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A young girl grins as she points her finger at her dad. Both are wearing scientists' lab coats in a lab setting.
Comedian Chuck Nice and his daughter crack jokes in a video about a serious topic: climate change. Inside the Greenhouse/University of Colorado-Boulder

Climate comedy works − here’s why, and how it can help lighten up a politically heavy year in 2024

In a catchy YouTube video, British comedian Jo Brand translates a scientist’s long-winded description of the fossil fuel industry’s role in the climate crisis this way: “We are paying a bunch of rich dudes 1 trillion dollars a year to f--- up our future,” she says. “Even the dinosaurs didn’t subsidize their own extinction. Who’s the stupid species now?”

Although there is nothing funny about the subject, the way she says it is funny.

She speaks truth to power. She relieves the heaviness of the rhetoric. And she’s dropping f- and s-bombs with a British accent. At the start of the video, Brand comments, “If people like me have to get involved, you know we’re in deep s---”.

We all need some refreshing levity nowadays – especially this year.

Around the world, voters will be choosing national leaders in countries representing nearly half the human population. In many cities, states and counties, those decisions will directly affect how the world deals with climate change. Outcomes, including from another U.S. presidential race with Donald Trump vowing to promote fossil fuels and undermine climate policies and democracy itself, will reverberate across the planet. That’s heavy.

At the same time, the planet just came off its warmest year on record in 2023, and ocean temperatures are still abnormally high. Heavier yet, the 10 hottest years since record-keeping began have all occurred in the past decade.

Not only does the world need to cool down, it also needs to lighten up. As professors who study climate comedy, we can tell you that the need for levity is one reason climate comedy works.

Lightening up to engage with tough stuff

For many generations, comedy has been an effective pathway to not only lighten things up but to propose unlikely solutions.

In ancient Greece, comic playwright Aristophanes took on the crisis of his times – the Peloponnesian War – with a comedy in which women from both sides of the conflict enact a sex strike until their men agree to a peace treaty. As you can imagine, sexual innuendo abounds.

Brand, the British comedian, teamed up with climate scientist Mark Maslin to find novel ways to communicate effectively about the climate crisis. In a video, they effectively communicate together about climate change causes and consequences. Humorously drawing out their contrasting communication styles, they find the funny as Brand pops up with observations like, “If you liked climate crisis, you’re going to love climate complete f---ing collapse.”

British comedian Jo Brand and scientist Mark Maslin play off each other to educate the public about climate change.

Their mix of clever timing, absurdity, scatology and full commitment to each of their roles as scientist and comedian gave their climate comedy traction, with over 3 million views.

In South Africa, the group Politically Aweh has been producing creative content about climate change and other connected issues in the run-up to their general election this year.

In one YouTube video, host Zipho Majova creatively compares our collective avoidance of dealing with climate change with avoiding our mothers’ texts. She then says, “You can’t ignore messages from mom forever. And by mom, I mean mother Earth!” The skilled editing of news media clips and popular TV shows woven into Zipho’s commentary makes this climate comedy take an effective one.

Political Aweh takes on ignorance of climate change.

In the U.S., creative collectives such as Climate Town in New York, Yellow Dot Studios in Los Angeles, the Center for Media and Social Impact in Washington, D.C., and our Inside the Greenhouse project in Boulder, Colorado, are working to alleviate climate anxiety and activate people to discuss climate change and do something about it.

With elements of exaggeration, innuendo, witty recognition of truths, suspense and ultimate honesty, climate comedy from groups like these and on late-night shows like John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” resonates.

Why climate comedy works

Comedy has the ability to transcend science-speak and open up conversations with new audiences while helping “keep it real” and identifying solutions.

It can also provide emotional relief as it lowers people’s defenses and allows them to find promise and possibility for envisioning positive change.

Comedians discuss climate change using comedy.

Through our research, we have found that comedy can help college students work through negative emotions associated with climate change. In one Earth Day show, a fashionista student at the University of Colorado-Boulder, craving a loophole for satisfying her clothing addiction, discovers thrifting, and comically quips, “Nothing says ‘I love Planet Earth’ more than wearing someone else’s clothes.”

Creative movies like “Don’t Look Up!” and TV shows like “Unstable,” starring Rob Lowe, comedically address themes such as climate change and science denial by making fun of some behaviors while bringing serious problems into everyday life. Lowe’s biotech billionaire character’s efforts to capture carbon from the atmosphere in cement got people talking about carbon capture and similar projects in real life.

Introducing ridiculous ideas into an otherwise logical world like comedians Chuck Nice – co-host of “StarTalk” with Neil deGrasse Tyson – and Kasha Patel each do can also get people laughing. So can imitation and playfulness with social inversions, which you’ll see from comedians Nicole Conlan, who writes for “The Daily Show,” and Rollie Williams.

Rollie Williams explains how your money is funding Big Oil behind your back.

Although some of the solutions put forth by comedians may seem ridiculous, history can tell us that such antics can draw attention and lead to change.

The Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. and the Hip Hop Caucus have teamed up with comedians for years to engage audiences on climate change. Their new documentary with comedian Wanda Sykes mixes in comedy while documenting the rising risks of sea-level rise in Norfolk, Virginia.

Comedy can run the risk of merely distracting people from the serious climate challenges before us or trivializing the problems. However, the transformative and subversive power of comedy as a vehicle for social, political, economic and cultural change is proving to be strong.

When unleashed into our collective consciousness, jokes can be healing contagion as they elicit laughter and open the mind. In that moment, rigidity is relaxed, the single solution is bifurcated, hypocrisy is exposed and delight intoxicates.

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