Given the onslaught of extreme weather events in the last year, many would say that climate change is no laughing matter. But two academics say otherwise.
Beth Osnes is a professor of theatre and performance studies at the University of Colorado, and in her research, she has noticed that humour influences decision-making and societal change.
So she teamed up with Max Boykoff, a professor in environmental studies at the university, to concoct a social experiment that meshed climate communication and comedy.
“What we seek to do through our research is to understand under what circumstances [we can] increase the ways in which people are finding pathways to talk about climate change and from there, inspiring greater engagement in action,” said Boykoff.
It’s a critical inquiry at a time when relatively few people seem to be talking about climate. According to a study done by Yale University and George Mason University, less than 40 per cent of people in the U.S. are discussing global warming with others “often” or even “occasionally.”
Osnes and Boykoff hypothesized that climate comedy could be one fix.
They put their theory to the test in their creative climate communication course and the International Comedy & Climate Change Short Video Competition. They tasked students with developing comedy sketches around climate issues and solutions (as in the photo above). One video from 2021 is a satirical Christmas commercial from fossil fuel giant Exxon that notes “this holiday season … we’re spreading massive disinformation — talk about gaslighting!”
“[The students] are not making light of the issue of climate change, but they’re bringing light to this issue and I think that’s the thing that they carry through this experience,” said Osnes. She stressed that comedy helps us “find what unites us above what divides us.”
She and Boykoff say it starts with meeting people where they are. New York-based standup comedian Chuck Nice knows this well.
“Climate is an issue that affects everyone in some way,” he said. “The first thing I say is, don’t talk to people in New York about polar bears because they don’t care … but they may be thinking about environmental justice, they may be thinking about energy costs [and] they may be thinking about jobs.”