[Note: Updated 11/19/15.]
There’s a striking demographic truth observable in Robert Kenner’s documentary Merchants of Doubt, one that neatly encapsulates the confounding imbalance at the heart of the anthropogenic climate change debate. The film depicts several global warming “skeptic” events, typically hosted by conservo-libertarian think tanks such as the Koch-funded Heartland Institute. These conferences appear to be attended by an overwhelmingly older, white, and male set—the Fox News fringe, in other words. In one memorable shot, Kenner captures a half-full ballroom where a dour, elderly conferencegoer sits alone. He could be a crank physicist, an apologist media hack, or perhaps just an activist citizen whose contempt for government runs bone-deep. Regardless, the image speaks to the Wonderland character of the climate wars. On one side are thousands of climate scientists and incalculable pages of research, along with dozens of international scientific organizations. On the other are a relative handful of dissemblers and true believers. The former are mostly shills backed by corporate fossil fuel dollars, while the latter are primarily tribally-motivated consumers of right-wing propaganda. As Kenner and his collaborators implicitly and rhetorically ask, how does a such a face off between unevenly matched worldviews constitute a “debate” at all?
Like Kenner’s previous documentary feature, Food, Inc., Merchants of Doubt is progressive agitprop of modest ambitions. The ideal viewer is someone who thinks of climate change as a problem and knows that some sort of controversy exists about it, but it isn’t clear on the details. The film won’t convince any hardcore deniers of the overwhelming evidence for global warming driven by greenhouse gas pollution. Indeed, Kenner and political historian Naomi Oreskes—whose book with Erik M. Conway inspired the film—spend very little of Merchants’ 96 minutes making the case for anthropogenic climate change, per se. As the film points out, almost every peer-reviewed paper on climate science already accepts the phenomenon as a given, and establishing its reality would be akin to laying out the evidence for gravitation or evolution. (Oh, wait ...) Instead, Merchants devotes the bulk of its attention to scrutinizing the professional denialists themselves. In particular, the film establishes their common history as mouthpieces for Big Tobacco, Big Chemical, and other corporate sectors known for their less-than-stellar record of truthfulness regarding threats to public health.
Merchants is therefore a documentary primarily about hucksterism. To drive the point home, the film frames its exposé with snippets of illusionist Jaimy Ian Swiss explaining the principles behind his card tricks. As Swiss articulates, stage magic relies on an unspoken agreement with the audience that the con will be harmless and entertaining. This is not the case with the institutions that peddle uncertainty about health and environmental issues, and seeing the curtain pulled back on such forces makes for an enlightening and somewhat chilling experience. Kenner generally sticks to the "Big Issues" documentary playbook, building his case with a brisk blend of interviews, animation, and stock footage. It’s polished, but formally undistinguished. As with most documentaries where the goal is educational, the film doesn’t demand a second viewing. That said, Merchants skillfully employs its medium to draw lines of connection and create juxtapositions. It’s one thing to state that the same rogue’s gallery of denialists crops up over and over on multiple issues. It’s another to place two cable news clips side by side to show the same shill deriding the lack of evidence connecting smoking to cancer in one instance, and pollution to climate change in another.
The most intriguing question addressed in the film is one of motivation: Why do denialists deny? (And, secondarily, what motivates their audience to accept and hold onto their lies with death-grip fervor?) The obvious answer is, of course, greed, but as Merchants illustrates, most denialists are a more complex species than mere liars for dollars. Physicist and notorious climate skeptic Frederick Singer, for example, is a former Cold War missile scientist, whose objections to environmental regulations appear to be deeply rooted in his anti-communist ideology. When Singer blithely declares that almost all climate scientists are wrong and he is right, it’s hard not to regard his glib, glassy-eyed certainty as a kind of religious (or, ironically, Stalinist) zealotry. More infuriating are pundits like Climate Depot founder Marc Marano, a conservative knife fighter who regards the entire debate as an anti-liberal bloodsport. The cheery Marano rather astonishingly agrees to be interviewed for the film, and he is quite candid about how much “fun” it is to hound climate scientists and obfuscate for polluters on cable news programs.
The film’s most memorable figure, however, is former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis. A right-wing evangelical and limited government Republican, Inglis is the sort of politician who boasts about his endorsements from the NRA and the National Right to Life Committee. Despite his ideological credentials, however, Inglis had a come-to-Jesus moment on climate change when he was able to meet with scientists investigating ice cores in the Arctic. After his position on global warming shifted from denial to acceptance, however, Inglis was defeated in a landslide by a Tea-Party-backed GOP primary challenger, leaving him dazed and despairing at the direction of American conservatism. Watching Inglis politely and futilely insist, “That’s not true,” as a reactionary radio host rattles off brazenly false talking points is unexpectedly sad. More to the point, it's emblematic of the challenges facing anyone who tries to rise above the denialists’ haze of bullshit.