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A satirical approach to engaging mainstream millennial audiences on the anthropogenic causes of climate change.



Let's admit it. We in the climate change "bubble" are very somber folk, and our communications style tends to follow suit. In the grand scheme of things very few people care about glaciers, and the idea of drowning baby polar bears makes even the most sympathetic target audience want to curl up in a ball. Moreover, when it comes to talking about the science, we're guilty of taking people “too deep” into the murk. The public, even people interested in climate change, just won’t hold their breath long enough for us to finish our long-winded and overly technical talking points. And so they don’t come on the journey with us. This is a key challenge we need to overcome if we are to reach new publics and expand our base of climate advocates.

The digital team at took a serious look at this and set up discussion sessions with youth, creatives and cultural influencers to examine just HOW we could tackle the challenge of communicating to a broader audience about climate change and its anthropogenic causes. To capture the attention of the youth audience, it was clear that most of the approaches previously taken to reach this audience would not cut it. Thus was born the concept of a mock campaign --

One of the key problems identified in our focus group was the lack of a clear adversary. In most every other cause sector there is a "bad guy" -- cancer, totalitarian dictators, bullies, racists, Kony, etc. In our case we have the humble carbon dioxide molecule (and a cast of other equally uninteresting molecular characters -- CH4, NOx, CFC's, etc). Even the most imaginative of folks cannot picture these molecular adversaries, much less get excited about fighting them. 

Of course, we do have a very real adversary -- the fossil fuel industry and the millions they spend to secure policy quagmires in the halls of power, as has been well documented particularly in the US (see References).


Category of the action

Changing public perceptions on climate change

What actions do you propose?

As soon as it was revealed to our test group of young people that climate change was not occurring because of a lack of technological solutions, but rather because of entrenched corporate special interests -- namely the coal, oil & gas lobbies -- people got riled up. This was a good sign.

But what to do with this important piece of information? One approach would be to develop campaign materials on the subject... a sensible approach. But we have to keep in mind that only a very small percentage of the population are actively engaged NGO advocates. Most of the other 150 million Americans who are "concerned" or "extremely concerned" about climate change in the US (See "Six Americas" study below) will not respond to overt calls for political action or protest. They need to be enticed and entertained if we are to capture their attention and their imagination. At that point, we can invite them to further degrees of engagement, but not until they have been given an accessible entry point to the daunting topic of anthropogenic climate change. 

That is the goal of the mock campaign and video "Stop Breathing" -- the fossil fuel industry's answer to solving climate change. A preliminary script (currently in draft form) presents a "Funny or Die" style skit centering around a press conference in which representatives from fictitious fossil fuel companies unveil their bold plan to reduce carbon emissions by forcing individuals to comply with an absurd request to reduce their respiration rate. 

Though pure satire, this video and the mock website that accompanies it, would serve to establish some very real and important points about climate change and its anthropogenic causes:

* It establishes the difference between the natural carbon cycle and additional emissions generated by the power sector. Humans exhale about 1.7 billion tons of CO2 per year versus 34.2 billion tons by coal, oil & gas (see Ecofys 2010 GHG study below), thus negating the popular climate skeptic talking point that CO2 is "natural."

* Without naming any names, it establishes an "adversary" -- the fossil fuel industry -- which would rather see the little guy make personal sacrifices (e.g. breathing less) than use its own massive capital to transition to cleaner, safer alternatives like solar and wind power.

* It establishes de facto that climate change is occurring primarily as a result of the carbon pollution associated with the combustion of fossil fuels. This is extremely important. A recent Pew poll shows that in the US for example, while 69% of the public believes in climate change, only 42% think it’s human-caused (see References below). This 27% gap is a major reason why there is not more political engagement on climate change. To close this gap we must think outside of the box.

The dialectic approach -- arming individuals with loads of great facts and figures, reports and resources (though useful for "inside the climate bubble" communicators) will only have a limited effect in swaying the 27%. Per the discussion on target audience below, the broader "prospector" public will be much more inclined to accept the truth that fossil fuels are primarily to blame for accelerating climate change if this message is carried by trusted people and influencers they respect. Trusted people and influencers are not very likely to promote a wonky, factual thought piece on climate change, but they would be likely to share a hilarious video that addresses the subject through satire, thus giving an entirely new audience exposure to the truth of human-caused global warming.

* Lastly it offers a pathway for people who want tangible ways they can make a difference in the battle to stop runaway climate change. After watching the video a link would drive to the mock website called where people could upload pictures via Tumblr of themselves holding their breath. This is a "light engagement" tactic designed to drive people to a secondary, "real" climate microsite (currently under development as a separate initiative by where individuals are offered ways they can take action to make a difference -- voting with their dollars, reducing their footprints, helping fund solutions, joining NGO climate campaigns, and getting politically involved. A/B testing would allows us to compare the number of conversions to action via the light engagement tactic vs. a direct call-to-action, an important piece of learning we need to acquire if we are to understand how best to grow our base of advocates.

Who will take these actions?

The video and associated mock campaign would be distributed through an array of social media channels and influencer networks, targeting a younger audience (16-30) in both English and Spanish languages.

One question that was raised relates to the target audience and how we might be able to convince people who are not already convinced that climate change is human-caused.

This project will target younger "prospectors" to use the term coined by Chris Rose in his work on climate campaigning in the UK (see References below). These are more outwardly-focused individuals who form opinions not so much through a process of argument and fact (the approach most of us, the more inwardly-directed "pioneers", would prefer) but through social agency. In other words, WHO and HOW the message is delivered are more important for these individuals, than the nitty gritty scientific details.

For younger prospectors, Comedians hold an esteemed place in society. They are the "truth tellers." Yes, they're funny. But they're funny precisely because they have found a way to talk about real life in a personal, human way. Jeffrey Jones' assessment of the role of satire in the US political sphere shows that comedic programming (e.g. Colbert Report, The Daily Show, etc.) increases both awareness and engagement on political issues (see References below) precisely because it offers an authoritative, whilst entertaining, alternative to major news networks, which are increasingly losing credibility among younger audiences. 

Applying the same approach, the StopBreathing concept offers a comedic access point for the public to engage on climate change. The video will be short (3-4 minutes) and funny, and with its absurd title we're confident based on previous ultra-low budget video experiments (see "Weather Girl Goes Rogue" video below) we can drive a large amount of traffic to both the video and the ancillary campaign site. 

Where will these actions be taken?

This is an international campaign and will be conducted primarily online via social networks -- Facebook, Twitter & Youtube -- and key web and mobile media channels.

How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?

What are other key benefits?

Though the initiative described could result in some direct mitigative outcomes through personal lifestyle changes, its primary purpose is to create "buzz" around the subject of climate change, which in recent polls still generally places at the bottom of a typical voter's list of concerns (in the US). Through the medium of satire, we can move the conversation from the wonk blogs to the mainstream, while pointing out the absurdity of the situation -- where entrenched fossil fuel interests are working against the public interest on the most pressing issue of our day. And by providing a bridge to a real "entry point" climate call-to-action website, we can offer a way for those individuals whose curiosity has been piqued by the video, to find a host of ways they can make a difference. 

What are the proposal’s costs?

Estimated production costs for the video and microsite are approximately $50,000.

Time line

Pre-production Video: 6 weeks

Video Filming & Editing: 4 weeks

Post-production and microsite: 2 weeks

Promotion Window: 4 weeks

Related proposals

I might be misusing this section here, but I wanted to include a few references to related projects we have undertaken but that were not submitted to the Climate CoLab. 

TckTckTck has led several innovative projects on climate change. Last year we ran the 'Date with History' video contest (see below) where young people competed from around the world to speak at the UN summit in Rio. The contest was promoted by our NGO network as well as several important influencers including Leonardo DiCaprio and Linkin Park, who helped us gain over 44 million social media impressions and large scale coverage in major media outlets. 

This year we are using a similar model to launch a new website/video project called 'Now Is Our Moment' which offers an entry point for the broader public on the challenge of climate change and how we can all make a difference, personally and politically. This website could be linked to as mentioned above.


  • "The Climate Denier Caucus," ThinkProgress
  • Global Warming's Six Americas, September 2012, Leiserowitz et al
  • "2010 World GHG Emissions Flow Chart" Ecofys, 2013
  • Continuing Partisan Divide in Views on Global Warming, Pew Research Center
  • Research into Motovating Prospectors... Chris Rose et al.
  • Entertaining Politics, Jeffrey Jones (2nd edition)
  • Weather Girl Goes Rogue, Heather Libby et al.
  • TckTckTck main website and the 'Date with History' contest site