‘Merchants of Doubt’ digs into climate change opposition
IF YOU GO
What: ‘Merchants of Doubt’ film
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
If the tactics of “climate deniers” — those who don’t believe in climate change or humankind’s role in it — sound familiar, it’s not a coincidence, according to science historian Naomi Oreskes.
She claims that the same tactics were used, sometimes by the same people, in debates about the health effects of tobacco, the risks of acid rain and the risks of pesticides such as DDT.
Oreskes is the co-author of “Merchants of Doubt” with Erik Conway. The book, released in 2010, traces the origins of the small amount of opposition to climate chance in the scientific community. Sony Pictures made a film based on the findings of the book. The film will be screened for free at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House. Doors open at 5:30.
Oreskes will give a short presentation after the screening, then answer audience questions. She appears in the film and helped plan and consult its production.
“It tells the story of climate-change denial, but not just that,” Oreskes said in a telephone interview this week from her office at Harvard University, where she is a professor of the history of science. “It tries to situate the phenomenon of climate-change denial in a larger history.”
When researching their book, Oreskes and Conway aimed to discover who was spreading misinformation about climate change, why and who was paying for the effort. They were curious, she said, because the vast majority of scientists agreed that climate change is happening and humankind is playing a role. A very small minority was sowing seeds of doubt — but effectively stalemating debate.
“We wanted to find out why would scientists participate in attacks on science,” Oreskes said.
They found connections among the climate doubters with past efforts to slow or stop government intervention in public health and environmental health efforts. Not all dissident scientists worked on all the issues, such as tobacco, acid rain, pesticides and climate change, but the overlap was clear, Oreskes said.
And they are effective, at least to a point.
“What we saw was that in every single case, they made the same argument and the argument went like this: ‘We don’t really know. There isn’t a scientific consensus; the science is too unsettled to justify government actions, therefore, we should do nothing,’” Oreskes said.
As to why they were casting doubt, she and Conway learned that many of the scientists were physicists and Cold War warriors. They and their funders share a concern over government regulation. They fear that government action on tobacco or climate change leads to a “slippery slope to totalitarianism.”
The funding for the scientists’ work was initially funneled through conservative think tanks. As time wore on and the targeted issue changes, funding sources evolved. Now, fossil-fuel industry companies are leading the funding, according to Oreskes.
Risks of tobacco and pesticides eventually became well-known by the public and regulated by the government. It’s less certain where the debate over climate change is headed.
On one hand, polls show that more Americans understand and accept the scientific basis for climate change now then just a few years ago. On the other hand, misinformation among some segments of the population is even more strongly held, including the House Republican majority.
Her hope is that the book — and now the film — help move the political needle. The film is showing in 60 to 70 cities. The screening in Aspen will be hosted by Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, Aspen Skiing Co., Protect Our Winters and Participant Media.
Oreskes said the book helped scientists realize why a public debate raged over climate change.
“Scientists who had no idea what was happening to them I think now have a much better understanding of what the political and social landscape is,” Oreskes said. “That helps explain why they have such a hard time getting out their message.”
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