What is the difference between a magician and a man who obscures the truth about global warming for the fossil-fuel industry? Magicians are "moral liars," according to the illuminating new documentary Merchants of Doubt, by director Robert Kenner. That's because their magic acts use expertise in the art of deception and misdirection to entertain. Shills for the fossil fuel-industry, such as Steve Milloy, Marc Morano and others examined and accused in this film, use their expertise to fool people about matters of life and death.
The new documentary springs from the 2010 eponymous book by historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. The film (and the book before it) lays out how the fossil-fuel industry funds talking heads to sow confusion about climate change in a deliberate imitation of the successful doubt-sowing tactics of the tobacco industry. That industry famously employed experts in public relations, starting with venerable PR firm Hill+Knowlton, to cast doubt on the idea that smoking causes lung cancer or that nicotine was addictive, tactics that delayed regulation of the tobacco industry for decades.
Sowing these doubts ensured at least 50 years worth of profits on tobacco and condemned millions of smokers to a premature death in the U.S. The success of that effort has led a host of industries with environmental or health problems—asbestos, chemicals, coal and pharmaceuticals, among others—to adopt this playbook to protect their profits.
There may be no bigger PR problem than climate change. The fossil-fuel industry perceives it as a war on coal and oil. So step one in the successful tobacco playbook is to suggest that more data is needed to confirm any link between the carbon dioxide spewed from fossil-fuel burning and global warming.
Industry found willing allies among scientists like Fred Singer and Fred Seitz who promoted themselves as skeptics against the dogma of climate change largely because, the movie suggests, they feared government interference in the energy industry (or any industry) as a step along the road to communism.* Singer also has no problem defending smoking either, as the documentary shows. And mountains of data—hotter and hotter annual average temperatures, direct measurements of CO2's heat trapping, even a reanalysis of temperature records paid for by fossil-fuel magnates, the Koch brothers, that rediscovered global warming—have not swayed these diehards.
The end result is that a small group of well-paid individuals has been able to convince half of Americans that the science is not settled on climate change. That doubt extends even to U.S. senators, representatives and other politicians, which means these merchants of doubt have been worth every penny. As William O'Keefe of the Marshall Institute says in the film: "Greenpeace couldn't afford me."
Kenner employs Scientific American's own arch-skeptic Michael Shermer to show how this denial is not skepticism, but cynicism. Shermer details his own journey from skeptic to the ranks of the convinced, swayed by data, something Singer, Seitz and their colleagues seem immune to—perhaps helped along by the kind of funding that the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics' Willie Soon has most recently enjoyed.
In addition to skeptical "scientists," another useful ally has been think tanks that can sow doubt under the guise of impartiality, such as the Global Climate Coalition that fought action on climate change from 1989 to 2002 or, more recently, the Heartland Institute. I had the privilege of attending Heartland's first skeptics conference held in New York City in 2008. That's where I learned that polar bears are an insidious threat to the American way of life.
There I also got to interview Marc Morano, who was then the PR director for Sen. James Inhofe (R–Okla.), the leading climate denier in Congress, both then and now. Morano is a talking bobble head for cable news these days and Inhofe is once again in charge of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which makes it highly unlikely Congress will do anything about the problem of climate change. Inhofe's most recent antics include tossing a snowball on the Senate floor.
As Morano puts it in the new film: "Gridlock is the greatest friend" for climate change deniers.
The documentary's interview with Morano reveals that he learned many of his tricks from door-to-door sales, including the need to keep it simple so that people can fill in the blanks with their pre-existing biases. Morano's biggest piece of advice is that the best way to attack science is to attack individuals. That idea is seconded by spin gurus like Richard Berman, perhaps better known as "Dr. Evil," a lawyer who has advised energy executives to always be on the attack, particularly against inconvenient scientists, among other tidbits, as laid out by David Roberts at Grist.
One of the attacked individuals profiled in Merchants of Doubt is former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis, a conservative Republican who happens to be convinced that man-made climate change is real. A trip to Antarctica while he served in Congress showed him how humans were changing the atmosphere's chemistry. That data-based apostasy was enough to get him trounced in his bid for reelection, largely because he was labeled insufficiently conservative.
The merchants of doubt have succeeded again. Climate change is now about tribal politics in the U.S., or as Inglis puts it in this new film: "It's not just a head thing. It's a heart thing." Climate change may require people to change their habits, and as the first Pres. Bush famously observed back at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, "The American way of life is not up for negotiation."
Still, the ideological struggle over climate change has now raged for nearly 30 years. It took 50 years but eventually the tobacco companies were laid low and had to pay more than $200 billion in fines. Perhaps in another 20 years or so climate change will be so obvious that the ExxonMobils and Peabody Coals of the world will have to pay back some of their profits to compensate the victims of global warming.
The problem is that in the meantime people will die too soon, rising oceans will flood coastal cities and weird weather will make farming harder, all serving as a "threat multiplier"—as the U.S. military puts it. By revealing the little men behind the curtain of climate change denial maybe Merchants of Doubt will help cut short this fight, because the world may not have that much time to waste.

Correction (3/10/15): This sentence was edited after the original posting to correct an error.