The Best Medicine

This whole “‘climate change is boring and monstrous but you just have to listen or else”’ narrative is played out.

Rollie Williams
July 20, 2020

C+S 2020 students are blogging about topics that interest them for Applications in Climate and Society, a core spring class.

Have you ever noticed how time slows down in those few seconds before you’re accosted by a guy with a clipboard outside of a Whole Foods? You try to avoid eye contact, but those lidless, unblinking tractor beams have you. An inevitable outstretched hand is followed with a loud and rhetorical coup de grâce: “Do you have a second to talk about the environment?” If you’re new to the city, low on willpower, or your parents inexplicably raised you correctly, then congratulations: You’re now officially having that conversation.

This whole “‘climate change is boring and monstrous but you just have to listen or else”’ narrative is played out. It’s not just the rank and file environmental highwaymen, it’s an outdated tactic that has crept into every level of climate activism. It didn’t work in the 1990s, and it sure as shit isn’t going to work now that our collective attention spans have melted into the randomly firing serotonin hose that made Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday an international phenomenon. Oppa Gangnum Style, am I right? Sorry, what were we talking about? Oh right.

Attention climate change organizations, journalists, and people interested in changing people’s minds on global warming: It’s time to ditch the khaki pants, graphs, and charts and team up with comedy and satire to lure people in rather than force a conversation on unsuspecting citizens.

People treat climate change gingerly because it’s a difficult subject filled with casualties, but just because it ping pongs violently between being depressing and boring doesn’t mean it can’t be made funny. One of the best examples is the litany of topics Last Week Tonight with John Oliver covers: Torture, standardized testing and child labor are just some of the extremely serious topics mined for humor. Far from being offensive, the ability to be candid about the horrors or doldrums of a subject allows for deeper insight and more nuance than a reverent-but-aerial view.

But like … so what? Maybe you can force a room of comedy writers to make anything funny, but how is that helpful to communicating climate change? Well it just so happens, comedy is a scientifically powerful messaging tool. According to ‘Comedy as a Route to Social Change,’ a paper by Lauren Feldman and Caty Borum Chattoo, comedy may be capable of reinforcing empathy in the viewer. In a study, subjects were shown either news segments, satirical segments from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, or both, and several weeks after the viewing, the comedy viewers tested higher for emotional connection and recall. Even more compelling was their finding that comedy could actually override political affiliation if the subject found the material to be sufficiently funny. Information was essentially trojan horsing its way into the subject’s brains in the wooden body of a really good joke. In today’s political polar vortex which climate change has become embroiled, comedy is a great way of cutting through the partisan bullshit and communicating the heretofore uncommunicable.

Comedy is also a good way to preach to a very fatigued choir. Mainstream climate communication sticks to a just-the-facts narrative or maybe a sad-story-but-wait-there’s-hope frame, but I bet people archive those newsletters faster than cHeAp ViAgRa EnLaRgEments from a deposed Nigerian Prince. You know what I never archive? Heated, a newsletter by Emily Atkin, whose comedic and enraged take on climate journalism was so well-written and refreshing to readers that it earned her a place on Substack’s list of most funded newsletters. I am also a big fan of Climemechange, an Instagram account that’s exactly what it sounds like. The account is run entirely from one person’s cell phone, and it gets more interaction than fact-focused counterparts Climate Reality and Al Gore combined.

The deck is stacked against climate communication. Fossil fuels have spent billions to confuse people, the human brain seems wired to underestimate long term problems, and even beautiful, sexy facts have become murky and politicized. The biggest asset climate communication has is the ever-increasing club of people who care enough about climate change to try to recruit new members. The next step is for them to take off the kid gloves and talk about climate change through a more human lens that incorporates humor. That’s the funny, empowering, informed, fun humanity that gives momentum to a movement.