Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Laughing Instead of Crying: Climate Humor Can Break Down Barriers and Find Common Ground

Insights + Opinion
A satirical picture about climate change from the bunkaryudo.com blog. Bun Karyudo / CC BY 2.0

By Maxwell Boykoff

Climate change is not inherently funny. Typically, the messengers are serious scientists describing how rising greenhouse gas emissions are harming the planet on land and at sea, or assessing what role it played in the latest wildfire or hurricane.


Society may have reached a saturation point for such somber, gloomy and threatening science-centered discussions. This possibility is what inspires my recent work with colleague Beth Osnes to get messages out about climate change through comedy and humor.

I have studied and practiced climate communication for about 20 years. My new book, "Creative (Climate) Communications," integrates social science and humanities research and practices to connect people more effectively through issues they care about. Rather than "dumbing down" science for the public, this is a "smartening up" approach that has been shown to bring people together around a highly divisive topic.

Why Laugh About Climate Change?

Science is critically important to understanding the enormity of the climate challenge and how it connects with other problems like disasters, food security, local air quality and migration. But stories that emanate from scientific ways of knowing have failed to significantly engage and activate large audiences.

Largely gloomy approaches and interpretations typically stifle audiences rather than inspiring them to take action. For example, novelist Jonathan Franzen recently published an essay in The New Yorker titled "What If We Stop Pretending?" in which he asserted:

"The goal (of halting climate change) has been clear for thirty years, and despite earnest efforts we've made essentially no progress toward reaching it."

Social science and humanities research have shown that this kind of framing effectively disempowers readers who could be activated and moved by a smarter approach.

Comics took a different path when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report in 2018 warning that the world only had until about 2030 to take steps that could limit warming to manageable levels. Trevor Noah, host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," observed:

"You know the crazy people you see in the streets shouting that the world is ending? Turns out, they're all actually climate scientists."

On ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live," Kimmel commented:

"There's always a silver lining. One planet's calamity is another planet's shop-portunity."

He then cut to a going-out-of-business advertisement for Planet Earth that read:

"Everything must go! 50% of all nocturnal animals, insects, reptiles and amphibians … priced to sell before we live in hell. But you must act fast because planet Earth is over soon. And when it's gone, it's gone."

It's Getting Hot in Here

Social science and humanities scholars have been examining new, potentially more effective ways to communicate about climate change. Consistently, as I describe in my book, research shows that emotional, tactile, visceral and experiential communication meets people where they are. These methods arouse action and engagement.

Scholars have examined how shows like "Saturday Night Live," "Last Week Tonight," "Jimmy Kimmel Live," "Full Frontal" and "The Daily Show" use jokes to increase understanding and engagement. In one example, former Vice President Al Gore appeared on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" in 2017 and took turns with Colbert serving up climate change pickup lines over saucy slow-jam background music:

Gore: "Are you climate change? Because when I look at you, the world disappears."

Colbert: "I'm like 97% of scientists, and I can't deny … it's getting hot in here."

Colbert: "Is that an iceberg the size of Delaware breaking off the Antarctic ice shelf, or are you just happy to see me?"

Gore: "I hope you're not powered by fossil fuels, because you've been running through my mind all day."

Comedian Sarah Silverman took time during her 2018 Hulu show "I Love You America" to address the need for climate action. In her monologue, she focused on how climate change is driven "by the interests of a very small group and absurdly rich and powerful people." She added:

"The disgusting irony of all of it is that the billionaires who have created this global atrocity are going to be the ones to survive it. They are going to be fine while we all cook to death in a planet-sized hot car."

Breaching Barriers and Finding Common Ground

Research shows that in a time of deep polarization, comedy can lower defenses. It temporarily suspends social rules and connects people with ideas and new ways of thinking or acting.

Comedy exploits cracks in arguments. It wiggles in, pokes, prods and draws attention to the incongruous, hypocritical, false and pretentious. It can make the complex dimensions of climate change seem more accessible and its challenges seem more manageable.

Many disciplines can inform comedy, including theater, performance and media studies. With my colleagues Beth Osnes, Rebecca Safran and Phaedra Pezzullo at the University of Colorado, I co-direct the Inside the Greenhouse initiative, which uses insights from creative fields to develop effective climate communication strategies.

For four years we have directed "Stand Up for Climate Change," a comedy project. We and our students write sketch comedy routines and perform them in front of live audiences on the Boulder campus. From those experiences, we have studied the content of the performances and how the performers and audience respond. Our work has found that humor provides effective pathways to greater awareness, learning, sharing of feelings, conversations and inspiration for performers and audiences alike.

A comic approach might seem to trivialize climate change, which has life-and-death implications for millions of people, especially the world's poorest and most vulnerable residents. But a greater risk would be for people to stop talking about the problem entirely, and miss the chance to reimagine and actively engage in their collective futures.

Maxwell Boykoff is an associate professor of environmental studies and director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Disclosure statement: Maxwell Boykoff receives funding from private donors to support Inside the Greenhouse activities at the University of Colorado.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Penguins are seen near the Great Wall station in Antarctica, Feb. 9, days after the continent measured its hottest temperature on record at nearly 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Xinhua / Liu Shiping / Getty Images

By Richard Connor

Scientists have recorded Antarctica's first documented heat wave, warning that animal and plant life on the isolated continent could be drastically affected by climate change.

Read More Show Less
The Athos I tanker was carrying crude oil from Venezuela when a collision caused oil to begin gushing into the Delaware River. U.S. Department of the Interior

A case that has bounced around the lower courts for 13 years was finally settled yesterday when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision, finding oil giant Citgo liable for a clean up of a 2004 oil spill in the Delaware River, according to Reuters.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
The buildings of downtown Los Angeles are partially obscured in the late afternoon on Nov. 5, 2019, as seen from Pasadena, California, a day when air quality for Los Angeles was predicted to be "unhealthy for sensitive groups." Mario Tama / Getty Images

The evidence continues to build that breathing dirty air is bad for your brain.

Read More Show Less
Wave power in Portugal. The oceans' energy potential is immense. Luis Ascenso, via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

The amount of energy generated by tides and waves in the last decade has increased tenfold. Now governments around the world are planning to scale up these ventures to tap into the oceans' vast store of blue energy.

Read More Show Less
Yellowstone National Park closed to visitors on March 24, 2020 because of the Covid-19 virus threat. William Campbell-Corbis via Getty Images

When the novel coronavirus started to sweep across the country, the National Park Service started to waive entrance fees. The idea was that as we started to practice social distancing, Americans should have unfettered access to the outdoors. Then the parking lots and the visitor centers started to fill up, worrying park employees.

Read More Show Less