'Merchants Of Doubt' Explores Work Of Climate Change Deniers NPR's Melissa Block speaks to director Robert Kenner about his documentary, "Merchants of Doubt," which examines the work of climate change skeptics and their campaign to sway public opinion.

'Merchants Of Doubt' Explores Work Of Climate Change Deniers

'Merchants Of Doubt' Explores Work Of Climate Change Deniers

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NPR's Melissa Block speaks to director Robert Kenner about his documentary, "Merchants of Doubt," which examines the work of climate change skeptics and their campaign to sway public opinion.


And let's listen to some voices of climate change skeptics.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Climate is changing naturally.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It has to do with sunspots, and it has to do with the wobble of the earth.

BLOCK: These are voices from the fossil fuel industry and the industry of advocates who speak for them.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We need more data. The science isn't there to make that determination.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: There is no need for us to rush to this kind of judgment.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: CO2 is a benefit to plant life. It's increasing the bounty and the productivity of the planet, our ability to feed populations in this world. What you're seeing here is...

BLOCK: That's from a new documentary film that looks into the world of climate change deniers, their campaign to sway public opinion and the business interests behind them. It's called "Merchants Of Doubt." It's inspired by the book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. Joining me here in the studio is the film's director, Robert Kenner, who also directed the documentary "Food Inc." Welcome to the program.

ROBERT KENNER: Thanks, Melissa, great to be here.

BLOCK: And, Robert, you are drawing a direct link in your movie between deniers of climate change and people who, in years past, also denied the harm of tobacco. What is the connection there?

KENNER: Well, really, people who had defended tobacco when they knew for 50 years their product caused cancer and was addictive, they were able to create doubt and say we need more studies, we need more time, when they knew what their product did. They knew before anyone else because big corporations have to have good science.

And so they knew their product was deadly, but they couldn't say it doesn't cause cancer 'cause that's an out-and-out lie. But they could say we need more study and, you know, it can be used now for any industry. And the big money maker at this point and the big payday is climate and energy, and that's why it's out there.

BLOCK: And you quote a line from a consultant's - a PR firm's report to the tobacco industry, (reading) doubt is our product - was their line.

KENNER: And then one man, who was so skillful in slowing down legislation on the slow-burning cigarette, saying it wasn't cigarettes that caused house fires, it was couches. And he went on to make it where we had to have laws to put these chemicals in couches and...

BLOCK: Flame retardants.

KENNER: ...flame retardants. And he went on to say, if you can do tobacco, you can do anything.

BLOCK: Is it the same cast of characters though who were lobbying or supporting the tobacco industry and are also denying climate change?

KENNER: It's many of the same people, and it's almost identical playbook. And I think that's what we try to lay out is how you can just see this pattern used over and over and over again. And as they say, they don't have to win, they just have to create doubt and delay.

BLOCK: There's a moment in the film where you interview climate scientist James Hansen, who's been one of the strongest voices sounding the alarm about the risks of climate change, the real dangers, and he admits to you that scientists make lousy communicators. They're just not good at selling the science of what they're trying to explain.

But you contrast that with a man named Marc Morano. He's a climate change skeptic. He's frequently on TV. He runs the blog Climate Depot. And he was really clear with you about his tactics. Let's take a listen to what he said.


MARC MORANO: You go up against a scientist, most of them are going to be in their own little sort of policy-wonk world or area of expertise, very arcane, very hard to understand, hard to explain and very boring.

BLOCK: And on TV, he, Marc Morano, is not boring.


MORANO: Bottom line, new study in the journal Nature, peer-reviewed - no change in U.S. drought in the last 60 years. Bottom line, a new study out...

You can't be afraid of the absolute hand-to-hand combat metaphorically...

BLOCK: So what is that hand-to-hand combat that he's talking about there?

KENNER: Well, Marc - his theory is that you go after the scientist and you attack them personally. Go after the messenger. So all of a sudden, our scientists become the targets, and I think that's very unfortunate. These are not people who have an agenda. These are people who are ultimately working 80 hours a week.

James Hansen had very little interest in going on camera with me 'cause he'd much rather be doing his science. And I think it's not the job of the scientists to represent themselves on television 'cause they're busy doing the work. And they can't compete with the Marc Moranos of the world, who are quite charming, quite funny, quite fast and have studied PR techniques in a way that the scientists have not.

BLOCK: I'm talking with Robert Kenner. His new film is "Merchants Of Doubt." In the introduction, I mentioned Naomi Oreskes who wrote the book that inspired your film. She's a Harvard professor of the history of science, and she frames this as a much broader battle.


NAOMI ORESKES: None of this is about the science. All of this is a political debate about the role of government. So in a number of places, we actually found these people saying they see environmentalists as creeping communists. They see them as reds under the bed. They call them watermelons - green on the outside, red on the inside. And they worry that environmental regulation will be a slippery slope to socialism.

BLOCK: And you have a number of clips that illustrate that of people saying, at the end of the Cold War, we threw these people out the window red. They've walked back in the front door green. How common is that message?

KENNER: We found numerous clips of people going on television - Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh holding up a watermelon and calling them watermelons. So at some point, environmentalists became the new enemy.

BLOCK: If it's not about the science though, as Naomi Oreskes claims - but it's about politics, it's about your worldview, what tribe you belong to - it doesn't seem that there's much that a film like yours could do to change people's minds.

KENNER: Well, I think, you know, first of all, I think tribes move. You know, they're not static entities. You see what's happened with the gay marriage situation. Republicans and Democrats were opposed to it in '08, and all of a sudden it becomes acceptable very quickly. I think as people start to realize that this is not an issue that's an ideological issue - it's really about the planet, and the science is there - that they'll want to change. You know, the real debate will be, what are we going to do about it?

BLOCK: Was there ever a moment when you questioned the science or the tactics of the environmental movement? Anything you learned from the climate change deniers that gave you pause, made you think, well, you know, some in the environmental movement have gone too far in trying to make their case?

KENNER: Yeah, I think sometimes people can overreact, and it alienates another group of people. If you overstate your case sometimes, you're going to turn people off. And representing things as totally dire when they aren't could be misleading. We are capable of coming up with solutions if we put our mind to it, but at the same time, we tend to not want to think about this as a problem. And that's not about ideology, that's about all of us.

BLOCK: How easy or how difficult was it to get folks on the denier's side of climate change to talk to you for this film? They must've known you had a point of view here that was not going to agree with theirs.

KENNER: Yeah, I think I was clear in representing myself. I had made "Food Inc." and people had seen that. And - but I was open to hearing how they did what they did and why they did what they did. But not everybody wanted to appear in the film. There was the man who had been responsible for putting chemicals - flame retardants - into the couches and baby clothing who hadn't spoken to reporters, and he returned my call to my surprise. And when I said that we're doing more than just a film about tobacco and flame retardants, it's also about climate, he said to me, you know, you could take James Hansen, the world's leading climate scientist, and I could take a garbage man, and I could get America to believe that garbage man knows more about science. And he's been very successful at what he does, and there's a group of these people who've been very successful. And hopefully we can get to the real debate, not this sort of fake debate.

BLOCK: Robert Kenner, director of the film "Merchants Of Doubt." Thanks for coming in.

KENNER: Thank you.

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