Spoiler alert: There’s no magic moment of hope at the end of “Merchants of Doubt.”
This documentary, the first to zero in on how and why the global climate change discussion became political and how that led to government gridlock, is just an account of the train wreck and how it happened.
The “global warming denial” industry – a few well-fed, well-paid faces, amplified by constant TV exposure into a “movement” without numbers, “experts” without real expertise – has gotten its way. Through decades of increasingly dire warnings and overwhelming scientific consensus, America lags behind the rest of the world in taking action or even accepting that global warming exists.
As a smirking lobbyist Marc Morano, an acolyte of Rush Limbaugh, puts it, “gridlock” means they “win.”
“Merchants of Doubt” has its moments when the professional deniers hem and haw about who pays them to do what they do. But mostly they’re glib, smug, self-confessed and self-righteous tools of Big Coal, Big Chemical or Big Oil.
The movie exposing them can be glib, too. Director Robert Kenner (“Food, Inc.”) frames this as a big confidence game, inserting magician Jamy Ian Swiss’ card tricks and comments about getting angry when he sees his trade – misdirection, “fooling people” – used for ill. That gimmick doesn’t work.
But Kenner presents a pretty convincing, utterly damning case that ties Big Tobacco and its decades of public relations chicanery to the “playbook” – with many of the same players – that we see in play today.
Kenner, in a not terribly methodical way, ties Big Tobacco to things like carcinogenic flame retardants for furniture, a “solution” to a tobacco-based ill (cigarette fires). “Experts” backing such retardants were exposed by the Chicago Tribune to be paid shills, frauds who lied to state and federal legislators in (not sworn) testimony. The subject has changed; the playbook of personal smears, demonizing and whoppers has not.
The ever-shifting line of scrimmage set up by the shills financed by the Koch Brothers, Big Oil and Big Coal is detailed. The lies come out. But Kenner fails to acknowledge how much more effective these persuasive, theatrical short-term liars can be in the cable news era (no fact checking, facts framed as “opinion” up for “debate”).
Yes, Greenpeace is heard from. But so is the ultra-conservative South Carolina congressman (Bob Inglis) voted out of office for suggesting action on climate change, so is Skeptic magazine publisher and lifelong libertarian Michael Shermer, shouted down by angry old men who storm out of a debate over the issue at a convention of libertarians. “Watermelons,” they’re called. “Green on the outside, red on the inside.”
“Merchants” presents this struggle as a last vestige of Cold War dogmatic conservatism, “patriotic Americans” vs. “socialist liberals.” Scientists are being threatened, systemically harassed by “merchants” like Morano, all for a paycheck and the power that comes from being a tiny, dishonest minority whom the media treats as neither, backed by voters who appreciate a lie they can agree with.
So why see it? Science historian Naomi Oreskes suggests there’s satisfaction in being right, and loving irony.
As the climate warms and seas rise, conservatives – especially those who live on the coasts – will pay the price: evacuations, forced relocations, subsidies, handouts.
“People who don’t like big government,” Oreskes warns with a grin,” are going to get more of it.”
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