The subject of Robert Kenner’s documentary Merchants of Doubt is the catastrophe of global climate change, which is engulfing us even faster than predicted. Kenner doesn’t waste time proving, in this terse, brilliantly argued movie, that climate change is happening or that our dependence on fossil fuels has a causal relationship to it. Employing data compiled by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their investigative nonfiction book of the same name, he quickly shows that there is zero argument among actual scientists about either of these conclusions. Instead, he directs our attention to the way the media and our elected officials continue to claim that nothing is certain and that there are opposing views that must be given equal time with every mere mention of the subject. Kenner asks, who are these global warming skeptics and deniers? Who stands to gain from their indefensible positions and willful ignorance? And are there historical precedents for these merchants of doubt? It is in answering the last of these questions that the film is uniquely eye-opening and that Kenner’s use of parallel editing is most incisive and compelling.
Kenner relies on Oreskes and Conway’s research to demonstrate that the techniques and even some of the cast of characters employed by the climate change deniers are the same as those used for 50 years by the tobacco industry to cast doubt on what secret in-house studies by cigarette companies had already proved in the Fifties—that cigarettes are a carcinogenic and nicotine is addictive. The PR firm Hill & Knowlton was one of those involved in teaching the tobacco industry to divert attention from even the smallest possibility that smoking was injurious by foregrounding how the pleasure of lighting up was beneficial to health and happiness not to mention a thriving economy and a free society. And the folks at Hill & Knowlton aren’t the only ones Kenner shows passing down the very strategies that were effective in preventing regulations and fines from being imposed on the tobacco industry to today’s climate-change-isn’t-happening crowd. Cold War ideologues were also involved, and they are still stoking the fears that government regulation inevitably leads to socialism, martial law, and economic disaster.
As Oreskes explains toward the end of the film, it took a half-century for the tobacco industry to submit to regulations, taxes, and lawsuits. But we do not have 50 years to arrest or at least slow climate change. And the forces arrayed against taking any action at all—Big Oil, Koch Industries, the elected officials who are in their pocket, the Roberts Supreme Court who exacerbated a political process in which elections are brazenly bought—are more formidable than Big Tobacco ever was. In its clarity and irony, Merchants of Doubt is as pleasurable as a movie about a grim situation can be. But it leaves you suspecting that things will need to get much worse before the doubters are proved to be liars, and by then it may be too late. Kenner was probably aware while working on the movie that the Republicans most likely would win the Senate and that Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, author of the 2012 book The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, would become head of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. That may be why he gives so much screen time to Mark Morano, then an Inhofe staffer, to explain his strategy of attacking the scientists personally, rather than the science. He spearheaded a campaign to deluge James Hansen, who early on warned of the dangers of CO2 pollution, with emails that threatened him and his family with strangulation, incineration, and other merriments, because he claimed that Hansen needed to experience how angry people were at what he said. Morano is no longer a member of Inhofe’s staff—perhaps the senator worried that he was too openly underhanded—but undoubtedly he has passed his methods on to others. Kenner should consider a sequel.