Robert Kenner is the director of the new corporate spin documentary Merchants of Doubt, now in theaters. The film explores how representatives of large industries create doubt on contentious issues like climate change by presenting themselves to the media as independent researchers. Kenner’s previous film, Food Inc., examined similarly sticky issues of truth and transparency in the food industry. Sojourners sat down with Robert Kenner after Doubt's Washington, D.C., premiere to discuss the nature of doubt and the rise of corporate involvement in media narrative-making.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Abby: Why did you want to use the tobacco industry to introduce audiences to the world of corporate spin? And why go from there to climate change?
Kenner: I see this as a film about this class of doubters, how there are these very talented people who are very successful at what they do. We just had a screening at the Columbia Journalism School, and someone there said that for every journalist, there’s 4.5 PR reps.
There used to be more journalists than PR reps — and some of these reps are now being paid by the people they used to investigate. So in effect, we’re looking at multiple industries. We could have spent as much time on pharmaceuticals or the food industry.
I was also certainly interested in the notion of how you can have these things like tobacco, like certain pharmaceutical issues, or like climate, where the science is clear yet the doubt persists. How do you maintain doubt when the science is clear that it’s about something else? What are the factors? And it turns out there multiple, of which money is one of the biggest.
Part of it is tribal, but that was true with gay rights, too, and all of a sudden six years later things have changed. I’m feeling kind of optimistic that it can change around the issue of climate from that perspective.
But the thing that interested me most was how media could represent issues as if they were debates when they weren’t debates.
READ Sojourners' review of Merchants of Doubt here.
Drying livestock carcasses and anguished faces of hungry women and children have become a common feature here as droughts increase due to climate change.
But now, in an effort to fight hunger, the Roman Catholic Church is making 3,000 acres of church-owned land available for commercial farming.
“We want to produce food, create employment, and improve quality of life for the people,” said the Rev. Celestino Bundi, Kenya’s national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies.
This is the first time the church has entered into large-scale farming, though it owns massive tracts of land across the country, most of which is idle and in the hands of dioceses, parishes, missionaries, and congregations.
“We have the will and the support of the community and government,” said Bundi.
“I think time has come for Kenya to feed herself.”
Like Jim Wallis, I believe that budgets are moral documents. They reflect our deepest values. Like budget decisions, climate decisions are moral decisions — decisions that affect the environment reveal our moral commitments.
How does Barack Obama measure up on the ‘moral leadership for the environment’ scorecard?
President Obama vetoed the Keystone XL pipeline on Tuesday. He also forged a historic agreement with Chinese Presidenta Xi Jinping in November to reduce carbon emissions in the U. S. by 26-28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. He has worked with the auto industry to put historic fuel economy standards into place. When he wasn’t able to convince Congress to pass environmental legislation, he worked behind the scenes — using the Clean Air Act of 1970 to set tougher environmental standards. All of these actions give him points for moral leadership.
At the same time, some criticized Obama earlier in his presidency for not doing enough. In 2011, Al Gore published an article in Rolling Stone magazine saying Obama had “thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change.” During the first two years of his administration, many environmental activists expected more legislation to slow climate change. Cole Stangler argues that, even given legislative obstacles, Obama could have done more through federal agencies.
We are only two months into 2015 and it has already proven to be a busy year. There is much to be hopeful for in this coming year and much work still to be done on changing the hearts and minds of those in positions of leadership. We are so thankful for our community of supporters who invest and encourage our mission and ministry!
“An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
Last year on a crisp afternoon in March, I was one of nine people arrested by the NYPD and taken away to the local precinct for processing. My crime? Attempting to plant detoxifying sunflowers on public brownfield land on the South Bronx waterfront in New York City.
Earlier in the day, more than 100 residents, faith leaders, organizations, friends, and allies came together to protest the proposed relocation of the online grocer FreshDirect to a residential neighborhood in the South Bronx. After a jubilant and joyous interfaith reflection and prayer vigil outside the entrance to the waterfront location, security guards refused to let us cross the gate, so we sat in front of it in protest — a peaceful and non violent act of civil disobedience.
Our coalition, South Bronx Unite, works to improve and protect the social, environmental, and economic future of the South Bronx in New York City, located in the poorest congressional district in the country. For three years we have been fighting to stop FreshDirect from receiving more than $100 million in subsidies and incentives to build a diesel trucking distribution center on public land along the Bronx Kill Waterfront.
Editor's Note: In this latest edition of our “Disinvest/Reinvest” series, John Elwood reflects on how – and why – he divested from fossil fuels. You can sign up for the final week of our Christian Divestment e-course here.
Investments shape souls. Jesus tells us so.
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:21
Over the years, these words of Jesus have kept me away from the “merchants of death” and conflict minerals and steered me toward ethical products of many sorts. In recent years, however, a more sinister and pervasive threat has come into focus. Climate scientists in 2014 warned that energy companies like Exxon, Shell, PetroChina and Chevron – which derive their value from enormous reserves of recoverable fossil fuels – will have to leave about 80 percent of those precious reserves in the ground if the world is to have a chance of avoiding global climate mayhem.
That means that four out of every five barrels of oil, or tons of coal, or cubic feet of natural gas that these companies have discovered and developed must eventually be written off.
The market value of fossil fuel reserves today is valued at around $27 trillion, a sum that dwarfs the famous U.S. national debt. This means that there is a very, very bad day of reckoning ahead for someone. Either all of humanity will endure unspeakable suffering, or those who invest in the fossil-fuel companies will suffer huge losses.
It became clear to me that investing in fossil fuels is no longer a retirement strategy or a way of mitigating market risks. It is a decision whether to align my soul with unfathomable harm to virtually all of humanity and to all of God’s beloved creation. If I’ve got my own personal slice of those carbon reserves (whether by buying a share of ExxonMobil or by investing in a mutual fund that does), I make money, or avoid big losses, only if the entire creation groans and suffers under the weight of climate calamity.
If you are a Christian, protecting the environment is part of your identity, not an ideological option, Pope Francis said Feb. 9.
“When we hear that people have meetings about how to preserve creation, we can say: ‘No, they are the greens!’” Francis said in his homily at morning Mass, using a common name for environmental activists.
“No, they are not the greens! This is the Christian!” he said.
“A Christian who does not protect creation, who does not let it grow, is a Christian who does not care about the work of God; that work that was born from the love of God for us,” Francis continued. “And this is the first response to the first creation: protect creation, make it grow.”
The pope — who took his name from St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment — has made care for the environment a hallmark of his papacy since he was elected nearly two years ago.
By now, you may have heard that Jim Wallis and Sojourners have stopped funding climate change by divesting from fossil fuels. Unfortunately, for millions of Christians who invest at faith-based financial institutions, fossil-free investing just isn’t an option.
We’ve done our research. Of the 13 major Christian investment companies we studied, not a single one offers a way for their members to opt out of fossil fuels. We think Christian investment companies should be the FIRST to stop funding climate change! Read our open letter and sign below.
Recently President Obama proposed giving wilderness status to 12 million acres of the Artic National Wildlife Refuge.
Many Republican senators, including Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, strongly oppose the president’s proposal. Much of the opposition is expressed as frustration and outrage that the president is hindering Alaskans from having control over their economic future. Sen. Murkowski asserts:
What’s coming is a stunning attack on our sovereignty and our ability to develop a strong economy that allows us, our children and our grandchildren to thrive. … It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory. … I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska. But we will not be run over like this. We will fight back with every resource at our disposal.
The ANWR is home to significant untapped petroleum reserves that lie beneath the land the president is seeking to protect. This fight between protecting the ANWR and promoting economic growth and development through oil drilling is one that has been going on between Democrats and Republicans for years.
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said in a statement he may be forced to accelerate oil and gas permitting on state lands to compensate for the new federal restrictions.
While I believe I understand the arguments made by advocates on both sides, it seems to me there is a fundamental ideological (and possibly theological) premise that often goes unacknowledged in these debates.
There could not be a more important year for climate action. It’s now or never. The future of our planet and the people, places, and things that we love depend on all of us working together to demand a healthy, just, and vibrant planet home. It impacts everything else – immigration and migration due to drought, flooding, sea level rise, and worsening storms; war and conflict over natural resources; access to drinkable water; food insecurity, hunger, and agriculture; disaster relief. It even impacts the sex trade — when women have to walk farther and farther to find water, they’re more vulnerable to rape and kidnapping in many regions.
So here we are, now. Governments, scientists, universities, companies, our military, and thousands of non-profit organizations are all scrambling to save the very integrity of God’s creation, the composition of the atmosphere God so magnificently created to support life on earth. And Christians are barely even at the table. We need to be at the table.
Last night I watched the State of the Union, because I live in D.C., and this is our Super Bowl. My roommate, who works on women’s rights, was listening for any mention of her "issues." And I’m no different: I tuned in to the president’s address to hear what he would have to say about climate change.
And he did have a lot to say! This is what he said:
"And no challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.
"2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does — 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.
"I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it."
What struck me was that it’s now totally normal for the President of the United States to speak firmly and at length about the clear and present danger of climate change.
Look at how far we’ve come! This is real progress — this is a cultural shift. This is a victory.
But this Monday, I marked Martin Luther King Day by reading the Letter from a Birmingham Jail with members of a neighborhood church. And I heard Dr. King admonishing me for my celebration.
Catholic environmental groups from around the world on Jan. 14 announced a new global network to battle climate change just as many Catholic conservatives are sharply criticizing Pope Francis’ campaign to put environmental protection high on the church’s agenda.
“We are certain that anthropogenic (human-made) climate change endangers God’s creation and us all, particularly the poor, whose voices have already spoken of the impacts of an altered climate,” the new Global Catholic Climate Movement says in its mission statement.
“Climate change is about our responsibility as God’s children and people of faith to care for human life, especially future generations, by caring for all of God’s wondrous creation,” the statement continues.
The GCCM said it intends to push for international treaties to battle global warming but said it is approaching the issue from a moral and biblical perspective and hopes to “encourage the conversion of hardened hearts.”
That could be a tall order in light of current arguments over climate change in U.S. politics and in the American church.