So Clive Hamilton believes our documentary, I Can Change Your Mind About Climate, was an attack on truth and an irresponsible act of treason by the ABC?
My partner Dick Smith and I envisaged the program as a response, perhaps even an antidote, to the very ugly turn the debate had taken in Australia. When a noose is held in front of visiting climate scientists, when journalists are threatened outside Parliament House for doing their job, then it’s clear things have taken a very nasty turn.
In this environment, the substance of the science was being lost in a shouting match of “truthiness”, where anyone could become an expert with just five minutes of googling. How to turn this around? How to kick-start a new national discussion on this most vital of issues?
Our idea, which the ABC and Screen Australia bravely accepted, was to take two people with very different views around the world to seek divergent opinions, and in the process take a journey in the footsteps of their ideological opponent. They would conduct the discussion with civility and they would show that it is possible to have a constructive discussion without the venom that has so poisoned the debate in Australia.
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Anna Rose and Nick Minchin bravely agreed to take on the challenge despite both having much to lose, and trusted us to treat them fairly.
Ultimately this was not to become an argument about the science. Attempts to do this in the past became easily side tracked, leaving audiences none the wiser. We decided to concentrate on exploring why people believe what they do, giving the viewers an opportunity consider their firmly held positions in a new light.
Now he has at last had the opportunity to see the program, I hope Hamilton can see the point. This was not a simple matter of “equivalency” of argument or false balance. Viewers were given the opportunity to weigh the kitchen table science of sceptical bloggers such as Jo Nova against those of professional climate scientists such as Matthew England. They could listen to Yale psychologist Anthony Leiserowitz explain to Minchin how closely he fitted the typical profile of the middle-aged, well-educated, conservative male. Positions on climate are largely dictated by one’s values, not by one’s understanding of the science.
For most this would be new information. And I hope that even Hamilton is grudgingly willing to concede that in the Q&A panel that followed last night’s doco, we had what was probably the most constructive public discussion on climate Australia has seen in several years. Divergent, strongly held views argued with good manners and good will. And is that such a bad thing?
I am grateful to Rose and Minchin for participating, and sorry (but not surprised) that Hamilton, and others from the extreme ends of the spectrum attacked them for doing so.
Far from “grabbing the opportunity with two hands”, the truth is I had to do quite a bit of arm-twisting to convince Minchin to participate. He smelled an ABC conspiracy. I countered that if there was the slightest whiff of a set-up then we had undermined our purpose.
In fact it was Hamilton who heavied Rose not participate, in the most manipulative manner, by placing the entire future of the environmental movement on her young shoulders. It is a measure of Rose’s strength that she decided to continue, because she too is concerned that the debate in Australia has spun off into what she calls the “madlands”.
Hamilton of course thrives on the conflict; indeed it has become his raison d’etre. In his world we have the blathering Lord Monckton and his swastika-led assault on one side, while on the other a white horse carrying St Clive, ready to smite the infidels with his sword of scientific purity.
In the real world, however, it’s not such an heroic struggle. There is confusion, uncertainty, and most worryingly, disengagement. Should we ponder the real risks of climate disruption, then the dangers are far too ghastly to contemplate. And we know that the weasily rhetoric and limp action from our political class in no way meets the challenge. Everyone is trying to con everyone else.
Hamilton would do well to ponder the findings now being amassed by the social scientists, which tell us that the doubters will not be swayed by science alone. In fact on the extremes, it will drive people into worse denial. Human psychology is often times not rational, especially when faced with existential threat, and this helps explain why the policy of exclusion and dismissal had so manifestly failed to convince vast numbers of Australians that action now is better than chaos later.
Climate deniers are not mad, Hamilton, they are human. And the sooner you begin to engage with them rather than dismiss them, the better chance you may have of bringing a few along with you. Better still, encourage young and impressive people such as Rose to do the job rather than trying to shut her down too. Time is desperately short.