The strategy of doubt-mongering has been highly effective for climate deniers at exploiting the media’s practice of presenting “two sides” to controversial issues. The media have an ethical commitment to provide “balance” and stories are more interesting if there is a conflict to report, whether that conflict is real or manufactured.
Which is why ABC TV’s I Can Change Your Mind … About Climate Change is yet another victory for climate denial even before it goes to air this Thursday. The documentary pits former Liberal senator Nick Minchin, who famously claimed that climate science is a communist plot, against youthful climate change activist Anna Rose, and just like 2007’s The Great Global Warming Swindle, the ABC will air a special panel devoted to the program entitled Q&A: The Climate Debateto discuss the documentary after it airs.
Minchin and Rose will be joined by mining magnate Clive Palmer, chief executive of the CSIRO Dr Megan Clark and social researcher and writer Rebecca Huntley.
The premise of the film, commissioned by the ABC, and the accompanying panel, suggests that there is a genuine debate about climate science. But as there is in fact no debate in the scientific literature about the main propositions of climate science, the ABC is hoodwinking its viewers.
If there were a real debate among scientists, then the climate deniers would be publishing their counter-evidence in the professional scientific journals. But they are not, because they do not have evidence that will stand up to scrutiny.
So they set out to do something else, to create the impression in the public mind that there is a serious debate among scientists about global warming. To do so they must shift the terrain away from the scientific journals and into the popular media, where they do not have to face the scrutiny of experts.
It’s certain that when asked last year to participate in the program, Minchin grabbed the chance with two hands. His denialist comrades have been patting him on the back ever since.
Several well-qualified scientists could see the program for what it was and refused the invitation to “debate” Minchin. But has Rose, who has been widely and rightly praised for co-founding the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, undone much of her good work by allowing herself to be enticed onto the television screen? Rose has written a book about the experience and she has told The Sydney Morning Herald, “I went into it with an open mind - but I answer the questions about climate change based on the science.
The ABC will argue that in presenting “both sides” viewers will be able to make up their own minds. For issues such as euthanasia, capital punishment or conflict in the Middle East, that is legitimate. But the subject of this debate is a complex body of science that only those with advanced training in a relevant discipline can properly understand and assess.
Would the ABC commission a program titled I Can Change Your Mind on … the Theory of Relativity? Is its next program I Can Change Your Mind on … Evolution in which an unqualified creationist debates the evidence with an unqualified “believer” in evolution?
Yet in this case — where the stakes are enormous, no less than the survival of the civilised world — the ABC takes the view that climate science is a fun topic for debate and has pitched against each other two people with zero expertise and no authority.
When the program goes to air, the bevy of deniers at the Lavoisier Group, the Institute of Public Affairs, and the Skeptics Party will be shouting “Sucked in ABC”. And they will have good reason to celebrate.
The ABC knows all of this. I and others have pointed it out many times. Scholars such as Naomi Oreskes have exposed the tactics of the climate deniers with a mass of documentary evidence.
Yet the ABC persists with the charade of “providing balance”. Some news organisations abroad have decided they will no longer fall for the doubt-mongering ruse. Professional pride now prevents editors and journalists from being manipulated by the denial machine.
The BBC would not air a program such as this. In the United States, National Public Radio has revised its ethics handbook. “Our goal,” it states, “is not … to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth.”
When it reports on questions such as climate science its aim is not the spurious fairness of presenting “both sides”; instead NPR commits itself to be “fair to the truth”.
“To be fair to the truth.” Once we simply expected that of the national broadcaster. This latest program tells us that the truth no longer carries so much weight at the ABC, not when it comes to climate science.
*Clive Hamilton is professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra.