Tag Archives: climate change

Merchants of Doubt

My review of Merchants of Doubt

“Fake it, till you make it so,” might be one of the many truisms apropos for Merchants of Doubt, the new documentary by Food, Inc. director Robert Kenner, based on Naomi Oreskes’ and Erik M. Conway’s book of the same title. The film examines a group of spin doctors who make a living convincing the public to doubt science in favor of corporate-backed fiction. These silver-tongued faux-pundits introduce (unreasonable) doubt on topics as diverse as acid rain, cigarettes, toxic chemicals, the ozone layer, and climate change, obfuscating the real issues and influencing public opinion. Their modus operandi: “Discredit the science, disseminate false information, spread confusion, promote doubt.”

Your first question might be, “So? Industries hire PR people to promulgate their point of view. That’s how PR works.” Yes, well, Merchants of Doubt shines a light on much murkier and shadier territory you might not have considered before—this is an incestuous cadre of “experts” who are bedfellows with just about every industry in need of white-washing of nefarious activities. In addition, plainly put, these spin doctors are NOT doctors: none of them have Ph.D.s or any sort of scientific qualifications making them worthy of opining on the topics. As Marc Morano, one of the most ubiquitous of the lot, states, “I am not a scientist, but I play one on TV.” Funny, if it were not hair-raisingly scary.

Merchants of Doubt begins by examining the tobacco industry. Knowing all along about the dangers of their product, the industry at first focused on convincing the public that cigarettes are perfectly safe and non-addictive. Once that jig was up, they framed the issue as “don’t take away our freedom.” As tobacco’s lead spin doctor Peter Sparber (who posed as a fire marshal, no less, while on big tobacco’s payroll) put it “If you can sell tobacco, you can sell anything.” And indeed, he did, moving on to other industries in need of his special brand of hucksterism. Big tobacco was also responsible for the decades-long egregious use of flame-retardants on furniture: this furniture sprayed with a toxic chemical that imperiled thousands of firefighters, because making a self-extinguishing cigarette would be “much more difficult.”

Turning its lens on climate change next, the film demonstrates the deleterious effect that presenting the issue as a scientific debate had both on public opinion and political outcomes. In the book, science historian Naomi Oreskes conducted an analysis of all the scientific papers published between 1992 and 2002 on global warming and found zero papers disagreeing with the fact that global warming is anthropogenic and due to increased greenhouse gases. In other words, there was a resounding and prevailing scientific consensus. Yet, scientists like Fred Seitz and Fred Singer founded front organizations and think tanks like Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP), with nebulous enough names to grant an air of legitimacy, to further global warming skepticism and a conservative viewpoint.

Merchants of Doubt asks the very germane question of what these doubt-peddlers gain from their activities. Sure, the remuneration is nice. But Seitz and Singer were scientists during the Cold War – the film suggests there is an ideological component, too – and they frame these debates being about government interference, an attack on a way of life. This could also explain why libertarians, as a group, are such intense climate change deniers, or so Merchants of Doubt posits.

But back to the faux “I play a scientist on TV,” pundits. The film seems to exonerate the media from blame in this whole quagmire, but aren’t 24-hour news channels, reliant on “debates” for 90% of their programming front and center in this mix? Why are scientists pitted against people like Morano in a “debate?” What kind of a debate could possibly take place between a scientist and a talking head?  Merchants of Doubt points to the increased personalization of something that should really stay in the professional: for example, Morano routinely releases the email addresses of climate scientists so they may receive death threats and ad hominem attacks totally unrelated to their actual work. The Cato Institute publishes climate change-denying reports that are literally identical copies, stylistically, of the report released by NOAA. All of the above point to the kind of desperate and base tactics that far eclipse mere PR.

Merchants of Doubt certainly offers a probing look into something that isn’t “business as usual,” or at least shouldn’t be. The cadre of fake scientists/spin doctors, thanks to 24 hour conservative channels like Fox News, has been frighteningly successful in steering public sentiment toward a corporate-backed political outcome. The implications of this are much further reaching than just exposing the public to biased-by-their-very-nature public relations yarns. While the film could have used a much tighter editing hand to keep it on track (not to mention that the gimmick of having a magician explain how magic works to draw an analogy is heavy-handed, at best), it does expose something we might not have thought much about, which is why is it that climate change deniers continue to have a political floor for their opinions to be listened to at all.


In May, scientists reported that the average daily level of CO2 in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million, an alarmingly high concentration level last seen two to four million years ago.

Even if humans miraculously halted all carbon emissions next week, the problem of climate change would be an inescapable and grim reality as most of the heat-trapping gas would linger in the atmosphere for decades or even centuries. The inertia in the world’s warmed oceans would prevent a quick return to cooler temperatures, even as the CO2 levels decrease. The most optimistic predictions for the rest of the century, cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its 2007 assessment report, forecast a rise of 2.0 to 5.2 degrees by 2100, while the direst anticipate a rise of 4.3 to 11.5 degrees. Among the anticipated effects are rising sea levels, increasingly severe storms and droughts, and melting glaciers and permafrost.
So what exactly is geoengineering then, a concept given some unexpected attention and increasing legitimacy by its mention in the most recent IPCC report? It refers to methods that “aim to deliberately alter the climate system to counter climate change.” The rather controversial area of engineering Earth’s climate seems to now be firmly planted on the scientific agenda. Some climate models suggest that geoengineering may even be necessary to keep global temperatures within the 2 °C above pre-industrial levels mark, agreed upon by the scientific and international community as the “tolerable” level. Most geoengineering technologies generally either reflect sunlight — through artificial “clouds” of aerosols, for example — or reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Reducing greenhouse gases generally involves carbon-capturing technologies that range from building towers to collect it from the atmosphere to grinding up rocks to react with CO2 and take it out of circulation. Solar geoengineering involves ideas including deflecting sunlight away from the earth with massive space shields or with clouds over oceans.

Renowned author Clive Hamilton recently visited American University’s School Of International Service to talk about his recent book, Earthmasters, and the environmental justice implications of climate engineering proposals. SIS Professor Simon Nicholson, who is a part of The Washington Geoengineering Consortium, moderated the event. Hamilton explained that until recently, geoengineering was largely a scientific discussion, held behind closed doors, and that it was very much viewed as a “Plan B” solution in the event that cutting greenhouse gas emissions was unsuccessful at the requisite speed. He referenced Harvard professor David Keith as the foremost proponent of climate engineering. The main climate geoengineering plan was inspired by sulfur-spewing volcanoes and involves using jets to spray sulfates into the stratosphere, where they would combine with water vapor to form aerosols. Dispersed by winds, these particles would cover the globe with a haze that would reflect roughly 1 percent of solar radiation away from Earth.
The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, which shot some 10 million metric tons of sulfur into the air, reduced global temperatures about 1 degree F for at least a year. The sulphate aerosol shield would be regularly sprayed into the stratosphere to create a dimming effect and a resultant cooling akin to what happens when there are large volcanic eruptions. Couching the discussion in the context of environmental justice, Hamilton stated “we need to implement the sulfate aerosol shield to protect the Pole as a matter of justice, because there is nothing more unjust than the impact of climate change itself.”
A big issue that remains, however, is the uncertainty of how well it would work—there is no question about the cooling effect the shield would have but whether that cooling would be systematic and how it would affect precipitation patterns and the climate as a whole is a major question. Another issue is what Hamilton called the question of governance: a) who should control the technologies (patents?)?, b) who should make decisions about the deployment of geoengineering schemes?, c) where would the sulfite sprays be applied (over the Arctic or at the Equator, for example)?, and d) how would they be applied? “Essentially, the question is who should have their hand on the global thermostat.”
The most recent report by the IPCC reinforced the rather dire projection that “with business as usual,” we would surpass the 2 degree threshold set as an acceptable level of temperature change within a decade. SIS Professor Paul Wapner stated, “business as usual is what has gotten us in trouble in the first place, and this solution may seem like more business as usual. We tend to not solve problems but displace them across time, space, and species.”
Hamilton agreed that what was initially a Plan B is now a nearly inevitable course of action as mitigating efforts do not seem to be progressing forward at the requisite rate to stem drastic climate change. But he expressed a lot of reservations about the Promethean-like nature of this sort of intervention and the “technology will save us now” air to it. “In essence, this plan is being marketed as turning a drastic failure of the free enterprise system into a triumph of humanity’s ability to solve our greatest problems through technology.” In her recent article, Dr. Rachel Smolker took issue with what she perceived to be the normalization of geoengineering: “This insistence that we engage in debate over climate geoengineering is part of the process of ‘normalization’ that seems orchestrated — perhaps deliberately — with the intent of habituating people to the whole idea of climate geoengineering as an option.”
 In a response, Dr. Simon Nicholson stated, “geoengineering is in fact entirely normal. It is the expected response of a culture that looks to technological solutions to complex societal challenges. It makes far more sense, in that light, to have an active voice in the geoengineering conversation than to seek to suppress it.”

Pandora’s Promise–A Movie Review

Pandora’s Promise Review

Pandora’s Promise is an exposé on the past and future of nuclear energy that readjusts a lot of public assumptions in a rather explosive way. By featuring a coterie of respected, world-renowned environmentalists who have had a change of heart on the issue, the film, although clearly on the pro side of the debate, shines light on a paradigm shift afoot. The crux of its argument is “to be anti-nuclear is to be in favor of using fossil fuel.” In other words, despite all the strides made towards renewable energy sources, we remain mired in the climate-destroying reality of oil and coal usage for energy production and this state of affairs is not tenable from any perspective. The film astutely observes that nuclear power has been forever imprinted into the public’s psyche as a “weapon we feel badly about” and seeks to destigmatize it, remove it from its Armageddon-esque milieu, and put it in a different and less malevolent context.

Pandora’s Promise does rely a bit heavily on the “if these environmentalists and scientists had a change of heart, does that not indicate the general public should as well” persuasion tactic. The film features appearances from Stewart Brand (The Whole Earth Catalog), Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb), Mark Lynas (formerly of Earth First and Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet), and Gwyneth Cravens (Power to Save the World). It also has references to extra star power for added ammunition – Richard Branson and Microsoft’s Paul Allen have joined in – and Bill Gates has formed a nuclear power company that is working on a reactor for use in the developing world. Nonetheless, it occasionally veers into the territory of portraying the anti-nuclear movement as stodgy fear- mongers in a rather sweeping sense.

The documentary thoroughly covers the history of the use of nuclear energy, bringing in many of the original nuclear scientists to speak about its development. Charles Till explains that in the 50s, two types of nuclear reactors were being developed: the breeder reactor, which breeds plutonium and recycles it, and the light water reactor, which creates much more waste. The selection of the light water reactor to use as a commercial reactor appears to have been made very short-sightedly and, not surprisingly, not by a scientist but by a military official. Since then, technology has progressed in a significant sense with many breeder reactors built successfully and progressing to a third generation reactor which recycles all waste. More importantly, disasters like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are now much more preventable by implementing containment chambers and adequate cooling systems. The film also brings up a lot of lesser-known examples of how political pressure and public opinion has prevented a lot of facilities from opening—for example, a nuclear waste storage facility was constructed in Nevada and never used, despite the success of other such pilot projects in New Mexico. There were other plants which were built and never went into operation; the Integral Fast Reactor program was shut down.
The main point of Pandora’s Promise is that not until recently has it become apparent how huge the gap between fossil fuels and renewables is. Electricity is the one thing that causes the most significant improvement in the quality of life. With the growing development of the “Global South,” the need for energy is only expected to rise; energy consumption of the planet is expected to double by 2050. Use of coal is, shockingly, accelerating and it has cemented its role as both the most common source of energy and the fastest growing. The environmental effects of this fact are clearly destructive. One pound uranium is the equivalent of 5000 barrels of oil in energy output. Thus, it quickly becomes apparent why nuclear energy is viewed as “clean and efficient.” The film brings up the example of France which derives nearly 80% of its energy from nuclear power, has the cheapest energy in Europe, and the lowest carbon dioxide emissions.
The film stumbles when it addresses the specter of nuclear accidents and the eerie aftermath of contamination for generations, glossing over the dangers in a rather dismissive way. It argues that in terms of the mortality rate, nuclear is the safest industry, second only to wind. The assertion about Chernobyl and Fukushima that “there were so few casualties,” may be factually true but it does not really address the afterlife of radiation and its health risks. The assertion that “only” plutonium is long-lived and that nuclear waste is volumetrically non-significant (e.g. all the fuel rods could be fitted into a football field) is meant to assuage fears yet is not explored as in-depth as it could have.
Director Robert Stone relies on many detonative revelations to make a very compelling case for nuclear energy. The presence of environmentalists advocating for it certainly gives its credibility a strong boost. The assumptions we have held to be true for so long will indeed need some processing before they can be dispatched away as “we were wrong.” A more measured response might be that global warming is a serious threat and nuclear energy certainly poses a very promising solution, but one can’t help but feel as though it is a solution *only* because of our insatiable energy thirst and its ensuing pollution. With technical advances, the risk of accidents and toxic waste leaks is also decreasing; nevertheless, it will take some time before the general public can be thoroughly at ease about it. When Stone asks Lynas if he is still pro-nuclear when he visits Fukushima, his retort back to Robert Stone, “Are *you* still pro nuclear?” is not exactly entirely fear-allaying.