No laughing matter? Using comedy in climate change communication

Written by Marketa Benisek - September 26, 2022

Last year, before joining Wholegrain, I began a Master’s degree in sustainable development, which I am proud to say I have just completed! When choosing a topic for my dissertation, I wanted to explore new ways to engage more people in the sustainability conversation. Despite the many options that we already have to mitigate climate change, the biggest challenge is getting people to change their behaviour. This led me to think, is there a tool that we could use to increase public awareness and understanding of climate change? 

Inspired by the record-breaking movie, Don’t Look Up, and political satire that addresses many topics, regardless of complexity, I wanted to understand whether humour could be used as a communication tool in climate change messaging. I explored whether we could use comedy to help communicate climate science to wider audiences and influence their actions. Well, five months later, my research suggests that we can. But not everyone should. 

Image by Igor Kondenko, from a 2008 global cartoonist competition to depict climate change

The problem with climate change communication

Anyone who’s ever delivered a talk or written an article about climate change will agree on one thing – talking about climate change is really hard. Getting people engaged and interested in something that could potentially change the future of many species is not easy. Especially if you need to discuss some facts with younger audiences who haven’t caused these issues, and yet they are destined to deal with them in their lifetime. 

There could be many reasons why people don’t engage with this issue, but one of them is that climate change is still a very abstract problem to most people. If you are in the lucky position of not having experienced any of the consequences of the changing climate, what do you imagine when someone says ‘climate change’? Most people will imagine sad-looking polar bears and maybe a burning planet. That’s because these are the images they have come to associate with climate change. But these images don’t speak to the experiences of most people, and therefore won’t inspire them to take action.

Fear-based communication isn’t working 

To capture people’s attention, so far the overwhelming majority of climate messaging is negative in nature. This is because, naturally, scientists are worried about the long-lasting and irreversible effects of climate change. Also, anything that poses a threat to human existence is considered ‘newsworthy’ by the mainstream media. Consequently, we are used to reading about climate change with a catastrophic tone.

The biggest issue is that the vast majority of news articles do not tell us what to do about it. This is problematic because:

  1. Those who care about sustainability end up feeling overwhelmed, anxious and hopeless
  2. Those who care less are likely to simply switch off 
  3. Long-term exposure to fearful messaging makes it less effective over time, which is why fear-induced climate messages have become increasingly intense.

The empirically proven ineffectiveness of the current climate change communication has contributed to widespread mistrust of scientific evidence, scepticism and public disengagement from climate change debates. This is a major cause for concern since the global climate change mitigation targets are closely linked to voluntary decarbonisation and behaviour change at an individual level. Therefore, finding different, more effective ways to communicate climate change and sustainability to broader audiences is vital.

What made Don’t Look Up a success

Some of you may have watched the record-breaking movie about an allegory of climate change, Don’t Look Up. I bet that those of you who haven’t watched it, have at least heard about it. And that’s exactly what makes it so different. The fact that it was produced to make people laugh, made them want to watch it and discuss it with others. Although many aspects of the movie are controversial, it is the first big-budget movie about climate change and the difficulty of communicating the science to the general public that has reached wider audiences. In fact, it broke the record of viewership on Netflix in the first week and, may I add, during Christmas! Think about this for a second. If it was a regular two-hour documentary about climate change, hardly anyone would watch it. And certainly not during the holidays. 

Comedy as climate activism

Humour is a unique – and rather unusual – communication tool that breaks all sorts of barriers. It has the power to reduce the pressure of difficult topics, to emotionally engage people, and to get them to think critically about topics that they may otherwise ignore. When we apply humour to climate change – which is inherently linked to sustainability – we can make the topic more approachable and digestible. 

“Every joke is a tiny revolution.”

George Orwell

If comedy is important for engaging audiences, then it’s doubly so for communicators. If your position involves engaging people with the hard-to-digest facts of climate change, then using humour in your communication works as a form of climate activism, which may activate action in those who may struggle to relate to existing approaches. 

But what’s funny about climate change?

Well, the short answer is nothing, as pointed out in this TED video, where 17 famous comedians tried to answer the question, “Can climate change be funny?’ Although they were able to deliver their answers with the lighter tone we associate with them, the resounding answer was, unsurprisingly, “No”. We cannot make fun of the science we’re communicating if we want people to truly understand the importance of the issue and of taking action.

The key role of using humour, as demonstrated by these comedians, is to highlight the absurdity of our collective inaction despite the increasing urgency of the situation, not to make fun of the actual scientific facts.

Let’s try using comedy… with caution

The potential of using humour as a climate communication tool does not mean that we should all start joking around. It is totally reasonable (and expected) to receive scientific facts from official sources, like IPCC or the UNEP.

Humour as a communication tool is most fitting for individual climate communicators who know their audiences well and can tailor their messaging accordingly. However, it’s important to understand that humour is culturally specific and, therefore, a ‘one-joke-fits-all’ approach will not work. Rather than trying to be funny and potentially causing offence, organisations should collaborate with professionals and test different approaches to find what works best for them. 

Despite its potential, using humour has its downsides. If we are not careful, there is a risk that we could create the perception that climate change is less serious than previously portrayed in the news and people may discount messages as pure entertainment.

That said, we have seen that catastrophic messaging is not an effective way to communicate climate science, so it’s got to be worth a try. What do you think? Have you had any success trying a lighter approach in your climate change communications? We’d love to hear from you!