The documentary “Merchants of Doubt,” based on the 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, targets the naysayers of climate change, shining a light on the corporations that employ scientists denying climate change to misdirect and obfuscate in order to protect the bottom line. The book’s authors argue that this practice started with Big Tobacco. When the health risks of smoking became widely documented by the medical and scientific communities, tobacco responded by conducting their own studies, putting scientists in their pocket, conjuring up counter-evidence and most importantly, casting doubt.
“It’s easy to poke holes,” Oreskes, a professor of history of science at Harvard said in an interview. “Real science is hard.” And it seems especially arcane when it comes to the state of our environment’s health. “Global warming and climate change are very complex,” she explains. “There’s a lot of science behind it, so it’s not so easy to explain, and scientists are not the best at explaining. That’s why it’s easy for a ‘merchant of doubt’ to hold up a snowball in Congress.” (Oreskes will take part in a Q&A at the Kendall Square Cinema after the 7:10 p.m. shows Friday and Saturday.)
The reference to Sen. Jim Inhofe’s now-infamous gimmick of tossing a snowball at his fellow lawmakers to “prove” that global warming’s a myth is one of the many face-palming gems in “Merchants of Doubt.” The documentary is directed by Richard Kenner, best known for turning a few people vegan with“Food, Inc,” the raw and edgy examination of the mass livestock and meatpacking industries, which was Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary in 2010. Oreskes and Conway’s book singles out the squad of well-paid scientist and academics, referred to contemptuously as the “gang of four,” who have been doing the bidding of big business since the cigarette lobby of the 1960s. The movie focuses in on one of the four, the aging physicist Fred Singer, as well as on the Koch brothers and Marc Morano, a mouthpiece for conservative interests, who, while lacking discernible academic cred (his CV lists ties to Rush Limbaugh and Inhofe), compels with the kind of winning charisma and unshakable confidence that would make Ronald Reagan smile.
Kenner’s environmental illumination isn’t quite as biting or tightly tied as “Food, Inc,” and while, comparisons to “An Inconvenient Truth,” 2007’s Oscar winner, and “The 11th Hour” are inevitable, “Merchants of Doubt” walks its own path and confidently so. It’s less about trying to convince us that global warming is happening, more about showing that there are people out there trying to actively deny it for monetary gain. Kenner punctures the decade-spanning narrative with interludes of a wry magician (Jamy Ian Swiss who is also in “An Honest Lair” also opening in Boston at the same time) wowing a small crown with deft sleight-of-hand. The cutaways from the “merchants” to the acts of chicanery draw a barbed parallel to the work Morano and Co. do as they spin and deflect for “deep carbonized” special interests.
And to Inhofe’s point, Oreskes understands the lazy logic employed there and points to the shifting jet stream as the polar ice caps melt. The pummeling that Boston took this winter and our current all-time snowfall record helps underscore the point. “People finally are starting to get it,” Oreskes says, perking up on the Boston subject, “that it’s not just a singular freak occurrence and that these weather pattern disruptions are the result of climate change and global warming.”
Well before the movie, Oreskes’s work researching scientific consensus on climate change and advocacy had been a touchstone for many, especially those who had embraced the notion of “going green” as something more than just a lifestyle choice. “Scientific debates are settled by evidence, not arguments,” says Quinton Zondervan, president of Green Cambridge and a fan of Oreskes’s book. “At the end of the day,” he poses in a vein akin to Oreskes, “people need to ask themselves a simple question: Am I making the world a better place, or am I contributing to its destruction?”
As far as the critical nature of where we are and what to do, Oreskes pushes forth a sense of great urgency. “Scientists are worried. We’ve lost 20 years. If this keeps up as we’re going, we’re looking at a 6- to 10-foot rise in the sea level by 2100.” The film brings that point home graphically, showing a map of Boston and nearly all major coastal cities underwater. Reiterating the pandemic fear sweeping through the scientific community, Oreskes points to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) recommendation of a significant (some say 80 percent) reduction in emissions by 2050 as a necessary course of action. “The really crucial thing,” Oreskes says, “is to get started on emissions reduction, because once we do, technology and momentum will kick in. The hardest thing is to start.”
Overall, Oreskes remains optimistic, but guarded. “We thought we were on the verge of doing something with each of the presidents over the past two decades, but nothing major has come to pass. The latest [letdown] being Obama going to Copenhagen [for 2008’s climate summit].” Recently, Lesley University divested itself of all fossil fuel holdings, something their more notable Cambridge counterparts have yet to achieve. Even if you don’t uphold that man is partly to blame for the current change in climate, does not a greener, cleaner planet make sense? There should be no question. To any rational, forward thinking mind, it’s a win-win, but if for some reason you remain skeptical, even on that very obvious consideration, see Kenner and Oreskes’s collaboration; it’ll eradicate any shadow of doubt.