colleagues set out to compile a list of all the scientists who, according to deniers, claimed that global warning was a hoax. They collected all the scientific papers published between 1992 and 2002 that mentioned “global climate change” and read them. None disputed that the environment was under assault by humans. Which does not keep people like Singer and Seitz from claiming otherwise.

Or, for that matter, claiming whatever serves their purpose: As Kenner shows through particularly delicious series of clips, Singer’s case has evolved over the years from “the earth isn’t warming,” to “the earth is warming but it’s not caused by humans” to “the earth is warming and it’s caused by humans, but to do anything about it would cause economic collapse”—which, he says revealingly, “is what many of the enviros want.”

What are the motives of these men? “Most people would assume the answer is money,” Oreskes says. But no; both Freds, each of whom at one time worked for a tobacco company, are also old Cold Warriors who see the environmental movement as part of a leftist-cum-communist conspiracy.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean their case is not about money. The anti-big-government interests in this country are not against accepting Medicare; they’re just against regulation, because it means government oversight of business, which means—possibly—imperiled profits. The people who keep the likes of Singer and Seitz afloat, Kenner more than implies, people like the Koch brothers, want to smear the eco-movement as left-leaning political liberals, which many are. And what does this have to do with believing in climate change?

Probably the most important theme of “Merchants of Doubt”—important, that is, with respect to the soul of America—is articulated by Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society and onetime climate-change denier himself. He doesn’t quite say it, but what turned him off to the global-warming mission was the smugness of its missionaries. But he read all the data, questioned his own skepticism and now tries to convert people at, say, a libertarian convention in Las Vegas, where he is attacked as a Communist.

Why are so many on the political right seemingly immune to the theories about global warming? Because what’s more important to many, Shermer says, is “being a consistent tribal member.” They see themselves as member of a collective, a tribe, and what the tribe believes is that global warming is a hoax.

You see the same thing when one of the film’s real heroes, Bob Inglis—a former South Carolina congressman and dyed-in-the-wool political conservative-turned-environmental activist—visits a Mississippi radio station. The host is, predictably, aghast. “As a conservative I’m supposed to accept this?” the radio guy says in response to Inglis. And while Inglis is too polite to say it, what the viewer has to ask is, “Since when does being a political conservative mean you have to deliberately ignore the truth?” Inglis has not, as far as we know, embraced every other position of so-called “liberal America.” He does not keep a picture of Elizabeth Warren, say, on the dashboard of his S.U.V.—he just accepts the well-established stuff about the dying planet we live on, which is home to many, many well-paid people willing to sell it out and sell their souls. It is very early in the year, but “Merchants of Doubt” certainly looks like the most important movie of 2015, although, somehow, it is hard to imagine that radio host in Mississippi running out to see it.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
john anderson
2 years 7 months ago
Personal attacks being the default mode of the small but vocal professional climate-denier class, I am not surprised by Mr. Savage's attack, but I am surprised at his apparent inability to use Google. What's not very surprising is his inability to refute what 97 percent of bona-fide scientists agree on about climate change.
Tim O'Leary
2 years 7 months ago
This is rich! John Anderson describes all who disagree with him on the climate with the lowest invective (deniers, liars, evil...) and then complains about personal attacks. The 97% mantra is totally bogus, coming from a tiny subset of scientists (it is 97% of a selected 79 out of 3146 surveyed - and the 79 have a business interest in scaring people about catastrophic global warming). In fact, most scientists disagree with part of the so-called IPCC Consensus. See here about the origin of the number, from the very paper Mr. Anderson occasionally writes for (but, does he read it): Here is a quote "Only 39.5% of 1,854 American Meteorological Society members who responded to a survey in 2012 said man-made global warming is dangerous."
Richard Savage
2 years 7 months ago
The 97% claim by Mr. Anderson is as ignorant as it is false. Science isn't based on claims from authority - 97% or even 100%. It's based on evidence, facts, data. Religion is based on authority. Here's a fact for Mr. Anderson: satellite data, analyzed by contractors paid by NASA (RSS and University of Alabama, Huntsville) tell us there has been little or no global warming, and far, far less than the predictions of climate models. The biggest effort in the world of "climate science" today is the attempt to explain "the hiatus" - pointed out by Gillis in the New York Times, in May 2013. Even more laughable - and disgusting - is Mr. Anderson's ad hominem insult, calling me a member of the "professional climate denier class." How stupid can even Mr. Anderson be? I'm well aware there is a climate; I had classes in climatology. I'm also well aware the climate changes, naturally, as most educated persons know (think of the Norse settlements of Greenland and Vinland). I'm aware that humans can change the climate, such as desertification (e.g., the Rajasthan Desert, by overgrazing). I freely acknowledge that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, which warms the Earth. What I know, and Mr. Anderson doesn't, is that the warming effect of a greenhouse gas follows a logarithmic curve; it's a smaller and smaller effect with every increment of the gas. That's why there is no "crisis" of global warming; there's a natural limit, which we're very close to (<1 C). As I said, this is science. The theory of radiative transfer doesn't support the alarmism of Mr. Anderson and other left-wing crackpots. The data of the ongoing experiment - the lack of significant warming - doesn't support it either. Oceanic ice is at record levels; the Great Lakes are almost completely frozen over; hurricanes are at record low levels. All the alarmists have to offer are the likes of Rep Raul Grijalva, who wants to investigate scientists who dare to disagree with Obama's adviser, Holdren, and ignorant film critics like Anderson. And, of course, one can look out the window at another record cold, snowy Winter in the Northeast and Midwest. A few years ago, alarmists - Robt Kennedy, Jr. e.g. - were telling us snow was a thing of the past, kids would not be able to sled any more, ski resorts would go out of business, maple syrup would no longer be available. I repeat: John Anderson is an ignorant liar, who merely repeats the propaganda of the Obama administration in vilifying honest scientists. Shame on America magazine for exposing his cheap insults - "climate deniers" - to honest people.
John Hess
2 years 7 months ago
Dr. Savage, it seems to me that a first resort to personal attack means that you concede to the author's point.
Richard Savage
2 years 7 months ago
I attacked Mr. Anderson's arguments, Mr. Hess - not his ancestry or personal habits. For example, he called me " a professional climate denier" - implying that someone pays me to lie. For the record, no one pays me for stating my personal opinion on climate or climate change. I then went on to explain what I know about climate and climate change, based on my education. Calling me a "climate denier" is a stupid argument. I'm aware there is a climate, and aware of much more about the climate. Saying that 2 + 2 = 5 is a stupid argument, and saying so is not ad hominem nor a personal attack. On the other hand, "denier" is VERY ad hominem, as I pointed out; it's deliberately intended to associate a skeptic, such as myself, with holocaust deniers. In addition, Mr. Anderson didn't REVIEW the film; he simply repeated the many lies and slanders IN the film. Dr. Fred Singer, one of the four scientists maligned by Ms. Oreskes in Mr. Kenner's film (the others are dead) has written to Mr. Kenner, advising him of a likely lawsuit for libel if the film is released. I understand how he feels; I don't like being called a liar or anti-Semite either. In the event such a lawsuit becomes necessary, I hope you will follow it and appreciate the difference between an ad hominem attack and a demonstration that an opponent's argument is deliberately wrong and slanderous.
Tim O'Leary
2 years 7 months ago
What an unfortunate article, full of fundamentalist ire (“pure evil” ‘grievous sins”) with apocalyptic warnings (Visigoths at the Vatican’s gates, “the rape of creation”), extreme ridicule and condemnation for those who disagree (“professional liars,” “masters of misinformation”), simplistic “us-‘n-them” judgmentalism (greed vs. need), insisting motives of the “them” must be all driven by the almighty dollar or a pseudoscientific “tribal” or herd mentality (to which the warmists are somehow immune). This article is based solely on a manufactured authority (97% scientists…) and is completely lacking any scientific argument. While I can accept there has been global warming to some degree and that there is a human component, I try to follow the scientific data and stay from the warmist and non-warmist extremes. But, there are indeed legitimate questions on the science and the models that are rarely unemotionally addressed without invective and ridicule. The Copenhagen Consensus made the argument that several other threats to human life were more solvable and more important (see this 2005 TED talk that was before ISIS and Ebola and before the reduction in CO2 in the USA due to fracking and when the “pause” in global warming was only 5-7 years old – the arguments still hold Since it is now accepted by all sides that there has been essentially no global warming for the last 15-18 years, contrary to all the models used by the UN and despite record increases in global CO2 (see this warmist site listing all the possible reasons why the data might not mean what it appears to mean lovely title ‘slowing in the rise…”), should we not think that the alarmist rhetoric needs some balance? And, shouldn't we thank the oil industry for reducing the net US CO2 production by fracking despite complete opposition by the warmists and their rich friends and powerful politicians, who have managed to stop the keystone pipeline despite the desires of most Americans and Canadians (those crazy deniers of the North)?
Richard Savage
2 years 7 months ago
Matt Ridley has a new column on the economic benefits and morality of fossil fuels in the 14 March issue of the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Ridley states them more completely and with greater authority than I have been able to in the brief space for comments. For those who wish to learn, and to appreciate the moral issues involved, it can be read at: Here is a brief extract that should make both arguments, both to Catholics concerned with the moral issue of helping or harming the poor and those concerned with the environment: “...everything in the world becomes less ordered, more chaotic, tending toward “entropy,” or thermodynamic equilibrium. To reverse this tendency and make something complex, ordered and functional requires work. It requires energy.   The more energy you have, the more intricate, powerful and complex you can make a system. Just as human bodies need energy to be ordered and functional, so do societies. In that sense, fossil fuels were a unique advance because they allowed human beings to create extraordinary patterns of order and complexity—machines and buildings—with which to improve their lives.   The result of this great boost in energy is what the economic historian and philosopher Deirdre McCloskey calls the Great Enrichment. In the case of the U.S., there has been a roughly 9,000% increase in the value of goods and services available to the average American since 1800, almost all of which are made with, made of, powered by or propelled by fossil fuels.   Still, more than a billion people on the planet have yet to get access to electricity and to experience the leap in living standards that abundant energy brings. This is not just an inconvenience for them: Indoor air pollution from wood fires kills four million people a year. The next time that somebody at a rally against fossil fuels lectures you about her concern for the fate of her grandchildren, show her a picture of an African child dying today from inhaling the dense muck of a smoky fire.   Notice, too, the ways in which fossil fuels have contributed to preserving the planet. As the American author and fossil-fuels advocate Alex Epstein points out in a bravely unfashionable book, “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” the use of coal halted and then reversed the deforestation of Europe and North America. The turn to oil halted the slaughter of the world’s whales and seals for their blubber. Fertilizer manufactured with gas halved the amount of land needed to produce a given amount of food, thus feeding a growing population while sparing land for wild nature.” I hope Pope Francis will apprise himself of the facts in Mr. Ridley's article before issuing his forthcoming encyclical. And I invite readers of America to read the entire article at the link above.
Tim O'Leary
2 years 7 months ago
Richard - thanks for the link. An excellent article from Mr. Ridley and lots of usable facts given in a balanced way (even his suggestions for reducing CO2 production). I hadn't fully grasped how the poor of the world are so dependent on the energy from fossil fuels and the highly improbable affordable alternatives. Anyone who has a preferential option for the poor should see how important coal, oil and gas are to addressing their impoverishment, and the double benefit of fracking (cheaper fuel and less CO2 as natural gas replaces coal plants). I certainly hope the advisers of the pope get this to him. Ridley briefly mentioned methane hydrate as another potential organic energy source. I hadn't read about this and did some web digging. I didn't realize that this energy source is greater than all the world's coal, oil and gas put together. While the technology is only at the prototype stage, it seems possible that extracting the methane and replacing it with CO2 would be a wonderful win-win: producing abundant energy and reducing the atmospheric CO2!


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

It is astonishing to think that God would choose to enter the world this way: as a fragile newborn who could not even hold up his own head without help.
Ginny Kubitz MoyerOctober 20, 2017
Protestors rally to support Temporary Protected Status near the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Sept. 26. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
Around 200,000 Salvadorans and 57,000 Hondurans have been residing in the United States for more than 15 years under Temporary Protected Status. But that status is set to expire in early 2018.
J.D. Long-GarcíaOctober 20, 2017
At the heart of Anne Frank’s life and witness is a hopeful faith in humanity.
Leo J. O'Donovan, S.J.October 20, 2017
Forensic police work on the main road in Bidnija, Malta, which leads to Daphne Caruana Galizias house, looking for evidence on the blast that killed the journalist as she was leaving her home, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. Caruana Galizia, a harsh critic of Maltese Premier Joseph Muscat, and who reported extensively on corruption on Malta, was killed by a car bomb on Monday. (AP Photo/Rene Rossignaud)
Rarely does the death of a private citizen elicit a formal letter of condolence from the Pope.