Do Not Be a Pawn of the Merchants of Doubt
Environmental issues first started gaining public attention during the movement in their name in the 1960s and 70s. Since then, the environmental movement has gone through many ups and downs; such as policy making, changing presidents, and climate change. Throughout all this, it seems like we, as a society, have become increasingly divisive within American politics and it almost feels as if people, regardless of which side of the environmental “debate” they’re on, will never change their minds. This is further exacerbated because in recent decades the dramatic shift in the ways news is created and consumed brought a wider range of access to content, involvement, and awareness among the masses. However, it has also created the ability to think less critically about information and created echo chambers of thoughts. This usually means not every source is credible and people are able to look for information that agrees with them while ignoring information that does not, especially in regards to the environmental movement. While the effects of decades of infinite economic growth and industrialization may not appear overnight, the time is running out to take precautionary measures on environmental issues; we no longer have the luxury to debate the validity of climate change. It is happening and drastically affecting the lives of people around the world. Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, noticed that this trend is happening because people are relating to climate change on a personal level (Albeck-Ripka). Let's be real here: climate change does not draw the same type of attention like nuclear bombs, racial riots, or the commander in chief’s twitter. But just because climate change is not discussed in the mainstream media does not mean it is not important and does not need to be taken seriously.
While climate change is documented to be existing, the extent of its effects in the future are largely unknown (US EPA) and that is reflected in the public’s confusion pushed by industry that benefits from that confusion (“Yale Climate Opinion Maps - U.S. 2016”). While climate change affects everyone in one way or the other, there are individuals and industries who feed off of scientific uncertainty and become the merchants of doubt for the public in order to continue benefiting from the unwavering dedication to economic growth, even at the expense of the environment and public health. Merchants of Doubt is a term coined in a book written by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. The book goes in detail describing how the interest groups that benefit from climate change, as well as the science community they are working with, are able to create and foster just enough doubt in the argument about climate change to confuse the public and more broadly public opinion on the topic. One of the examples authors use in the text is how the tobacco industry, knowing the potential negative impacts of tobacco, chose to market their product to the public in favor of their profits and interests. In the case of climate change, Oreskes and Conway argue that industries and scientists benefit from the capitalist market structure that embraces economic growth by all means over the environment and public health. Furthermore, they are fully aware of potential negative health effects of climate change, however they’re choosing to withhold the information and dedicate time, money, and resources to further confusing the public. (Oreskes and Conway). By withholding the information from the public, climate change becomes an issue of justice that affects us all and needs to be addressed.
In February 2018, The New York Times published an article that addresses this divisive nature of the climate change debate and the potential merchants of doubt trying to widen this divide. The author of the article conducts interviews with average Americans changing their minds on climate change. These people were extremely set in their ways, dealing with their own personal issues, and did not feel like climate change affected their day-to-day lives. However, specific instances and moments in their lives made them realize that climate change is real and it does have effects on their lives. When interviewed, people experienced effects of climate change first hand, they could no longer be influenced by partisan politics and merchants of doubt. The first feature they look at is Jennifer Rukavina, a meteorologist from Kentucky. When Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” came out in 2006 she, like many other members of her community in Kentucky and other meteorologists she worked with, were not convinced. However, Al Gore captured her interest to the point that Jennifer ended up discovering the truth for herself by going to the (year) Glen Gerberg Weather and Climate Summit. There she was convinced by qualified climate scientists without any sort of hidden agenda. She sums up her testimony incredibly well by saying, “I am a registered Republican, but I don’t let politics dictate what good science is to me” (Albeck-Ripka).
It goes further to discuss the stories of a retired coal miner, a community organizer, an evangelical leader, a chart fleet owner, and a former Miami mayor have all shared their stories of awakening about climate change. However, there was one narrative that touches to the justice issues that affect us all, brought about by the merchants of doubt, is the story of Valencia Gunder, the community organizer. Valencia lives and works in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Miami and with all the issues the neighborhood was dealing with climate change never crossed her mind. Until she noticed the developers actively building expensive homes with in anticipation of the rising sea level in Miami and virtually pushing out the people who currently live in the neighborhood. In educating herself on this issue, Valencia discovered the term “climate gentrification,” which is a subsect of the overarching idea of environmental justice that summed up everything she had been working towards in regards to social justice and now it directly tied to environmental issues. Climate change is an intersectional issue where marginalized groups and minorities are often adversely effected and have not been given the resources to address these concerns. The merchants of doubt that earn profit off of uncertainty and doubt shed a cloud over the problem. Valencia told the New York Times that every time she is speaking to people who might not be aware of climate change “their minds are always blown” (Albeck-Ripka).
This issue of climate justice is so important and relevant that it was the theme of a conference at Yale Law School (Yale). The annual New Directions in Environmental Law Conference at Yale centered on climate justice and really explained how not only is, climate change real and human caused, but also there are interested parties who benefit from climate change that are trying to stagnate any sort of movement around addressing it. They look to shed doubt on the issues surrounding climate change and make individuals feel hopeless about addressing things that they personally relate to. Whether or not this is subconscious or an attempt to cloud public opinion, they should be held accountable. We all are affected by climate change and it is unacceptable to let powerful people dictate the conversation and policy on it.
Albeck-Ripka, Livia. “How Six Americans Changed Their Minds About Global Warming.” The New York Times, 21 Feb. 2018. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/02/21/climate/changed-minds-americans.html.
US EPA, OAR. Future of Climate Change. /climate-change-science/future-climate-change. Accessed 8 Apr. 2018.
Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2010.
“Yale Climate Opinion Maps - U.S. 2016.” Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us-2016/. Accessed 8 Apr. 2018.
Yale, NDEL Team. 2018 Conference: Centering Justice. Mar. 2018, https://ndel.yale.edu/.