Making Funny with Climate Change

Comedy may be able to make inroads with audiences in ways that ‘serious journalism’ often cannot. With an issue as serious as climate science suggests, communicators should not shy from taking the risks of injecting humor as appropriate.

Last week, Colorado-based science journalist Michelle Nijhuis lamented the standard environmental news story. She wrote:

“Environmental journalists often feel married to the tragic narrative. Pollution, extinction, invasion: The stories are endless, and endlessly the same. Our editors see the pattern and bury us in the back pages; our readers see it and abandon us on the subway or in the dentist’s office.”

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A welcome exception to this rule, Nijhuis noted, was New Yorker writer Ian Frazier, who has injected humor into the many environmentally themed nonfiction pieces he’s penned over the years.

This might also be the key to the success of Carl Hiaasen‘s best-selling novels. There is nothing new about the sleazy politics and environmental destruction that are regular themes of his books. But it gets digested through wickedly funny scenes and lampooned characters. There are no sacred cows, either. Tree huggers and traditional eco-villains get equally caricatured.

Writers have had a harder time using humor to communicate global warming. In the non-fiction universe, there are no Ian Fraziers tackling the issue in a quirky, sideways manner. Journalists in mainstream media treat the topic somberly and dutifully. Exhaustion may be setting in for some. Recently NPR’s Robert Krulwich wrote:

“I got a call the other day from some producer I very much admire. They wanted to talk about a series next year on global warming and I thought, why does this subject make me instantly tired? Global warming is important, yes; controversial, certainly; complicated (OK by me); but somehow, even broaching this subject makes me feel like someone’s putting heavy stones in my head.”

But if reporters are getting jaded, TV writers and comedians are eagerly joining the fray. Recent satirical novels by acclaimed writers, such as Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan have also tackled climate change.

Whether any of these pop culture and high-minded literary endeavors is influencing attitudes is impossible to know. Still, some climate communicators see humor as their best chance to make climate issues resonate with the public at large, though the tact can be a double-edged sword, as one climate campaigner notes:

“Humor’s capacity for radical imagination creates a mental space for potential change but also comes with a loss of control as it breaks taboos and turns the order of reality upside down and inside out. Indeed, because of this ability to destabilize the established order, George Orwell stated that every joke is a tiny revolution. It denudes power of its authority, which is true of those that we oppose but also those that we cherish. Using humor to communicate on climate change means that scientists and environmentalists lose the monopoly on framing climate change and even risk becoming the butt of the joke. However uncomfortable, this may be necessary if we truly want the public at large to take ownership of the issue.”

That some attempts at humor can backfire has already been demonstrated. But if the stakes are as high as climate science suggests, then that’s a risk climate communicators should not be afraid to take.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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16 Responses to Making Funny with Climate Change

  1. I agree that humor can be a powerful tool for drawing folks in to a larger conversation, parts of which may not be very humorous. Several prototype videos we’ve developed using a variety of storytellers have a light and humorous take on serious issues like ocean acidification (see them on our YouTube channel).

  2. kim says:

    Ta ta ta ta timing.
    ==========

  3. Paul Kelly says:

    “Humor’s capacity for radical imagination… but also comes with a loss of control as it breaks taboos and turns the order of reality upside down and inside out”. The audience doesn’t lose control so much as it cedes it. They give the humorist a willing suspension of disbelief. NRAGreen is coming out with a new solar powered rifle. That son of a gun is a gun of the sun.

  4. Stu says:

    I find a lot of humour in the climate change debate. The way things are framed sometimes almost to me resembles a kind of ‘comedy of terrors’. One of my favourites was an Australian study on the behaviour of damsel fish in response to warmer waters. There was some indication that the fish were behaving more aggressively – upto 30x more aggressive(?) was the claim, although some of the fish appeared to not react at all.

    This was finally reported in the news as

    “Warmer ocean temperatures caused by global warming could cause sharks and other fish to become more aggressive, according to a new Australian study.”

    Anyway, I went to find out what a damsel fish was..

    Here’s one…

    http://www.copyright-free-pictures.org.uk/tropical-marine-fish/electric-blue-damsel-fish.jpg

    Yup. Pretty funny.

  5. Fred says:

    One of the funniest aspects of the global warming movement is the endless list of things blamed on global warming. Below is a link to a video presenting a few of these “calamaties”:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLxicwiBQ7Q

  6. Mary says:

    Oh, man, that 10:10 video was the most appalling of the “bad idea jeans” strategies that I’ve seen eco activists come up with. And mostly I’m on their side.

    I’ve seen good science-based humor in the form of mocking, largely from the skeptics and based on alt-med crap. Have you seen Minchin’s Storm video? Wow. I couldn’t stop watching it. But I may be misjudging it, as I’m certainly not the target for that.

    For those who haven’t been exposed to it, this is what I mean:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhGuXCuDb1U

    One could do an eco-Storm. What I don’t get is that we have more professional creatives on this side, people who understand humor and production, I would expect. And it has not gone too well so far.

  7. Paul Kelly says:

    I was drawn to this quote. The bolded phrases are worth talking about. “Using humor to communicate on climate change means that scientists and environmentalists lose the monopoly on framing climate change and even risk becoming the butt of the joke. However uncomfortable, this may be necessary if we truly want the public at large to take ownership of the issue.”

  8. Jack Hughes says:

    Hi Keith, got any examples of your team using humour without it backfiring like the 10:10 fiasco ?

    Don’t forget that your side *is* the establishment – you control government thinking, the education systems and most of the media in the western world. Humour can only ever undermine the status quo – never re-inforce the established orthodoxy.

  9. Tom Smerling says:

    It’s great to see this question explored. Climate is serious business, but it doesn’t have to be deadly serious…or boring. To be effective, every communicator needs to make a personal, emotional connection with their audience. What better way than through humor?

    Check out ClimateBites: Why Humor is Important.

    Unfortunately, there is a dearth of truly funny climate humor — the kind that elicits a real belly laugh, not just a bitter grimace. You can see some examples — and add your favorites – at http://www.climatebites.org/tools/59-Humor .

  10. Jack Hughes says:

    @Tom

    Is the really funny stuff kept somewhere else ?

  11. Humor doesn’t have to be of the thigh-slapping, gut-busting variety. Cleverness, creativity and a sense of fun can be a lot more effective — and they can be less painful when they fail! On my blog, http://www.climatespeak.com, I’ve recently examined some success stories in climate-related videos, from Yes Men to the Nissan Leaf. What works, what doesn’t, and why? The common thread seems to be the willingness to risk being original. The people who do these campaigns probably have more fun doing them.

  12. melty says:

    “Writers have had a harder time using humor to communicate global warming. In the non-fiction universe, there are no Ian Fraziers tackling the issue in a quirky, sideways manner.”

    Er, ever read Richard B. Alley? They don’t come much more quirky or sideways than that (in a good way, of course). I’m currently reading Earth: The Operators’ Manual and he hasn’t lost anything.