The night in question was the screening of his documentary – I Can Change Your Mind About… Climate” – to about 700,000 viewers on prime time ABC.
The circuit which Nasht was aiming to break, is the one providing voltage to an increasingly toxic debate in the media and in the public about the root causes and consequences of human-caused climate change.
Before the show had even gone to air, the program was causing controversy with commentators – myself and others including Clive Hamilton, Stephan Lewandowsky and Michael Ashley – pointing out its format gave the false impression of there being a legitimate scientific debate about fossil fuel burning causing climate change.
In brief, the show took a climate skeptic, former Liberal senator Nick Minchin, and a climate change campaigner, Anna Rose, and flew them around the world. Each could introduce the other to anybody they liked, in an attempt to change the other’s mind.
“We set out to see who Nick relies on and who Anna relies on. That’s a valid approach,” Nasht said.
As I had already written, the program gave an airing and, in turn, some
credibility, to pseudo-scientists, outlying views and consistently wrong bloggers. My argument wasn’t that they didn’t have the right to an opinion, but that the show would legitimize their debunked views.
Nasht, whose company Smith&Nasht partners him with entrepreneur Dick Smith, contacted me asking if I’d be happy to hear and communicate his side of the story. I wanted to know why he thought the format was a good idea, when I clearly didn’t. So in the interests of fairness, here we are.
“The truth is that we need new ways of framing this because we don’t have any time,” he told me. “We have to face reality that standing on a high horse of scientific purity is not working. The 700,000 or so people that watched the show to revisit the climate change issue were forced to consider their own point of view.”
Nasht said the show was as much about examining the social science – the reasons why the debate has become publicly polarized – as it was about examining the climate science.
“It was a thought-through strategy and we took a lot of time to think about what we were doing,” he said.
“Our great friend Stephen Schneider [the late climate scientist] came to stay with us – as he often did when he was here. We had a long chat about the program and we talked through the risks and what benefits it offered. Stephen was convinced that the debate had so spun out of control that we had to find a way to drag it back and to have some form of constructive discussion. When ABC journalists are jostled for doing their job and nooses get held up in front of visiting scientists then things have gone nuts. You have to find some space where there’s time for reasonable discussion.
“I’ve had long battles with Tim Flannery about this but I suppose if they saw Q&A [which followed the broadcast] he might even have admitted that Nick Minchin was entitled to hold his view. We create breathing space where people can have opinions without people going nuts.”
During the show, Nick Minchin chose to take Anna Rose to Perth to talk with climate sceptic blogger Jo Nova and her husband, David Evans. The couple were so suspicious – or perhaps paranoid – of the film-makers, they arranged for their own cameraman to be there to record the events.
Said Nasht: “The discussion of climate science was really just with [University of New South Wales climate scientist] Matt England and [MIT atmospheric physicist] Richard Lindzen and then the bloggers. Richard Lindzen was Nick’s choice of a mainstream scientist. Of course, we also had Richard Muller – importantly – from Berkley who, I suppose in terms of his particular position, has been highly critical of his colleagues.
“However, we both know the results of Muller’s BEST study and what it had to say about the theories of the likes of Jo Nova and David Evans. It demolished them.
“Jo and David sat down in their kitchen arguing they know more about the heat island-effect [on temperature readings]than NASA and the rest of the world. Well, you can choose to believe the kitchen table-scientists and bloggers or choose to listen to Richard Muller with no vested interests and financial independence with a team that includes a Nobel laureate.”
What’s clear to me from speaking with Simon Nasht is that the documentary was not testing the ability of its chief characters to change each other’s minds. Rather, Nasht had set out to try and show why climate deniers believe their arguments, even when faced with the scientific facts and the clear risks of ignoring them.
“What we know quite clearly, particularly in US research, is that on the extremes of the spectrum of opinion nothing on Earth is going to shift their opinion. But we have a mass of people between these two extremes with a range of views that come down through the scientific polling. There are a large number of people totally unconvinced by the conventional science. For better or worse that polling shows we are about 50:50 split on this position and even in there, you’ve got a range of views.
“We are beginning to understand a bit more about why that is, but talking about the science is not what shifts it. Climate denialists are not mad, they are just human and we have to deal with that as a reality.”
So did Simon Nasht change my mind about whether the show was a good idea?
In short, no.
I respect his attempt to try something different, but the subtleties of his argument were lost in the conflict that the format of the show created.