THE BLOG

Manufacturing Doubt About Climate Change

03/02/2015 14:28 GMT | Updated 05/04/2015 10:59 BST

English audiences will today be given their first chance to see a shocking new film which reveals how a handful of right-wing lobbyists have thwarted attempts to curb threats to health and the environment.

Although Merchants of Doubt, which will receive special preview screenings at Picturehouse cinemas across the country, focuses on the United States, it tells a story of vested commercial interests and dogmatic ideology that also plagues the UK.

The film, due for release in the United States on 6 March, is based on the 2010 book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, which documents how uncertainty has been used to undermine the understanding by the public and policy-makers of the risks posed by commercial products ranging from cigarettes to petrol.

What is most alarming about the film is how effectively lobbyists for industry and conservative campaign groups have used a tiny number of scientists to block and delay regulations by creating confusion over the harm caused by, for instance, the smoke from tobacco and greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuels.

Although 'manufacturing doubt' has been a particularly successful tactic in the United States, where companies spend tens of billions of dollars every year on lobbying politicians, it is still present in the UK, albeit a little less obvious.

For example, the most vocal opponent of action on climate change in the United States Senate is Jim Inhofe, a Republican who receives large donations from the fossil fuels industry.

Meanwhile, the biggest critic in the House of Commons of the UK's 2008 Climate Change Act, is Peter Lilley, the Conservative MP who was, until recently, part-time paid Vice-Chairman of Tethys Petroleum. A report last month by the House of Commons Standards Committee last month criticised him for not declaring his links to the company in two Parliamentary debates.

Both Inhofe and Lilley cast doubt on the human causes of climate change as part of their crusade against the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

These politicians are also helped by lobby groups which recruit 'sceptical' scientists to undermine confidence in the scientific basis for action.

One of the central characters in Merchants of Doubt is Professor Fred Singer, who has argued that human activities are not responsible for the ozone hole or global warming.

Professor Singer is paid by the notorious Heartland Institute, a free market fundamentalist group which devotes millions of dollars each year to attacking the scientific evidence for climate change.

He was brought to the UK in September 2013 by the British right-wing lobby group, Civitas, to try to counter media coverage of the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Civitas was founded from the health and well-being unit of the Institute for Economic Affairs, another right-wing campaign group which has a long history of championing climate change denial.

The Institute organised an event featuring Professor Singer on 23 November 2009 to celebrate the launch of Lord Lawson's lobby group for climate change 'sceptics', the Global Warming Policy Foundation. Some funders of the Institute also provide financial support to the Foundation.

Last July, the Institute announced that Viscount Ridley, the Conservative hereditary peer and former Northern Rock chairman, had won its Free Enterprise Award, partly for a column he writes for The Times.

Viscount Ridley, whose PhD thesis was on pheasant mating, is an adviser to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a fact he conveniently omits from his articles about climate change for the newspaper.

In his most recent contribution, Viscount Ridley complains about being "subjected to torrents of online abuse" for rejecting the results of mainstream climate research. But he is completely silent about the treatment that climate scientists receive from 'sceptics'.

For instance, Viscount Ridley's article highlights the e-mails that were hacked from the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit in 2009, but neglects to mention that Professor Phil Jones was left feeling suicidal by death threats against his family which he received after 'sceptics' disgracefully misrepresented the contents of his messages.

It is the evidence of the intimidation of mainstream scientists that is the most disturbing part of Merchants of Doubt, which shows Professor Michael Mann and others reading aloud hate-filled e-mail messages they have received from enraged 'sceptics'.

Professor Mann is the subject of an ongoing campaign by 'sceptics', and has been forced to take legal action against a writer, Mark Steyn, for the right-wing National Review magazine who accused him of fraud.

The film then cuts to an interview with Marc Morano, the former communications chief for Senator Inhofe, who runs an online propaganda campaign on climate change denial.

Morano boasts of his efforts to generate outrage against climate scientists and refuses to express remorse for publishing on his website the e-mail addresses of several researchers who subsequently received vitriolic messages.

It is this concerted effort in the United States to silence mainstream researchers, while creating doubt and confusion about the evidence of harm through a few scientists who share an ideological opposition to health and environmental regulations, which the film highlights so powerfully.

It is to be hoped that Merchants of Doubt will lead others to seek out and expose how similar tactics and strategies are being used in the UK.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.