«More CO2 leads to a greener planet,» says Myron Ebell confidently in the opening of Mads Ellesøe’s masterful documentary about the politics of climate denial. The film shows that the dire predicament of our planet’s climate is a product of a group of persuasive people, purposeful lies, and the misleading campaigns of the world’s biggest oil companies. Even if the truth about the deceptions of climate denial think tanks have been out for a while, looking the campaigners in the eye, seeing them challenged by others, and occasionally also themselves, is a different matter. Do they really believe climate change is not real? Or that rising CO2 levels are a boon that makes the grass grow better?
Deception comes in all shades in the interviews with the campaigners against the climate: self-deception, feigned doubt, wilful distortion of facts, fake science, fake scientists, blissful ignorance, and wretched hypocrisy. At the centre of the documentarists’ probing investigations are a handful of American think-tanks and the oil companies that fund them. The interviewees seem to be partly aware of exposing themselves to criticism, but some also expose their naiveté, since they half-heartedly try to wash their hands and justify their complicity, laughing off what could justly be called one of the most fatal conspiracies of our times.
Faith in science used to be a given, but the climate skeptics have contributed to our post-truth culture where even the most proven facts can be presented precisely as a faith, as a mere conviction, as an ideological construction. As the campaigners, Mark Morano (of the think tank CATO) and Myron Ebell (From Comparative Enterprise Institute) are quick to point out, they may not be climate scientists, but they are champion communicators, drilled in the art of obstinate argumentation and the art of conviction. «I’m not a scientist,» Ebell says, «but have some expertise in translating science into action.» The words should be «from science to inaction,» obviously.
Mark Morano cheerfully admits that he draws upon his early experience as a door-to-door salesman when selling the message that climate science is a hoax. Jerry Taylor quite cynically quips: «It’s PR people against timid scientists: you must ask yourself who is the better communicator? In such settings, even garbage arguments tend to win out.»
Deception comes in all shades in the interviews with the campaigners against the climate
Uncertainty for everyone
Tylor’s point about the timid scientist and the PR-guys is confirmed by one of the pivotal critical witnesses in the film, historian of science Oreskes, author of the milestone book on climate denial, Merchants of Doubt (2010). These mercenary merchants of alternative facts are expert rhetoricians, the master sophists of our day, and they receive ample funding from the oil companies. But there are ways to untangle the web of lies, as Oreskes did in her research: In the film, we are shown a forensic style map with threads leading from one power player to the other. At the centre of the sinister web, we seem to find Exxon Mobil.
It is chilling to read the excerpts of the leaked Exxon documents on the screen: Victory Will Be Achieved When: Average citizens «understand» (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the «conventional wisdom». With their explicitly stated policy: «Our product is doubt», they contributed to making climate change a mere belief, committing planetary fraud in bad faith.
The testimony of a convert
Naomi Oreskes story is one of a fearless pursuit of facts: she went through all available scientific papers on global climate change at the time of her investigation. She found none that said anthropogenic climate change was not real. In publishing this, she was met with a deluge of threats and harassment. Saying the truth, even in the soberest and systematic fashion, can get you in real trouble. So why do people get away with lying so easily?
A pivotal character in the film is Jerry Taylor, an ex-employee at the CATO institute. He used to campaign hard against climate science, trivializing the warnings about rising temperatures. After being challenged to read the actual science, the historical testimony of James Hansen from the U.S. congress by NASA scientist James Hansen, he concludes that Hansen seems to be right. He goes down the hall to his scientific advisor, asking «What have I missed?» He is shocked to learn that he has been wilfully misled by his own colleagues and that they are arguing against their better judgment.
At the centre of the sinister web, we seem to find Exxon Mobil.
High priests of denialism
One of the most striking moments in the film, however, is an unredeeming portrait of dizzying cowardice: The mastermind of the heavily Exxon-sponsored, so-called Leipzig Declaration of 1995, purportedly signed by a number of climate scientists who state that man-made global warming isn’t real is confronted by the filmmakers. Upon investigation, they have revealed that many signatories never really signed and that at least 15 of the signatories were, in fact, not climate scientists at all. Fred Singer, the recently deceased leader of SEPP (Science & Environment Policy Project) stares wearily into the camera, feigning confusion, blinks, hesitates, and blinks again before he lies: «I was told they were climate scientists.» He looks troubled, at least, and is gone now, anyhow.
But Myron Ebell, advisor to Trump, leader of his Environmental Protection Agency is alive and of good cheer. He is eagerly dreaming of further funding, and smiles contentedly, sure of his own standing, his salvation or immunity: CO2 makes the plants grow better, so no need to worry, says the high priest of climate denialism.
We’ve been face to face with the men who sold the world.
The Campaign Against the Climate screens asp art of Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival «Testimonies» programme