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Comedy4ClimateChange - How do we create new narratives around solving climate change through humor and comedy?


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Summary

A scientific, evidence-based approach to tackling climate change has not been understood or taken seriously for decades in as far as individual behaviour changes are concerned. It's becoming increasingly understood that doomsday scenarios and negative language surrounding the discussion of climate change are alienating people and distancing them from the issue.

As with other major issues that are hard for people to swallow or compute, even if they are more tailored to local and individual actions for clear solutions, climate change experts are realizing that new narratives are needed to broach this topic. Although climate change is no laughing matter, the use of comedy, humor and satire has been undervalued and tested as a method of connecting people to this issue.

The rare attempts to host climate change comedy events to "stand-up" for climate change have not stood up to the test of making people think and draw wider audiences in to become a true catalyst for change. Some have said that climate change is too serious for humour, yet people joke all around the world every day about death, cancer and even suicide. Climate change can  be seen as too boring yet there are jokes in the 550-page joke-book Man Walks into a Bar about accountancy.

Comedian Marcus Bridgestone once noted “It's far and away the most difficult comedy subject I've ever dealt with”. Yet it’s beginning to happen - there is more evidence that people are beginning to create new narratives around climate change through humor and laughter. 

Using ClimateCoLab's grant we propose to undertake three components:


  1. Build and develop an online platform to house climate comedy-related resources that public figures and members of the public will contribute to.
  2. Encourage new climate change comedy content across a range of medias and platforms
  3. Host two climate change events - a professional comedian roundtable on climate change and a comedy event at a leading global climate change conference.


What actions do you propose?

Introduction

Climate change is often framed and simplified as an environmental problem yet it is the true product of a broken socio-economic system and a modern way of living that the earth is struggling to support.

Presented as a heavy topic with heavy language to describe it, people are failing to resonate with an issue that affects us all. This is particularly true of people in developing countries, who are worst-hit by the effects of climate change.

In a recent essay called “A Climatologist Walks into a Bar…,” Robert Butler observes despairingly that Man Walks into a Bar, the self-proclaimed “biggest joke book in the world,” contains among its 6,000 entries not a single joke about the environment or environmentalists, about climate change or biodiversity loss or even about the planet itself. (See ClimateBites).

As humans struggle to understand and pull together to battle very real but existential threats, as we try to bury our own man-made fear and guilt about “what have we done?” and tackle the “great grief” that is climate change, there are new opportunities to discuss our relationship with the natural world.

This should be an exciting time for humanity – we’re about to change a whole system that prized the destruction of the climate for man's convenience. Fixing it, and our behavioral norms, will be our greatest achievement. But we need to accept ourselves first, and that includes being able to laugh at ourselves. As Oscar Wilde said, “Life is too important to take seriously.”

As we move to a more positive approach to dealing with climate change, humour and comedy will provide an important bridge between understanding and tackling it. Comedy and humor is integral to the new narratives needed to solve climate change.

Comedy and Climate Change

Comedy in this sense is not just about laughs but rather about putting a lens back on ourselves and how we view and understand the world. Great comedy has used satire to portray persons or social institutions as ridiculous (there are already online examples of the pushback against petrodollar propaganda that could be supported and brought into one site). It can make the audience question the object of their humor or ridicule, or completely alienate them from it. Parody subverts popular genres and forms, critiquing those forms without necessarily condemning them.

There is beginning to be a small community of academics who have noticed this lack of humour in dealing with climate change and comedy.  See Branch, 2014 and Walker, 2014 for early discussions on creating comedic engagement with climate change as part of changing narratives. This is also being seen in print and through visual media. 

Visual Comedy

One of the most powerful forms that we want to promote is visual communication of climate change through comedy. For some emerging pieces of visual comedy, see Will Ferrall’s imitation of George Bush https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jOjfxEejS2Y discussing the “global warmings”. Its killer lines and well thought out script make this one of the most watched videos on climate change comedy on the internet, with almost three million hits. As parody-Bush says, “I think the polar ice caps suck, who cares about having a place where a bunch of penguins can have an orgy?” While you'd struggle to find people who say that “ice caps suck”, the fact that this piece came out when President George W. Bush's approval ratings were fast melting and was so well received shows that some people wished to distance their belief systems from his, and were looking for online outlets to strengthen their resolve.

Great lines and leading actors can help, especially as oil companies employ celebrities such as hip hop artists to promote their cause for carbon. But screwball comedy, such as Eddsworld’s climate change piece https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uvqU_L5PZtk on overusing household electronics, somehow ends with a tsunami engulfing the house. It’s overstated cartoon comedy, but funny. The characters shout, “Holy hotdog in a toaster, it’s a giant wave!” They then order a pizza and unplug the TV before these do-or-die activities lead to the wave’s great retreat. It's an example of simple comedy that pushes an issue to the extreme, but breaks a complex issue down and leaves you chuckling, and thinking. 

Great parodies of government attitudes towards climate change are espoused by stand-up comedy double act Alexander Armstrong and Ben Miller. Their piece, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQlHaGhYoF0, “Whatever happened to global warming, eh?” creates dramatic irony out of great science and a common household situation. The humor – delivered in the tone of a government infomercial - builds to a punchline of, “You have until September the 30th to learn the difference between climate; a long term trend averaged over many years and weather; which is what goes on outside the window right now”. This 58 second clip is extremely powerful and funny. 

Art and Literature

A great example of art for advocacy and climate change communication is Joel Pett, an American Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist. His piece that appeared in USA Today around the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference of Parties involves an imaginary participant crying out, “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?” as a presenter stands at a lectern behind a screen bearing the words 'green jobs', energy independence and rainforests. This cartoon, which had a dramatic impact on Pett’s career, took on a life of its own, and showed a thirst for more art like this. “It's had a crazy existence like nothing else I've ever done,” Pett said.

In terms of literature, Michael P. Branch’s Are You Serious? A Modest Proposal for Environmental Humor within the The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism asks with great mirth “how many ecocritics does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Ten tongue in cheek answers are given – with number 5 being “One….. to hold the ladder and thus feel complicit, causing a sense of guilt that the lightbulb’s contribution to global warming will ultimately result in a polar bear stranded helplessly on one of those really small chunks of floating ice”.

Whereas Donald Hine’s description of being an editor for a serious online journal called The Dark Mountain Project - a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories civilisation tells itself and assumes that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unraveling – say that love stories set against the background of international negotiations or science fiction futures set among the ruins of civilization resonated poorly. Could we do better with literature with comedic overtures? We’re not really sure – but let’s try.

Implications for Attitude Change

The selected visual, literature and art comedy examples demonstrate that climate change comedy is already making people think and react. It is already a vehicle for changing general attitudes and widespread beliefs across mainstream platforms, and if boosted, could speed up the process of getting people to get to grips with the problem. It’s also important to see if we can get more people to speak about comedy and climate change. The inclusion of Hannah McNeish, a freelance journalist who used to formulate and sell comedy shows for U.K and U.S broadcasters, within our team can help to widen the narratives and bring attention to the topic through media platforms.

Comedy4Climate Change Activities

Our three components aim to be mutually reinforcing and to open up this new narrative around what role comedy and laughter can play as the world transitions and adapts to climate change.

Component 1

We propose building the first online climate change comedy portal in the world. This would include a collection of cartoon and art-related comedy that is both thought-provoking, stimulating and hopefully gives people a chuckle. It would include climate change videos that have been produced for television and within movies (embedding YouTube and Vimeo content within this platform). We would curate climate-related comedy for 18 months and then find a more sustainable home for the website to exist or be maintained with additional financing. (Lead by Rowan – Climate Change Communications Expert and Brian – Climate Change Adaptation Practitioner)

Component 2

The platform would allow for new content to be uploaded using a variety of methods, and be voted up or down, according to popularity. We are currently investigating whether Periscope and its latest On Air feature is the best way to attract more climate change comedy content, especially from young people. (Lead by all the team)

Component 3

We will host two climate change comedy events and develop our own climate change content

We plan to bring together a collection of professional comedians to discuss climate change comedy and unlock what they believe to be the secrets of finding nuance and laughter within this topic. This event would be recorded and edited for the webpage and distribution. (Lead by Hannah McNeish – Journalist)

We are interested in generating content and are currently investigating the creation of a Borat-esque character who goes around asking people about the awkwardness of climate change in a humorous, at times cringeworthy manner. This has been inspired by Dr Prostate Czech (See Here)  (Lead by all the team)

Secondly, we will carry out a climate change comedy event at an international climate change meeting. This could include the UNFCCC's COP 22 in Marrakech, 2016. We would expect this to get a significant amount of media attention and would provide press releases and use new media platforms around the event. (Lead by Brian Harding and Hannah McNeish)

Conclusion

As Sharman Apt Russell, in discussing climate change and humor puts it “I believe that humor is redemptive. Humor takes us outside our selves, outside our agenda and limited view. Remember a moment of laughing with friends? How the ego fell away, the purity of that moment?" 

Historically, Greeks and Romans confined their use of the word "comedy" to descriptions of stage-plays with happy endings. We hope that climate change comedy would help lead to a pathway toward that ending of a happier healthy planet and people.

 

 


Who will take these actions?

There are a number of key actors that we would target

Audience – by creating an English language platform for climate change comedy, we would be looking to attract multiple online communities – environmental, comedy, young people etc.

Financial Sustainability – with the establishment of the platform we would reach out to other networks that we presently hold – including international climate change donors (e.g UK and other European governments), partners including Climate, Development, Knowledge Network (CDKN), International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), UNEP, the BBC, Earth Journalism Network and private sector contacts. This would ensure a more sustainable financial pathway for the platform.

UNFCCC Attendees – No side event on climate change comedy has ever been held at a UNFCCC Conference of Parties. We believe that we can have the first, but not the last laugh at an important event where attendees would appreciate some time away from large policy and power plays at an event that humanises the topic and where the point does not get lost.

Youth – We are keen on getting new content generated and would encourage young people from around the world to submit 30 second to one minute pieces on what they find funny around climate change. The platform should primarily allow for people to participate and share content and we would identify a number of short GIFs that would be shared worldwide via social media. 


Where will these actions be taken?

The team is based around the world - but we will target the English speaking world in developed and developing countries. 

For Component 3 - some of this content would be produced in Kenya and the 2016 Conference of Parties will be held in Marrakech, Morocco. 


How will these actions have a high impact in addressing climate change?

We predict that there will be a lot of hot air - OK, that’s a [bad] joke. Our project will contribute to the debate around climate change adaptation – any change in the system to human induced climate change. It will use comedy to dispel the conflict, tension and stress around this debate and draw people in to an awkward and personal topic that can be immense and alienating. It is a new narrative and part of the broader discussions that are happening around climate change justice and climate change psychology. As part of such new narratives, our project challenges the idea that climate change is too serious a topic to laugh at. It also provides a lighter and more mainstream vehicle to criticize, parody and mock the lip service denials and ignorance that need to be broken down in order to start tackling it. 


What are other key benefits?

A great laugh and a greater understanding about climate change, which is a topic that affects us all but few people truly understand, either through a failure to grasp what's really at stake or an imposed ignorance of a topic many consider too “end of the world” or nihilistic to engage with. Comedy is a perfect vehicle for breaking down these barriers. It is often used when confronting a topic head on, or even broaching it, is too painful, or too obscure or complex, and when creativity and light relief is needed to mend bridges and solve problems. We are sure that this project would bring people together to put their brains together and start thinking about scripts, sketches, videos and art that will make people laugh and think and want to join the fun and the movement.

 


What are the proposal’s costs?

Estimated Economic Costs are as follows

Component 1. $4000

Component 2 $2000

Component 3 $4000

Negative Side Effects of the Project

Understanding the communications side of climate change, all the proposers recognise that some constituents are not yet ready to be "joking" about climate change or finding the humor in such a serious problem. We recognize and hear these people's concerns - but we also started off in the same place and have now come to this realisation ourselves that new narratives are needed. 


Time line

We propose a 2 year timeline, but we believe that by the first quarter of 2017 we can mobilise new and additional financing for this idea to make it more sustainable or embed it within other platforms. 

Beyond 5 years we believe that the portal and the journey that we go on in promoting climate change comedy can contribute to the broader narratives of promoting new dialogue around tackling climate change. 


Related proposals

We would be interested to work with the winner of the climate change adaptation proposal competition. 


References

Branch, M. P.  "Are You Serious? A Modest Proposal for Environmental Humor" The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism asks with great mirth “how many ecocritics does it take to screw in a light bulb?” 

ClimateBites - A climatologist walks into a bar. . (See http://www.climatebites.org/climate-communication-humor-and-cartoons/165-a_climatologist_walks_into_a_bar) Accessed 21st May, 2016

Guardian, 2008. Can you joke about climate change? by Leo Hickman (See here )

Guardian, 2008. Climate Change: You're Having a Laugh by Marcus Bridgestone (See Here )

Hines, 2015. The Shield of Perseus: Writing in the face of climate change (See Here)

Sharman Apt Russell The Lighter Side of Global Warming ... (Blog See  https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/1122224-sharman-apt-russell-the-lighter-side-of-global-warming) Accessed 21st May, 2016