Saturday, August 8, 2015

1967. Film Review: Merchants of Doubt (On Politics of Climate Change)

By Kamran Nayeri, August 8, 2015

Thirty-three yeas ago in 1988, James Hansen who was the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City from 1981 t0 2013, appeared before U. S. congressional committees to inform of global warming and potentially catastrophic climate change.  Hansen and his co-author had found that global mean temperatures can be determined even though meteorological stations are typically in the Northern hemisphere and confined to continental regions. Using from 1880 to 1985 they had also found that mean global temperature has risen 0.5-0.7 °C. 

Hansen’s warning has been amplified hundreds of scientific studies by thousands other scientists from around the world and its has been amply clear that human emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are its drivers.  These findings point to the urgent need to plan for a comprehensive conversion of the existing economies to a post-carbon economies. 

Yet, the United States still lacks any such comprehensive policy and the United Nations has failed to respond to global warming and catastrophic climate change with an internationally binding agreement to stop the bulk of human caused greenhouse emissions to stabilize the climate and work to reduce GHGs in the atmosphere.

The question is why? 

The politics of doubt
In her ground breaking meta-analysis study “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” published in Science, December 2004, historian of science Naomi Oreskes showed that all the 924 published research studies to that date agreed that global warming was real and that it is largely due to burning fossil fuels.  In other words, claims by policy makers, fossil fuel industry, and the media that cast doubt on the reality of climate change or factors causing it, are both false and malicious. 

In 2010, with another historian of science Eric M. Conway, Naomi Oreskes published Merchants of Doubt. This is an important book because it documents that climate deniers are mostly non-scientists who use climatologists and other scientists data to cast doubt on their conclusions by causing confusion.  Further, they show that climate deniers are financially supported by the fossil fuel industry to foster doubt on the science of climate change. Finally, they show that corporate strategy of casting doubts on hazards of their products was first invented and used effectively by the tobacco industry in the 1950s and 1960s. Using this strategy the tobacco industry managed to stave off government regulations for a generation. In fact, leading tobacco companies knew early on that tobacco is highly addictive and that it causes lung cancer. Yet, they did not share this information with the public or with the government and continued to produce and aggressively sell tobacco products.  

Merchants of Doubt: The Movie
In Merchants of Doubt, the movie based on Oreskes' and Conway’s book, Director Robert Kenner ("Food, Inc.") and his cowriter Kim Roberts begin the story in the 1950s when scientists first linked cigarettes to cancer.  The tobacco industry hired public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton that created what turned out to be a winning strategy: augmenting the direct lies of tobacco industry executives and spokespeople with testimonies by scientists and pseudo-scientists hired by Big Tobacco to sow doubt about the science and plead for more studies before concluding that cigarettes were harmful. Warning labels on cigarettes did not appear until 1966.  

The movie compares this strategy to three-card Monte dealers paying a “stranger” who participates and “wins” the game to ensure others the game is not rigged and that it is possible for them to win as well.  

By the 1970s, there were many cases of fires caused by cigarettes.  Because it was not practical to treat cigarettes with flame-extinguishing chemicals, the tobacco industry planted a "legislative representative" from their own ranks within the National Association of Fire Marshals, which then argued that the real problem was furniture itself catching fire leading to the requirement to treat furniture with flame-retardants.  When flame-retardants were linked to illnesses such as low-fertility and cancer, the chemical industry created it own front group, Citizens for Fire Safety. In 2012, a Chicago Tribune investigation showed that this group was funded by Albermarle Corporation, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura, the three largest makers of flame retardant chemicals. 

Finally, the film focuses on the fossil fuel industry and its front groups and climate change denier scientists or pseudo-scientists have been enacting the old “tobacco industry strategy.”  

But with catastrophic climate change there is an existential threat to humanity and we do not have the luxury of wasting a generation or two before the government develop an effective policy response.  We need governmental action in the U.S. NOW as well as an internationally binding effective agreement NOW!   

The movie does an admirably good job at presenting a rather complicated mix of science, economics and politics.  However, it does not answer a key question raised by its narrative: what can be done about this confluence of corporate interest, media, and policy makers.  After all, the media and policy makers too should have already learned about the “tobacco strategy” unveiled in Merchants of Doubt—the book as well as the movie. Yet, decades after decades they seem happy to turn a blind eye and allow the same strategy be used by corporations and industries at heavy cost to people and ecology.  

The answer, of course, is in the capitalist character of the U. S. and world economy. While people readily accept that the economy are capitalist, they have a hard time realizing that society and the State are capitalist in character.  Thus, it is normal for the media and policy makers to act in the interest of corporations and industries while ignoring the concerns of people and ecology.  At the same time, the capitalist State works to secure the interest of the capitalist class in the long run while fractions of the class, individual firms and specific industries, can push their interests as far as they can to the detriment of the health of people and the planet. In case of global warming and catastrophic climate the time buying strategy of Exxon-Mobil or King Coal may end up costing us extinction of the human species.  Unless, of course, enough of us get out in the streets to challenge them and we are mobilizing before the UN Paris climate summit at the end of November. The malicious cycle of corporate harm and cover up will only break if enough of us working people will mobilize in the street and organize our own grassroots movement to form a basis for a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Only such a government, a workers government, can chart a course to a post-capitalist society that will live in harmony with itself and with the rest of nature. 

Merchants of Doubt is a powerful movie and should be seen by all. It is particularly helpful in the current mass mobilization and organization to stop climate change. 

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