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Two weeks ago, an investigation by Greenpeace revealed that the fossil fuel industry had for years paid a scientist frequently called upon by Republicans and conservative pundits to deny climate change. The scientist, Willie Soon, had received more than $1.2 million from oil and gas companies in the last decade.
There's a name for people like this: Merchants of Doubt, which is the title of a 2010 book and a documentary film premiering today in New York City and Los Angeles. Both the book and the film detail the extent to which front groups and bought researchers create an appearance of scientific uncertainty around climate science where none exists, using the same tactics the tobacco industry used to sow confusion about the links between nicotine and cancer.
"It's all about delaying the conversation," Emily Southard, a campaign manager for climate communication group Forecast the Facts, told VICE News. "It's not about proving the scientists wrong, necessarily. It's just about putting in enough question where the solutions aren't being acted on or people aren't focusing on the issue."
Paying individual scientists to produce dubious research is a small part of what's come to be known as the climate-denial machine, in which oil, gas, and coal companies and their allies create front groups that develop their own reports and research to slow the progress of regulations and the switch to cleaner energy sources. And since the Supreme Court's 2009 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, it has become commonplace for donors to obscure where their money is going.
"There's been an infrastructure intentionally set up by the fossil fuel industry to promote messages of doubt on climate change and to promote messages of doubt on climate solutions like clean energy," Gabe Elsner, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, told VICE News. "And now we're seeing the same infrastructure promote messages of doubt on climate policy and climate regulations that the Obama administration is putting forward."
A 2013 Drexel University study found that $558 million had been funneled to about 100 different climate change denial organizations between 2003 and 2010.
The effect of all this has been to create the impression that there's doubt among the scientific community about the causes, and even existence, of climate change. While there are extensive questions about the precise impacts of climate change and the time scale on which it will operate, 97 percent of the scientific community is in consensus that burning fossil fuels is causing the planet to warm.
"The public hasn't really caught up with where the science is," Elsner told VICE News. "And that is a direct result of campaigns by fossil fuel interests to obscure the science."
In response to the news about Soon, Democratic senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Barbara Boxer of California, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island sent letters to 100 companies and industry organizations asking them to disclose any funding they have provided to scientists. Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva, also a Democrat, sent letters to seven universities requesting information on researchers who had spoken in opposition to the scientific consensus on climate science.
"The news about Willie Soon is further confirmation that the fossil fuel industry has taken a page out of the tobacco playbook by bankrolling scientists to cast false doubt on the existence of climate change," Whitehouse said. "The American people deserve to know more about this self-serving effort to distort the facts and prevent action on this issue, and I hope these letters will help."
Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro