"Merchants of Doubt": More than just a movie review--a challenge to conservatives on climate change

I don't see a lot of movies, except on airplanes, and "Merchants of Doubt" is not the kind of movie that airlines like to show. The film documents how climate change deniers twist the truth and cast doubt on theories that are scientifically well-established, reflecting a combination of interest-group money and personal ideological motivations.

The documentary begins by showing how the tobacco industry denied cigarettes are addictive and cause cancer despite evidence the companies already possessed. What was interesting is not just that the climate deniers use the same advocacy playbook as the tobacco and disease deniers, but that in many cases it was the exact same people!

What is the story the climate deniers are making up? It has three main parts.

First, deniers argue that science is not conclusive about the risks of climate pollution. The film shows how through having high-visibility spokesmen say things that are just plain incorrect, they were able to create public doubt and make climate denial a touchstone of faith for conservatives.

One thing the movie talks about, but doesn't note the significance of, is that the denial faction has framed the issue incorrectly. The issue, as we have all heard it debated, is "are we sure that human activity is already causing climate change?" But that's not the policy issue we have to deal with as a nation and as a civilization. If we have already affected climate, that may be a problem, but it is also a fact. What's more interesting is the question: "Will future greenhouse pollution cause climate change?"

Because when the question is framed properly, the evidence isn't just overwhelming, it's beyond doubt. The models that predict catastrophic climate change have predicted the last 30 years of climate pretty well, so that even if you believe that observed climate change to date is noise, it's indisputable that further pollution will cause trouble.

Note that this is a truly conservative argument. One would hope, and the movie ends with an example, that conservatives would call for actions to stop climate change.

Conservatives generally place a high value on personal responsibility. Avoiding risks is an important tactic. Suppose, for example, that you're trying to convince your child to avoid irresponsible sexual activity. You might warn that sex can lead to STDs or unwanted pregnancies. A conservative wouldn't be impressed by the argument that "Well, I've been doing it for two years and nothing bad has happened yet." They would note that the child's behavior is risky and irresponsible, and tell them to stop it.

Likewise, climate change shouldn't have to be proven to have already caused damage to take action to prevent it: one just has to show a significant risk that it might.

The second element of the deniers' story in "Merchants of Doubt" is their claim that environmentalists don't really care about climate change. Rather, they say, climate concerns are a wolf in sheep's clothing concealing their real goal: global Communism.

This assertion is even more implausible, and I am surprised it hasn't attracted more discussion in the 10 years since I first rebutted it in Saving Energy Growing Jobs.

Climate change deniers charge that those claiming to be concerned about climate change aren't acting in good faith. What they actually want, deniers assert, is worldwide Soviet-style central planning. Environmentalists are "watermelons," they assert: green only on the outside but (Soviet) red on the inside.

How can anyone believe this? Do they really think the environmental movement--and NRDC alone has 1.5 million members and supporters--has somehow been able to hide its real motivations from everyone for 45 years? That we were all duped by some master manipulator??

I've worked professionally as an environmentalist for 40 years, and I don't believe I have met even a single individual whose personal politics were Communist.


The deniers' third claim, the movie notes, is that controlling climate will require global government controls on what you can or cannot do. It will force you to give up your way of life.

That was a pretty weak argument even 35 years ago, when scenarios for a painless transition to low emissions were first published and showed how controlling pollution would increase consumer economic welfare. Now major global institutions all say that controlling climate pollution without severe economic or quality of life impacts is feasible, and California has begun implementing a plan to cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and we can see its positive effect on a real economy and on people's lives.

The California economy is generating more jobs than the rest of the country, and the big hand of government is invisible, or at least no more visible than it was 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. Consumers are being offered more choices on where they can live, how they can travel, how they can improve the comfort of their homes and workplaces, etc., as part of the climate plan.

For example, low-income households receive credits twice annually on their utility bills, a dividend funded by pollution permit fees levied on utilities. Government restrictions are being reduced: property owners are being allowed to build to higher intensities, mandatory requirements for parking are being eased, barriers to shared-economy enterprises are being lowered while consumers who want to deal in these markets are being offered more protections.

Bringing it home

As for restrictions on America's way of life, consider that home ownership is viewed as one of the key elements of our way of life. Yet today, fewer Americans are allowed to qualify for a home loan, as a result of government restrictions.

The home qualification issue is an unfortunate outcome of the mortgage collapse where Fannie Mae, which for all intents and purposes writes lending rules, responded to the losses it took on defaulting loans by an unnecessary and overly burdensome approach. The federal government has custodial control over Fannie, which means that big government is restricting people's ability to be homeowners.

Rather than addressing newly understood explanations of the cause of the defaults--unaffordable energy and transportation costs--Fannie ignored this evidence and instead tightened all of the old-fashioned criteria it relied on for decades.

The point is--what we are doing NOW on lending policy is that the government is interfering with our ability to buy homes and reducing our choices. It's cutting housing construction, killing jobs, and increasing government deficits.

Reforming lending criteria to account for transportation and energy savings--a key element of a climate pollution reduction plan--will make it easier to afford a home by reducing government restrictions on lending. So this is less Big Government, not more. It is more jobs with pollution limits and more growth.

Every tenet of the climate deniers' story is wrong

Environmentalists' goals are as resonant with traditional Republican goals of freedom, limited government, balanced budgets, personal responsibility, growth in jobs and prosperity, and taking prudent care of the future, as they are with traditional Democratic goals--perhaps even more so.

If "conservative" means something different than "owned by the fuels industries" or "repeating uncritically what others who are owned by the fuel industries tell us to think" it is time for conservatives to reject the Merchants of Doubt and agree that there is a climate change problem and embrace a market-based approach to solving it.