Sell Game: Robert Kenner’s ‘Merchants of Doubt’ examines the PR business behind climate change denial

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The ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 1997, with 2014 the hottest year since temperatures were first noted back in 1880. Yet Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, recently appointed chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has called climate change a "hoax" and a "conspiracy."

Merchants of Doubt, a Sony Pictures Classics release opening March 6, explores how climate change deniers have successfully pushed an anti-science agenda despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Director Robert Kenner equates the work of climate change skeptics to magicians practiced at deception, sleight-of-hand operators who have mastered techniques to trick audiences. "This is a film about science denial," he says. "It's also a film about PR, about spin. It's not about 'science' per se, but about a pattern of deception."

Inspiration for Merchants of Doubt came when Kenner was working on the documentary Food Inc. At a hearing on how to package cloned meat—"I didn't realize that we had cloned meat"—an expert said that labeling cloned meat was against the interest of consumers.

"I went, 'Whoa, what's that?'" Kenner remembers. "We looked into these groups and found the Center for Consumer Freedom, there to stop you from knowing what is in your food. Then, as we looked further, it was one Orwellian name after another, designed to do the opposite of what they say they are."

The nonfiction book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard scientist who appears in the documentary, and Eric M. Conway gave Kenner one of the starting points for his research.

"We went from there and cast a very wide net," Kenner says, his voice raspy from nonstop post-screening Q&A sessions. "From a former tobacco lawyer who's now defending an Alaskan town that is sinking underwater to a Tea Party founder who is protesting a law in Georgia prohibiting solar-panel rentals. There were a lot of examples we could have used, like pharmaceuticals. The struggle was to find the right pattern, a pattern of deception instead of specific instances."

Through archival footage and interviews, Merchants of Doubt draws a line from tobacco industry lobbyists to the campaign to include flame-retardant chemicals in furniture to climate change skeptics. The same tactics and strategies recur over the years; in some cases, the same people who fought against legislation limiting cigarettes are leading attacks against scientists who are warning about climate change.

"These think tanks getting money from corporations can just create 'experts' to go out to the media," Kenner says. "The same ten, twelve people. When James Taylor explained to me his credentials, he's an 'adjunct scholar' at the Heartland Institute or whatever they call themselves, it's just staggering. And he's the source debating genuine scientists with Ph.D.'s."

Personal attacks are an important tool for climate change skeptics. Off the record, a lobbyist told Kenner, "You could take Jim Hansen [a pioneering climatologist] and I could take a garbage man, and I could get America to believe the garbage man knows more about science than Hansen."

Marc Morano, executive director of ClimateDepot.com, published the email addresses of prominent climate scientists on his website. Many scientists told Kenner about harassing e-mails they received from Morano's readers. "Marc's charming, fun to be with. Anytime I asked a hard question, he came back stronger. Wasn't hiding anything. And yet there is an absolute consequence to his actions that in my opinion he doesn't take into account."

Kenner reserves some of his harshest criticism of climate change coverage for the mainstream media. "Not only Fox News, but The New York Times, major networks, they all dealt with this as a 'controversy.' In my mind it was wrong, very damaging. They made it seem like this was a question when it wasn't. We knew back in 1988 that carbon was heating the planet."

Kenner won't speculate about the motives behind climate change deniers. "I asked Stan Glantz, a tobacco expert, about the Congressional hearing when tobacco executives stood up before the panel and defended cigarettes. I said, 'You knew they were lying, right?' As Stan said, 'The one thing my lawyer told me is don't say what other people are thinking, because that's when you get sued. I know they were wrong, and they knew, but I can't tell you they were lying.'"

The director admits that the documentary faces an uphill battle winning over "red state" viewers. But he believes that even conservatives are beginning to accept the reality of climate change. And he hopes that Merchants of Doubt will give them a form of cover to fashion a legislative response. As he puts it, "Not every Republican wants to walk away from science."

Bob Inglis, a former Republican Congressman from South Carolina, did speak out about climate change, losing his seat in the process. But as Kenner points out, the Mid-Atlantic states are at a much greater risk than places like California. Norfolk will be underwater before Los Angeles, as an admiral acknowledged to Kenner when he said there was no bigger threat to the military than climate change.

Production on Merchants of Doubt stretched out over two years, with one interview leading to several others. Kenner's biggest struggle, he confides, was finding a way to make an entertaining movie about a subject most viewers would prefer to ignore.

Magician Jamy Ian Swiss gave Kenner a visual equivalent to climate change deniers. Swiss became a metaphor that allowed the director to dispense with reams of data.

"No one cares about data," he says. "Data doesn't stick in a film audience's mind. Emotion sticks. Humor sticks. Information doesn't. So we were clear we were not ultimately making a film about climate change. It was more how do you get a sense that we are being fooled, we're being tricked. On that level, you know the magician will stick with people because it's not information. Information is dull."

Putting Merchants of Doubt together meant grappling with a bewildering array of film and video formats. "You just have to transfer them and try to get them to look good," he admits. "When they don't look good, you shrink them. Sometimes we blurred the images because they were so weak. It became a question of how to disguise it so it looked artistic as opposed to bad video."

Kenner's next project is about a nuclear missile silo accident in Arkansas that took place in 1980, just as local television stations were transitioning from film to video.

"Early video is just the ugliest video in the world," he notes. "It's a nightmare to deal with, plus so much of it has disappeared. This was an incident that almost destroyed the state of Arkansas, and the newsrooms cleared their material that night."

The director hopes to show the documentary at Sundance in 2016. In the meantime he's still tinkering with the final cut of Merchants of Doubt.

"I was cutting a lot longer than I thought we would," he recalls. "A year, probably closer to a year and a half. Maybe longer, I put it out of my mind," he adds, laughing.

"When you see it with audiences, you see things to change, so I've tightened it up about two or three minutes. When you're with an audience, you think, 'Oh gosh, can we just tighten?' Three seconds here, three seconds there really helps. Sometimes you have to drown some puppies. It hurts, but you want an audience to enjoy themselves."

Kenner doesn't like the idea that he is presenting a message. "If you want to make a message film, you can easily fall into the trap of making a boring, self-righteous film. I work hard not to be that. I want to make a film that's provocative, that has something honest to say."

Is it too late to stop climate change? "Some days I'm pretty pessimistic about how serious this issue is," Kenner admits. "But I hope this film doesn't leave you feeling hopeless. I hope it will leave you feeling really angry that we've been lied to and manipulated.

"And I'm optimistic, too. Some strange allies could come together over this. Look, even George Schultz, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State, is on board. He has an electric car, and he made fun of me for driving a gas car. He even got me to put solar panels on my roof."