Thu, Mar 19, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Film tells Orwellian tale of science upended by climate change deniers’ spin

As Florida bans talk of global warming, author Naomi Oreskes says the whole debate is being cynically manipulated by vested interests

By Edward Helmore  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain People

For Naomi Oreskes, professor of scientific history at Harvard University, there is no more vivid illustration of the bitter war between science and politics than Florida’s reported ban on state employees using terms such as “climate change” and “global warming.” No matter that the low-lying US state is critically vulnerable to rises in sea level, or that 97 percent of peer-reviewed climate studies confirm that climate change is occurring and human activity is responsible, Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, instructed state employees not to discuss it as it is not “a true fact.”

In one sense, news of the Florida directive could not have come at a better time — a hard-hitting documentary adaptation of Oreskes’s 2010 book Merchants of Doubt is just hitting US cinemas. In another sense, she says, it is profoundly depressing: The tactics being used to prevent action over global warming are the same as those used in the past — often to great effect — to obfuscate and stall debates over evolutionary biology, ozone depletion, the dangers of asbestos or tobacco, even dangerous misconceptions about childhood vaccinations and autism.

Scott’s de facto ban is, she tells the Observer, “a grim state of affairs straight out of a George Orwell novel. So breathtaking that you do not really know how to respond to it.”

It is also a display of just the kind of prevarication and intransigence that Oreskes studied to establish her formidable scholarly reputation. Each argument — if that is the correct term — has followed a strikingly similar path, and in each case, scientists have been drawn into debates that have little to do with a scientifically sound, rigorous exchange of knowledge.

Directed by Robert Kenner, best known for the hard-hitting Food, Inc., and backed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, the Merchants of Doubt film exposes the tactics of climate change “experts,” who are often in the employ of think tanks funded by industries invested in maintaining the status quo.

It is a fascinating look at how overwhelming certainty acquired through rigorous scientific inquiry has been time and again upended and delayed by a small group of spin doctors.

As one scientist says in the film, they have to prove their case while their opponents only have to sow the seeds of doubt. Nowhere is that more keenly felt than in climate change, with a massive disconnect between public acceptance and the political will to act.

“The scientific community feels it worked incredibly hard on this issue,” Oreskes says. “It has done exactly what it is supposed to do, which is study the question carefully from many angles, publish the results in peer-reviewed journals, explain it to the public and in reports. Yet it has gained no traction. Or worse — scientists are facing active attempts to deny, discredit, harass and, in some cases, sully their reputations.”

The political split on the issue grew last week when US Secretary of State John Kerry warned climate change deniers and obfuscators — presumably including a presidential contender for next year’s US elections, former Florida governor Jeb Bush (who accepts global warming, but not that it is disproportionately caused by human activity) — that there is no time to waste on debating the subject. Fail to act, Kerry said, and future generations will want to know how world leaders could have been “so blind or so ignorant or so ideological or so dysfunctional and, frankly, so stubborn.”

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