“Doubt is our product,” wrote executives for tobacco giant Brown & Williamson in a now infamous 1969 memo on industry communications strategy. The memo was revealed during discovery in class-action lawsuits against tobacco companies that would eventually yield a trove of 85 million pages. Among those pages are details about the public relations playbook of an industry that — as far back as 1958 — knew that smoking caused cancer and used public relations to fight regulation for decades.
“Merchants of Doubt,” a brilliant new film from documentarian Robert Kenner (of “Food Inc.” fame), reveals this spin and tracks how other industries, from chemical manufacturers to pharmaceuticals, are ripping pages from Big Tobacco’s playbook to fight their own regulation and public scrutiny.
Based on the book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, the film reveals, in particular, Big Oil’s role in climate change denialism. It makes the argument that the world’s biggest energy companies funded PR and lobbying firms that fomented doubt about climate science and thereby stalled action on climate policy. The film pulls back the curtain on the backstage battle to win the hearts and minds of the American public, with nothing short of a stable climate in the balance.
Big Oil's PR machine
When I was writing “Diet for a Hot Planet,” my book about the connections between the food industry and climate change, my editor suggested I cut the chapter addressing climate change denial.
“Anna,” she said, “the debate is settled. Denial is over.”
You can’t blame her for thinking so. It was 2006. “An Inconvenient Truth” had just come out. Al Gore’s painstakingly researched film about global warming, which would go on to gross $24 million and win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, built its message on years of accumulating clarity about the crisis. As far back as 1979, scientists Steve Schneider and Roger Revelle had testified before Congress about global warming. In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen made front-page news for bringing the global warming crisis to the national spotlight. In front of a Congressional committee, he testified that evidence proved, with 99-percent certainty, that global warming was the result of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. The same year, future-President George H.W. Bush said on the campaign trail, “In my first year in office, I will convene a global conference on the environment at the White House ... We will talk about global warming ... And we will act.”
But as “Merchants of Doubt” shows, and what my editor didn’t know, is that the Big Oil PR machine was just greasing its wheels. The offensive had yet to come.
Big Oil developed a well-funded communications campaign inspired by Big Tobacco’s techniques — funding fake science, think tanks and front groups with innocuous-sounding names such as the Global Climate Coalition (GCC). Supported by energy companies such as Shell Oil, Exxon and BP, the GCC lobbied on Capitol Hill, fighting a global climate treaty and domestic climate legislation by producing issue briefs with the patina of truthiness.
As Kenner shows, such front groups claimed that global warming advocates were manufacturing the crisis as a Trojan Horse for greater government intervention, a claim that riled up the libertarian base and conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity. The ascendancy of the Tea Party in the mid-2000s stoked fear among conservative candidates that speaking out about climate would make them unpopular with this increasingly powerful voting bloc. This was how the false notion that there was “no consensus” on climate change began to take hold in the public consciousness.
The fight against Big Tobacco was won because advocates exposed what the industry knew — and when it knew it — about the harms of smoking. The same tactic can be used against Big Oil.
In 2009, 31,478 scientists allegedly signed a petition claiming there was “no convincing scientific evidence that human release of … greenhouse gases is causing … catastrophic … disruption of the Earth’s climate.” Ron Paul quoted from it in testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives that year. Never mind that among those signatories, only 39 were climatologists and many were non-experts (including people on the payroll of Big Oil). Some were even obviously fake names, such as members of the Spice Girls (the mention of which produced my favorite B-roll moment in the film).
But the damage was already done. By late 2009, the Pew Center was reporting a “sharp decline” in Americans who believe that there is “solid evidence” of human-caused climate change: Only 36 percent of respondents agreed that “global temperatures are rising as a result of human activity, such as burning fossil fuels” — down from nearly half just one year earlier.
It has been nearly three decades since Hansen’s warnings about global warming. But you can watch C-SPAN footage — from just two months ago — of Sen. James Inhofe throwing a snowball on the Senate floor to poke fun at climate science. (Inhofe, mind you, is the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.) You can also read the news about Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s unwritten ban on using the phrases “climate change” or “global warming” under any circumstance.
The spin machine of the oil industry, in other words, is alive and well. The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) — whose members include BP, Chevron, Exxon and Shell — is one of the most powerful lobbying forces in California. Since 2009, it has spent millions of dollars in lobbying and in supporting a tangled web of front groups, including Californians for Energy Independence, California Drivers Alliance, Californians Against Higher Taxes, Kern Citizens for Energy and Californians for Affordable and Reliable Energy, according to a leaked PowerPoint presentation — all groups that are promoting the interests of the trade association. Doubt is the product, indeed.
Learn from Big Tobacco
Still, if Big Oil can learn from tobacco, so can we. As documented in a forthcoming companion piece to Kenner’s film, the fight against Big Tobacco was won largely because of sustained organizing that exposed what the industry knew — and when it knew it — about the harms of smoking. Groups such as Corporate Accountability International (for which I am a strategic advisor) and the Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals succeeded in blocking the tobacco industry from participating in international treaty talks. It took decades of organizing, but the World Health Organization’s tobacco treaty finally entered into force in 2005. So far, it has been ratified by 179 countries.
There’s a shot in “Merchants of Doubt” of a woman smoking in a hospital bed, with baby monitors attached to her pregnant belly. Today’s reaction to that image — a gasp of disbelief — is a sign that while it took 50 years, the truth about tobacco finally won out.
The more climate chaos we experience — deadly hurricanes, floods, droughts, heat waves and cold shocks — the more Big Oil and its ilk will spend to peddle doubt. The only trouble is, as Oreskes says in the film, we don’t have 50 years to win back the public.