Comedy may be able to make inroads with audiences in ways that ‘serious journalism’ often cannot. With an issue as serious as climate science suggests, communicators should not shy from taking the risks of injecting humor as appropriate.
Last week, Colorado-based science journalist Michelle Nijhuis lamented the standard environmental news story. She wrote:
“Environmental journalists often feel married to the tragic narrative. Pollution, extinction, invasion: The stories are endless, and endlessly the same. Our editors see the pattern and bury us in the back pages; our readers see it and abandon us on the subway or in the dentist’s office.”
A welcome exception to this rule, Nijhuis noted, was New Yorker writer Ian Frazier, who has injected humor into the many environmentally themed nonfiction pieces he’s penned over the years.
This might also be the key to the success of Carl Hiaasen‘s best-selling novels. There is nothing new about the sleazy politics and environmental destruction that are regular themes of his books. But it gets digested through wickedly funny scenes and lampooned characters. There are no sacred cows, either. Tree huggers and traditional eco-villains get equally caricatured.
Writers have had a harder time using humor to communicate global warming. In the non-fiction universe, there are no Ian Fraziers tackling the issue in a quirky, sideways manner. Journalists in mainstream media treat the topic somberly and dutifully. Exhaustion may be setting in for some. Recently NPR’s Robert Krulwich wrote:
“I got a call the other day from some producer I very much admire. They wanted to talk about a series next year on global warming and I thought, why does this subject make me instantly tired? Global warming is important, yes; controversial, certainly; complicated (OK by me); but somehow, even broaching this subject makes me feel like someone’s putting heavy stones in my head.”
But if reporters are getting jaded, TV writers and comedians are eagerly joining the fray. Recent satirical novels by acclaimed writers, such as Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan have also tackled climate change.
Whether any of these pop culture and high-minded literary endeavors is influencing attitudes is impossible to know. Still, some climate communicators see humor as their best chance to make climate issues resonate with the public at large, though the tact can be a double-edged sword, as one climate campaigner notes:
“Humor’s capacity for radical imagination creates a mental space for potential change but also comes with a loss of control as it breaks taboos and turns the order of reality upside down and inside out. Indeed, because of this ability to destabilize the established order, George Orwell stated that every joke is a tiny revolution. It denudes power of its authority, which is true of those that we oppose but also those that we cherish. Using humor to communicate on climate change means that scientists and environmentalists lose the monopoly on framing climate change and even risk becoming the butt of the joke. However uncomfortable, this may be necessary if we truly want the public at large to take ownership of the issue.”
That some attempts at humor can backfire has already been demonstrated. But if the stakes are as high as climate science suggests, then that’s a risk climate communicators should not be afraid to take.