Comedy for Climate Change
Author: Calli Lambard
Published: February 23, 2022
Joan Didion put it best when she said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The way we think about the world is informed by our stories, our language. It’s hard to look at anything in your life and not have a story to tell about it. That book you got at a bookstore at the beach and never read, or the pillow that was too flat and gave you a crick in the neck. The world around us is imbued with stories, and those stories affect how we see the world. I might feel guilt when I look at my unread copy of 1984, and I definitely feel annoyed when I look at my flat pillow. The stories we know affect our lives.
For this reason, the way we talk about climate change is vital to how we see the issue and decide to act on it. Take a moment to Google “climate change.” Most of the headlines will outline problem upon problem that we are facing, making things feel hopeless. Oceans rising, increasing wildfires, droughts, and more. All of these stories about climate change tell us that there are only problems, not solutions. How can we hope to connect with others and solve the climate crisis if all we see are problems? Right now, the story we are telling ourselves about climate change is that we are powerless to stop it, and that doesn’t help us solve anything.
I wondered a lot about how our language affects our view of the climate crisis. In my research, I came across the Stand Up for Climate Change Project. Consisting of a group of Environmental Studies majors, the project saw students perform stand up and sketch comedy to raise awareness for climate change. The use of comedy here struck me. Climate change is a serious issue that is already affecting many people’s lives. It is projected to lead to increased inequality, hunger, forced migration, and more. Making jokes about the issue might not seem to be a viable solution. A group of researchers from the University of Colorado studied the project, considering audience and performer reactions. They found that comedy “has the power to connect people,” and it can “bring multiple truths” to light and exploit “cracks in arguments” (Boykoff & Osnes, 2019). In short, comedy makes it easier to share the story and nuance of climate change with others. This alternative lens could lead to less hopelessness and help us change the story we’re telling ourselves about climate change.
It turns out that satire is an effective vehicle for climate communication. We know that there are a lot of problems involved with climate change, but talking about those problems can lead to hopelessness and inaction. I think we all know someone who has decided to give up on climate change because the problem is just “too big.” You might also know some people who are confused by the scientific language used to get the message across. Comedy can actually provide people who feel hopeless or confused an easier way to access information about climate change. Two researchers who have been analyzing satire and climate change communication for years argue that their research has “consistently shown” that satire can interest people in science due to the large reach of comedy (Brewer & McKnight, 2020). Watching a satirical show like The Daily Show can help people want to read more about a subject. We can assume that more positive thinking, through either wording or jokes, can help galvanize people to act.
Beyond its ability to give information more clearly, satire can also connect people. While analyzing The Onion and The Weather Channel’s use of satire about climate change, researchers found that people were more likely to understand and connect with a message if it gave the audience a common enemy (Becker & Anderson, 2019). Climate skeptics make for a powerful common enemy, as they are a large barrier to societal change. For this reason, one-sided humor that makes fun of skeptics tends to be more effective, as it passes along the message more clearly (Becker & Anderson, 2019). People love to feel like they’re part of a group. While watching a satirical program or reading jokes from The Onion online, people enjoy identifying with one group and pushing away another. This one-sided dynamic can be powerful. The Weather Channel tried to use two-sided humor that acknowledged both climate denialists and environmentalists, but it was far less successful. Because it considers multiple perspectives, two-sided humor is often confusing, making the message less pervasive (Becker & Anderson, 2019).
We know that jokes can help people better understand climate change, but how does this connect with the story we’re telling ourselves about climate change? Humor can break through the negativity of the current story. Seeing photos of melting ice caps can make us feel sad, but that might not lead us to action. Laughing with others at a joke about how bad the melting of ice is, on the other hand, can leave us with more positive emotions while still giving us the knowledge we need to change.
Laughter connects us, too. One of the biggest barriers to action against environmental crises is our disconnection from nature. As our lives become more about technology and consumption, we interact with nature less and less. Most people don’t think about where their food or clothes come from. We are even disconnected from each other as we retreat inside to interact online. Comedy and stories are what connect us, and I think that connection is the most powerful tool we have to combat climate change. It sounds corny, and maybe it is, but we can only do this together. I think any avenue for making connections is valuable. So tell a few jokes about climate change and see where it gets you. It might get some eyerolls, but you might have helped someone change how they view the climate story.
Becker, A., & Anderson, A. A. (2019). Using humor to engage the public on climate change: The effect of exposure to one-sided vs. two-sided satire on message discounting, elaboration and counterarguing. Journal of Science Communication, 18(04). https://doi.org/10.22323/2.18040207
Boykoff, M., & Osnes, B. (2019). A laughing matter? confronting climate change through humor. Political Geography, 68, 154–163. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2018.09.006
Brewer, P. R., & McKnight, J. (2015). Climate as comedy. Science Communication, 37(5), 635–657. https://doi.org/10.1177/1075547015597911