The sum total of useful commentary on ABC’s stultifying I Can Change Your Mind About Climate, (herein ICCYMAC) was five minutes of British scientist and author Ben Goldacre. That the most edifying moments in the program included his admission that he’d rather slam his cock in a door than “debate” climate change probably tells those of you who missed it most of what you need to know. While apparently managing to restrain himself from threatened acts of penile self-mutilation, he made an obvious point.

Which was that climate change is not scientifically controversial.

John Tyndall first measured the radiative properties of CO2 in the 1860s (using this cool thing, the modern equivalent of which fits in a shoe box), and 150 science-filled years later, here’s that cauldron of leftist ferment, the US National Academy of Sciences:

“Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small. Such conclusions and theories are then regarded as settled facts. This is the case for the conclusions that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.”

Almost every national science academy and professional scientific association on the planet support similar conclusions. Surveys of either the scientific literature or professional opinion lead to the same conclusion: there is near-unanimity on the broad nature and causes of climate change in the scientific community.

So by any fair measure, there is a scientific consensus on climate change. And consensus matters. The views of the self-styled climate “sceptics” lie nowhere within the window of plausible scientific contestability, and nowhere near it. This presents a credibility problem for contrarians, because when we’re not equipped to critically scrutinise complex issues ourselves, we take consensus among experts as a useful guide. This is not just eminently reasonable — it is indispensable. It underpins the basic division of labour by which society operates.

The payoff is that society as a whole carries far more knowledge than any one person could ever hope to, but the price of entry is a basic level of trust, not in individuals so much as in the institutions that keep them honest. The point is almost so obvious that attempting to articulate it unnecessarily complicates it — we almost all implicitly understand this. And in other disciplines — medicine, say — we apply it without controversy (as Paul Nurse memorably put to the UK Telegraph’s James Delingpole).

The response of those who deny the reality of climate change is the strawman rejoinder (exemplified by Delingpole), “Science doesn’t operate by consensus”. This little piece of misdirection is true, but irrelevant. It is precisely because science doesn’t “operate by consensus” — because it is undemocratic, regularly acrimonious and pitilessly Darwinian — that consensus, once gained, is so powerful.

So what was the point of ICCYMAC? To get to the bottom of why climate change is publicly controversial? In that case the documentary filmmakers ought to have taken their turn in front of the cameras, because the media has been central — sometimes as vehicle, sometimes as driver — to the spectacular distortion of public perception on this issue in the past two decades.

Daringly, the program’s voice-over commentary invites the audience to wonder: “Are programs such as this part of the problem?” Yes. Yes, you bunch of freaking NINNIES, freaking OMG YES! Yes, your program is assuredly part of the problem. A bit of non-committal introspection doesn’t get you off the hook, by the way. It just confirms that you half-assed knew what you were doing, but did it anyway.

The media can and should take a position on climate change — it should be a “truth vigilante”, because we are dealing with a question of fact, with the ultimate impartial arbiter: nature. That the topic is publicly controversial is no escape clause for the media, because as the intermediary between science and the public, it is one of the primary bearers of responsibility for that controversy. Of course a great deal of pressure has been brought to bear on the media by those with an interest in fostering public confusion, and to say, “Yes we bend like saplings in the wind, but there is enormous pressure,” may be an important reason. But it’s barely an excuse.

And ICCYMAC bent sideways, actually reading its format directly from the denialist strategic playbook. As Frank Luntz in the infamous Republican memo of 2003: “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”

Of course there is a lack of scientific certainty — this is science. The denialist strategy has been to utterly misrepresent that window of scientific contestability, to yank it across the spectrum from, “It’s happening, it’s us, it’s a problem,” to “Who really knows?” They don’t need to win. They just need to wrestle the issue to a standstill by promoting the illusion of controversy.

Regardless, this discussion is probably pointless. You knew what you thought before you began reading. I can’t change your mind about climate change. That’s OK, I don’t want to. I’m past that. I’d rather slam my cock in a door.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey