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Apr 27, 2012

ABC climate doco producer fights back: ‘climate deniers aren’t mad, they’re human’

Climate deniers are not mad, 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, writes Simon Nasht, producer of ABC doco I Can Change Your Mind About Climate.

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.

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.

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43 comments

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43 thoughts on “ABC climate doco producer fights back: ‘climate deniers aren’t mad, they’re human’

  1. FelineCyclist

    I support Simon’s desire to civilize the debate about divisive issues. Indeed, had this documentary screened five years ago, maybe it would have had the desired effect. However, when experts are now predicting a 6 degree rise in global temperatures (ie the catastrophe scenario), a desire for everyone to play nice smacks of Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

    What people need is a clear statement of the science in langauge everyone understands – something the ABC does brilliantly in Catalyst and other science shows but has failed in the area of climate change. Rather than treating it as a scientific issue (which it is), the ABC has chosen to treat it as a social/political/moral issue, on which reasonable minds may differ (which it is not). The QANDA-fication of the issue has increased confusion, as people hear week in, week out the same simplistic climate denial statements. To now say that a documentary in the same vein is necessary to decrease confusion is like an alcoholic seeking salvation in a pub. The problem is the paradigm, not the message.

    Treat this like a scientific issue and help people to understand will go much further than pretending we can debate our way out of it. We don’t debate the science on planes, wifi, heart disease, etc. Why do it for climate change?

  2. Coaltopia

    Disengagement. Nothing makes me disengage more than giving oxygen to ignorants. Perhaps better people will hand-hold the slow-coaches and the legitimate sceptics can get on with their work, but let’s avoid showing “balance” where none exists. And let’s also avoid politicians who like nothing more than to belch hot air.

  3. Bo Gainsbourg

    The show’s premise was basically this: 99% of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, real and dangerous. However, there is a bloke down the pub I met last night who reckons its all bullsh*t, oh and he reckons Clive Palmer is a genius too. Let’s see who’s right given we should treat their opinions both equally.
    I agree science alone won’t win this debate, because people simply deny it, I disagree that letting deniers spout drivel over the top of actual evidence enlightens anyone, it just entrenches them. I’d be more sympathetic to the premise of the program if you ran a similar doco on flat earthers (yes I’m sure I could find some) , or people who think smoking is good for you (pretty sure BAT could find some) as anything other than a comedy. It might have been well intentioned, but the deniers will be cracking the champagne after last nights show.

  4. Meski

    We don’t debate the science on planes, wifi, heart disease, etc. Why do it for climate change?

    There’s many sciences where the theory is hotly debated. Quantum Physics, the origin of the universe, Chaos theory… Climate is closer to these (for instance, chaos theory) than planes, wifi and heart disease, so why oppose debate on it? I’m not saying don’t act on what is thought to be the theory right now, but trying to shut down debate is not a good look for a science wanting to establish credibility.

  5. Meski

    (trying to shut down debate with ad hominem attacks on your opponents looks even worse)

  6. Paul

    Like Hamilton I can’t see any point in this stuff.

    It may surprise the producers but we know that Hitter and Pol Phot were humans, the latter had a degree from Paris. He was articulate and intelligent and also a psychopath and a tyrant. Neither would be allowed time on the ABC to promote their beliefs because they are not defensible. Denying global warming is likewise scientifically indefensible.
    I am not saying climate deniers are like the above, far from it.
    What is clear though is that pretending that programs like this achieve anything is a self delusion and amazingly arrogant.
    I know a number of men my age who are educated and intelligent but who simply deny that the science is real, there is nothing that will make them question their beliefs.
    I do not know if the science is correct, as I don’t know if the Big Bang Theory is correct or E=mc2 is correct or there are multiple galaxies, however I do trust the scientists who both explore and explain these theories.
    What this program does in a very insidious way is to allow people to believe that with no qualifications, study or acceptance of peer reviews they know they are correct because they know better.
    This is part of a new ABC occurrence where facts are ignored because people disagree with them and ignorance is placed on the same level as knowledge.
    My cynical view is it is because they believe the Libs will shortly take their rightful place in Canberra and the ABC is simply sucking up to them.

  7. William Fettes

    I’m not a big fan of Hamilton on such issues as internet censorship, but I don’t see how he can be tagged as an extremist on climate change for simply insisting that the debate follow scientific lines of evidence rather than opinion. On the question of extremism, it is the people who wish to ignore and marginalise every major peak scientific body, every major university and almost 98% of climate scientists working and publishing in this area in favour of a wishy-washy post-modern everyone is entitled to an opinion BS that are the extremists.

    It is also dubious of Nasht to suggest that all we need to do is humanise and engage with opponents of the scientific view. There may be an element of truth to that as goes older mums and pops in Queensland. But they were never the problem. The problem is conservative elites and the rent seekers who support them. If not for those elites, the mums and pops in Queensland wouldn’t hold such outlandish conspiratorial views in the first place. Those views are fed to them via right-wing talk radio and print media. There is nothing accidental about their confusion.

    Elite conservatives are the problem and the behavioural literature is pretty clear that engagement is pointless with smart conservatives on some issue. They are not generally amenable to facts-based discourse, and they are simply better at rationalising the beliefs so that discordances and tensions vanish. Similarly, rent seekers like the IPA and CISS have never been engaged in good faith process regardless, so it is utterly pointless and destructive to treat them as if they are making innocent mistakes.

  8. David Harris

    Let’s not forget that we live in a democracy, and what happens will depend on which tribe of politicians the voters choose to elect. This is not a scientific argument. The scientific understanding of the average voter is pretty superficial, so no matter how undeniable the science, there is still a need to SELL the idea.
    Unfortunately, the Global Warming believers have allowed themselves to be painted as an arrogant bunch of zealots who want to tax us, clothe us in sackcloth and make us all vegetarians. Whatever reasons they have to deny the overwhelming science, the deniers can appear as soothing, avuncular voices with a “don’t worry, it will all be alright” message.
    In a democracy, both voices must be allowed to be heard. What must be done is to SELL the science to the voters so well that one or both of the political tribes will see its adoption as key to being elected. Then, of course, we have the task of ensuring that they actually DO something.

  9. amy c

    I’d be interested to know why the documentary makers didn’t include Nick Minchin’s comment that “Human emissions of CO2 probably made some contribution to that.”

    Anna Rose wrote about it here: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/political-news/climate-change-isnt-a-plot-its-science-20120427-1xpjp.html#ixzz1tDV2mF3v

  10. Patrick Brosnan

    “but trying to shut down debate is not a good look for a science wanting to establish credibility”
    See, this is the type of straw man stuff that researchers and people who want action have to deal with. There’s a stack of data to support AGW, the debate should be over what measures we take to mitigate it rather than whether it is real. Debating the latter is a waste of time, but there’s no one stopping you from doing it. However most scientists with expertise in this area just can’t be bothered arguing with people who won’t accept a rational argument. People who take their talking points from a Murdoch tabloid just aren’t worth wasting breath on.
    And non sequiturs about a lack of scientific consensus over some issue (Quantum Physics, the origin of the universe, Chaos theory) are just attempts at obfuscation.

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