'Merchants of Doubt' Goes on the Offensive Against Climate Change Deniers

We talked to director Robert Kenner about his new documentary, the media's complicity in confusing the public, and the problem with contemporary capitalism.

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Mar 4 2015, 5:00am

Five years ago, historians Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway wrote a book that told an incredible tale of deception and disinformation at the heart of the American media. Focusing on three now-deceased scientists (Bill Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, and Fred Singer), their book, Merchants of Doubt, drew a straight line from paid quasi-experts defending cigarettes as healthy, acid rain as harmless, and pesticides as perfectly safe to current initiatives to discredit humanity's role in the planet's changing climate. But on each issue, these faux-experts' tactics remained the same: sow doubt so that the profitable, potentially destructive status quo remained intact.

The book caused something of a sensation. It briefly climbed to #643 on Amazon's Best Seller list—no small feat for a nonfiction book about climate change deniers, but hardly enough to enter the wider public consciousness. Still, among journalists and academics, it was overwhelmingly well-received. The Economist called it a "powerful book," while the Christian Science Monitor suggested that it "might be one of the most important books of the year." And praise from more openly liberal outlets was even more effusive. And yet here we are, five years later, and I think it's safe to say that climate change denialism—and the broader scourge of cable news–inspired false equivalence—hasn't decreased even slightly.

Enter Robert Kenner, director of the recent documentary Food, Inc. Kenner has taken on the mantle of Oreskes and Conway's mission in hopes of bringing this important story to a wider audience. He's adapted their book into a documentary film of the same title. It's a funny and engaging piece, with a polished slickness and effortless humor that will play well with the very people Kenner hopes to convert—those convinced of the dangers of global warming, but still unsure that they have a role to play in bringing about change. Hopefully, it'll come out on Netflix after its theatrical release, so that it can reach a truly wide audience.

I recently spoke with Kenner about the film, his thoughts on the balance between capitalism and the climate, and the responsibility scientists have in educating the wider public.

VICE: What motivated you to make this particular film?
Robert Kenner: I was curious why, if science has recognized that manmade CO2 affects the climate, so many people in America not believing this to be true? And at the same time, why are scientists being attacked? Why are climate scientists doing their work under the gun? Why are they being threatened with these horrible emails, and sometimes their houses being attacked? And why are newspapers presenting this as a real argument when it's not a science argument, it's a political argument? And lastly, how did this small group of people who went from tobacco to chemicals—you know, making laws that say we have to put chemicals in couches that not only don't stop fires but cause cancer, to the next big payday, which is climate? How did these people become so effective? So that became an interesting venture to sort of figure that one out and to go and meet people who are in this world, and to hear from many of the people who I would call the deniers.

One of the things that I found interesting about the film is that you place a lot of blame on the reporters, the media, and the politicians for accepting these lies.
Well look, I'm not an admirer of what these people are doing. First of all, there are different people doing different things, it's hard to lump them all as one. But I don't agree with them at all. These people who have no real scientific credentials are out there being put on the networks or in the New York Times, saying there's a real argument that exists about climate. And they would present two sides when there weren't two sides. I think the mainstream media should have done a much better job, but I think they're slowly coming around and recognizing this, to a degree.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the film was when magician Jamie Ian Swiss said "once revealed, never concealed"—
That's the key line!

Right, so this is my question: Do you think this is a issue that can be won, that if we can educate enough people, we can kind of teach people to inoculate themselves from this bullshit, or is this a constant battle?
Well, I think the answer is yes to both. It's absolutely a constant battle. There's only a few people revealing these lies and there's a lot of money perpetrating them. But at the same time, I think people will learn to look at the fact that... I was interviewed by an NPR reporter who moderated the event the next night in Washington, who said, "You know, the science is very complicated..."

The science is not very complicated. The science is very simple and to have a science reporter say it's complicated is absolutely someone who's getting lost in the nuance of what's happening, when we know what's happening. So I think that's part of the denier argument—that it's complicated. Do we know how much the sea will rise in the year 2050? No, we have probabilities. But we know it will rise. We know the earth will warm, and we know we need to do something about it. So those are facts. To what degree, obviously there are lots of questions, but the questions are really small in the scope of the big things.

Despite the enormity of the challenge that climate change represents, it was, I thought, a fairly optimistic movie.
Oh good, you're the first one who said that! As [former Republican Congressman] Bob Inglis has said to me, we crossed the Atlantic on small boats, we went across the prairie on wagons, we put a man on the moon—we're capable of doing amazing things if we can embrace there's a challenge and there's a problem. We can go at it and we can debate how to do them. But you've gotta recognize the problem. If you want a free market system, you have to take into account externalities. And we were not taking in externalities when it comes to numbers of these events. Ultimately, what I think Merchants of Doubt is about, and it cuts across many fields, is there's a revulsion to anything to do with regulations. And I think it's a perversion of the capitalist system to not take these externalities into account that need to be regulated to have a real capitalist system.

So it seems you totally disagree with Naomi Klein's recent thesis from her book that we can't have capitalism and the climate. But then how do we preserve the two toegether?
Well I think you have to start to pay the real cost for things. And that's not happening. We have a perverse form of capitalism at the moment.

So a carbon tax—that kind of thing?
Yeah, if people are throwing garbage in the air, they should pay for the garbage! And what you do with the tax is a form of an argument between conservatives and liberals who believe climate change is real. Some are saying give it back in a tax that gets passed back to the taxpayer, or others are saying use that to create green energies. But that's a real debate that you can have. But people have to start paying the real costs, and that's not happening. When I made Food, Inc., one of the things that shocked me is we are subsidizing the corn and soy [industries] that are making us sick with all these soft drinks and all these junk foods. We're actually paying taxpayer money to make people sick. And the same thing is happening with the climate world. We're paying tax money to subsidize the oil industry that's making the planet sick.

So how do we fix this?
I'm both an optimist and a pessimist. One day I wake up feeling one thing, one day I wake up feeling the other. But I do think we're capable of doing amazing things. I'll give you two reasons for optimism. In 1980 AT&T predicted they we're gonna sell 900,000 cell phones by the year 2000, and by the year 2000 they'd sold 109 million cell phones. And today there are more cell phones in the world than there are people. So that's how fast the world can change with technology. And then the other is, look at gay rights. In '08, President Obama was opposed to it. And today half the Republican Party supports it. And I do believe that there are many, many Republicans in Congress who would like to support climate change legislation but don't want to get voted out. So if we can turn a large part of their constituency to accept this, they're ready to move on it.

Merchants of Doubt premieres in New York and Los Angeles on March 6. It comes to theaters nationwide starting March 13.

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