Merchants of Doubt: Sowing the (Tobacco) Seeds of Denial

Climate Change and the War of Communication

From the introduction of snowballs on the floor of the Senate as “scientific evidence” that global warming isn’t happening to smear campaigns aimed at actual climate scientists, the real battle over climate change is one of narrative, not science.

“The one thing we’ve learned,” says Robert Kenner, director of the upcoming documentary Merchants of Doubt, “is that when you explain science to people, it hardens those who don’t believe in the science.”

“I didn’t think we’d have a chance of getting anyone to go to the theater to see a film about climate change,” says Kenner. Merchants of Doubt isn’t a film like Al Gore’s 2006 An Inconvenient Truth, trying to convince its audience of the science of global warming. Instead, it is a “film about doubters and how people are able to stop us from believing inconvenient science.”

The communication war around climate change is rooted in the 1950s when “Big Tobacco” realized they had a potential PR nightmare on their hands. The objective then is the same now: confuse the issue and delay or stop action. Business-as-usual is the only profitable path forward.

Which Cigarette Does Your Doctor Recommend?

The documentary is based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, following the development of the tobacco industry’s public relations campaign to confuse the public, and scientists themselves, sowing doubt as the poisonous nature of their products came to light.

From television commercials featuring doctors recommending their favorite brand of cigarette to tobacco CEOs swearing on honor of their word that “nicotine is not addictive,” the strategy was as masterful in its execution as it was deceitful of its intent.

In the end, however, Big Tobacco may have won the initial battle but ultimately will lose the war. So it is with climate change and energy policy. The problem is that, for global warming, the stakes are even higher than the damage and loss of human lives from cigarettes and tobacco.

Senators with Snowballs

We are quickly running out of time to effectively deal with the transition to a new, sustainable energy economy or avert the global impacts of climate change already underway.

As long as people pay any credence to senior senators offering snowballs as proof that climate change isn’t happening, the merchants of doubt win the battle.



Image credit: Classic Film, courtesy of Flickr

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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