There are a few things about Merchants of Doubt, a new documentary about the scientists who are paid to deny human-made climate change, that I definitely could have done without. For one, the sleazy magician’s act — get it, because they’re also “merchants of doubt” by trade — that runs as a cringe-worthy narrative motif throughout the film.
But as far as real life goes, I could most certainly do without the paunchy animated fossils who make it their business to deny the scientific reality of anthropogenic climate change. Watching Merchants of Doubt made me feel like I was witnessing, in turns, a Beckett play and a science fiction film on a dystopia run by pretty evil men who look a whole lot like Emperor Palpatine — except it’s a documentary, and it’s about the United States right now.
The crux of the film is that the “climate change debate” is not a scientific one — it’s entirely political. People don’t deny climate change because they hate science or because they are stupid — they deny it because they’re afraid of government, and, ultimately, any change that would disrupt life as they know it. The obvious response to that is, well, several meters’ worth of sea-level rise will be pretty disruptive to human life — but, hey, why think about it?
None of this is news, probably, for regular Grist readers, but that’s not the point. And though it’s well done overall, it’s not a feel-good movie. But the worst part is that one gets the impression that the people who actually need to see this film just … won’t. (In a truly meta development, the very same individuals who have successfully gridlocked climate legislation for years are now trying to block distribution of the film and threatening legal action against its producers.)
The ending scene — not a spoiler, promise — features former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who, after five terms, lost his South Carolina district in a landslide after speaking out in favor of a carbon tax. In the film, Inglis is attempting to convince a Mississippi radio show host that human-caused climate change is a real thing — and then is almost immediately shooed out of the studio.
As Inglis drives away, defeated, down an anonymous SUV-filled highway, his voiceover succinctly explains why so many people cling so firmly to the idea that human-made climate change is a fallacy: “The reason we need the science to be wrong, is that otherwise we realize that we need to change.”
So, on that note, go tell one person you know who doesn’t ever think about climate change — everyone has one! — to see this film. You can reassure them that the magician in the dumb hat really doesn’t have that much screen time — I promise.