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.