Jokes are a surprisingly effective way to talk about climate change
A new study analyzed the power of humor in engaging the public on important issues
by Sophie Yeo
Banner photo: Environmental activists hold a demonstration in the center of Copenhagen in Denmark as world leaders arrive for a climate summit. Getty Images.
Matt Winning isn’t an ordinary comedian. He is an environmental economist — he lectures at University College London — but he also writes and performs shows about climate change. His comedy routines have caused audiences to break down in tears. Critics love him.
Winning’s latest show is called “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It,” which he performed at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland last year. Despite his academic background, and despite the seriousness of the topic, he believes that comedy is the best way to reach out to a large number of people and prompt action when it comes to climate change.
“It elevates the topic,” he says. “There’s a lot of comedy in my show, but occasionally there’s a parcel where I make more serious points, and I think that’s what life is: highs and lows, humorous and dark at the same time. That’s actually how you can talk meaningfully about this topic.”
As climate change gets worse, and the news cycle becomes increasingly dominated by stories of wildfires and melting ice, the decline of nature and increasingly hot temperatures, it may be difficult to trust that levity is an appropriate way to respond to the crisis. Certainly, Greta Thunberg has not become the spokesperson of her generation because of her wisecracks.
Yet, there is a growing body of research to suggest that comedy is actually an effective way to ensure that people engage with climate change. Moreover, academics have found that good-natured comedy, rather than the more downbeat and indignant category of satire, may be the best way to make audiences care about the issue.
While this may be unexpected, it certainly isn’t new. Playwrights have been using comedy to address serious topics for millennia, says Beth Osnes, professor of theatre at the University of Colorado Boulder, who is studying the potential of comedy to communicate climate change.
“One of the most famous Greek plays is Lysistrata, in which there was a sex strike to stop the Peloponnesian War. There was nothing funny about the Peloponnesian War,” says Osnes. “Comedy is not something that makes things ridiculous — comedy has a long history of taking on very serious corruption and things like that.”
Rather than just theorizing about the role that comedy might play in communicating climate change, Osnes has helped establish a stand-up comedy course for students, most of whom were majoring in Environmental Studies and who had found themselves depressed by their course of study. The event is called “Drawdown, Act Up!,” and is part of a wider university program called “Inside The Greenhouse,” which explores creative ways to talk about climate change.
Following the performances, which took place at Rocky Mountain National Park, Osnes and her colleagues surveyed the students about their experiences and published the results in the journal Comedy Studies. They found that 90 percent of students felt more hopeful about climate change when engaging with the subject in a fun or joyful manner, and that 83 percent felt that their commitment to climate change action was consequently more sustainable.
By giving students a positive outlet for their emotions and making conversation around climate change an enjoyable experience, Osnes hopes that young activists are more likely to stay engaged with the topic, rather than failing to deal with their negative emotions and ultimately burning out.
“We found that it really helps young people process negative emotions around climate change,” Osnes observes. “What can help sustain commitment to climate action is the infusion of fun into the process of engagement. If we’re doing something that matches our values and aligns with our passions and it’s fun, the likelihood that we’re going to come back again and again is very high.”
A crucial part of this experiment was that the comedy was explicitly good-natured, rather than satirical in nature — in other words, the humor arises from techniques like word play, innuendo and exaggeration, rather than a pointed attack intended to shame or expose a target. This finding was echoed in another recent study by Chris Skurka, an assistant professor in media studies at Penn State University.
Skurka carried out his study by editing a clip of Jimmy Kimmel discussing climate change and Sarah Palin in four ways: one kept only the informational content, another kept only the humor, one kept only the indignation, and one — the satirical version, and the one which was closest to the original — which kept both the humor and the indignation. While Skarka started his research expecting that satire would be an effective means to communicate climate change humorously without undermining the seriousness of the topic, he actually found that the satirical version was the least effective of the four clips.
“What we suspect might be going on is that it is possible for Kimmel to use humor to talk about climate change, but when he also expresses contempt or hostility, he may inadvertently come off as abrasive. If he’s just humorous about the issue, he may be able to spark young people’s interest,” says Skurka.
He also discovered that Republicans were less likely to be amused by Kimmel’s mockery of Sarah Palin than Democrats, providing evidence of what most people already know from personal experience: that comedy is funny until you become the butt of the joke. More surprising was that the gap between political parties shrank during the humor-free segment. “It is possible for late-night comedians to talk about climate change and even promote Republicans’ perception of climate change risk — so long as they skip jokes targeting climate deniers and/or big corporations along the way,” the paper concludes.
In other words, jokes about climate change can be funny. But for the most laughs and the widest impact, the Jimmy Kimmels of this world must crack the right jokes to the right people.