More and more activists, scientists and educators are turning to comedy to tell the climate story. But can using humour really encourage a greater response to the climate crisis?
“Climate comedy, like sea levels, is on the rise,” quips Aaron Sachs in his book Stay Cool: Why Dark Comedy Matters in the Fight Against Climate Change. Sachs, a Professor of History and American Studies at Cornell University in the USA, argues that human beings have been using comedy to cope with difficult things for centuries —the worse things are, the darker the humour – so why should climate change be any different?
“As a historian, I was at least dimly aware of the dark-comedy tradition, but until recently, that mode simply hadn’t occurred to me as a potentially useful tool in the climate struggle,” he says. Stay Cool presents compelling evidence to show “how strategically important it is for environmentalists to lighten up”, as Sachs puts it. He argues that gallows humour could help boost people’s morale in a way that nothing else can. He also identifies other types of humour that can be used to persuade more people to act. “Self-directed humour” – activists laughing at themselves – could help make climate protest more relatable. While satire can be used to hold truth to power, for example, by calling out oil corporations’ ‘eco’ rebranding. Looking at the power of comedy beyond satire to tell the story of climate change is something that Beth Osnes, Maxwell Boykoff and Patrick Chandler also explore in their fascinating study Good-natured comedy to enrich climate communication.
Using comedy to reach mass audiences
Arguably, it is satire that has pulled one of the biggest climate communication punches so far via the 2021 film Don’t Look Up, which Sachs describes as “the most prominent example of climate comedy to date”. The film clocked up a staggering 150 million hours of viewing in its second week of streaming on Netflix, making it the most globally viewed English-language film on the platform to date. In this episode of the How to Save a Planet Podcast, Adam McKay, who directed the film, describes how it was the decision to take a comedic approach that finally persuaded Hollywood to back him.
As host Alex Blumberg points out, no-one expected McKay, best known for crowd-pleaser comedies like Stepbrothers, Talladega Nights and Anchorman, to come out with a climate film. On Good Energy’s website, which supports film and TV creatives to make content about climate change, McKay explains his motivation: “After reading the 2018 IPCC Report, I couldn’t sleep for two nights…Climate change is terrifying and sad and absurd. And it’s okay to have all these complicated feelings. That’s where my drive came from to make Don’t Look Up …As filmmakers and creators, we need to do our part in keeping the conversation top of mind.”
To this end, McKay founded Yellow Dot Studios, which makes funny, social media-friendly videos to challenge climate mis/disinformation, or as Yellow Dot puts it: “We challenge polluter BS to mobilize action on the climate emergency.” Recent work includes Earth’s Toxic Journey, a series of shorts that imagines Earth as a woman with a toxic boyfriend (i.e. human beings). In one clip, we see her in a bar, knocking back wine with a friend as she describes her relationship: “He says my need not to die should not outweigh his need for the rumble of a gas engine. I told him I was so hot I’m going to die, and he just said he’d move to Mars.” The messages hit home precisely because they are funny – and that’s what climate communicators need way more of.
Using comedy to communicate the climate science
Initiatives like the Climate Comedy Cohort are going one step further to use the power of laughter to shift the dial on climate action. Comedians can sign up to the nine-month programme where they can learn about climate science and solutions then collaborate on new, climate-related material to share these messages far and wide.
John Marshall, CEO of Potential Energy Coalition, agrees comedy is essential for getting past the ‘problem’ of communicating about climate change. In the podcast How to talk about climate change so people will listen, he describes climate change as having a “marketing problem”, arguing that the language around climate change, and even climate action, often falls short. “No one wants to actively get to zero,” he says in an eye-watering takedown of the term ‘net-zero’, “and what is the ‘net’ doing there?”
The answer, for Marshall and many others, is “humour and human connection” to frame things in a different way. It seems that comedy, in all its guises, could be just the thing that people need to leave despair behind and start taking action.
All of the resources mentioned in this blog – and many more – can be found on the Climate Communications Resources Hub, a collaborative initiative led by Small World Stories to help everyone communicate more effectively about the climate crisis and its solutions.