Steve Colbert

Climate change isn’t something you’d consider, well, funny.

But every now and again, a little gallows humor may come in handy … and may even lead to improved communications and public understanding.

There are lots of examples, including a newly fashioned “An Inconvenient Truth” newspaper comic strip first appearing July 24 and strategically timed to help promote the July 28 opening in some theaters of “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.”

Far from the mainstream print media, satirical periodicals and late-night TV hosts often hold sway on climate … with a comical twist. Take the satirical news site the Onion, with its recent intro to one story:

The Time To Act Is Now,’ Says Yellowing Climate Change Report Sitting In University Archive

BERKELEY, CA – Warning society that it has reached a crucial tipping point from which it may never be able to recover, a brittle, yellowing report sitting in the archives of the University of California’s Bioscience & Natural Resources Library reportedly urged readers Friday that “the time to act against climate change is right now.” …

People who make jokes for a living mine all kinds of subjects for inspiration, and some comedians have found humor in the steadfast rejection by some of climate change science, and in the verbal distortions people in power use to justify a do-nothing approach.

Oliver, Kimmel, Noah, Stewart, Colbert …

Late-night talk show hosts in many ways play an important role in shaping pop culture – or at least in shaping the jokes around office water-coolers or coffee pots the next day. Several have enthusiastically used their air time to inform their audiences about the basics of climate change.

Colbert interview with a Union of Concerned Scientists staffer and a climate science skeptical meteorologist.

Perhaps a “classic” in this case is a 2010 Stephen Colbert interview with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Barbara Ekwurzel, PhD, and a climate science skeptical meteorologist, Joe Bastardi. Prepare to laugh out-loud watching this one.

This spring, when President Trump announced he will move to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, John Oliver, on “Last Week Tonight,” blew off some steam after playing a clip from the President’s Rose Garden announcement. Trump ridiculed the enthusiasm he saw from people around the time the Paris agreement was signed in 2015. “They were so happy,” the President said, “for the simple reason that it put our country, the United States of America, which we all love, at a very, very big economic disadvantage.”

John Oliver hosts a ‘mathematically representative’ climate change debate (97 to 3 percent).

“What are you talking about?” an exacerbated Oliver cried. “They were happy because they secured a landmark victory for the future of the planet, you f-cking egomaniac. The whole world is not secretly conspiring against the United States.”

Oliver has also taken on people who deny underlying climate change science, in one stunt crowding his stage with three people opposing and 97 people supporting – and representing – the “consensus” perspective on climate science.

Trump, House Science Committee members in cross-hairs

In early May, Trevor Noah, host of “The Daily Show” reflected on how to get President Trump interested in climate change, going on to say his Mar-a-Lago property in Florida is in danger as sea levels rise. “You may not care about climate change,” Noah said in a half-serious appeal to President Trump. “But I know you care about winning, which is why you’re not going to let climate change kick your ass by flooding your winter wonderland. Come on President Trump, it’s time for you to stand up and tell the world: “Nobody sinks your properties but you.”

Back in 2014, when he was hosting “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart played clips of members of a U.S. House of Representatives science committee, ridiculing lawmakers with their own words.

In one segment, Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) grills then-White House Science Advisor John Holdren on why variations in the tilt of the Earth are not factored into climate modeling. Because, Holdren explained, those changes occur on intervals of 22,000 years, 44,000 years and 100,000 years. They’re not relevant to what’s been happening to the climate in the 20th and 21st centuries. Stewart, looking bewildered, whispers to an imaginary companion: “I didn’t know we’d be talking to an actual scientist.”

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Then Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) asks Holdren at what level CO2 becomes harmful to human beings. “BOOM!” Stewart says, “How can CO2 levels be dangerous, when I can still breathe?”

“Vice chairman Rohrabacher, I always enjoy my interactions with you,” Holdren said before the camera cuts back to Stewart saying: “Much in the way I enjoy playing peak-a-boo with a baby, or perhaps teasing a cat with a laser pointer.”

Later in the segment, Stewart, frustrated by Stockman’s seeming lack of basic knowledge, gives a little science lesson illustrating why melting sea ice doesn’t cause sea levels to rise, but melting land ice does – a lesson most elementary school kids can learn with a glass of water and some ice cubes. After the addition of the ice cubes to the brimming glass of ice water, Stewart wipes the desk top dry with a towel. His face lights up with an idea: “Wait a minute! Global warming, giant towels.”

… and, of course, ExxonMobil

On his CBS network “Late Show,” Stephen Colbert has made it clear why he thinks congressional action on climate change is unlikely. In a 2014 segment, Colbert noted how ExxonMobil had released a report to shareholders the same day as a dire forecast in a United Nations climate change study. Quoting the company’s report, Colbert said it “acknowledges the need to adopt policies to address climate change. But it concludes that … governments are ‘highly unlikely’ to adopt policies that cut emissions ….”

“And Exxon knows what they’re talking about,” Colbert continued, “because they contribute $20 million annually to the American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies against climate change legislation. You see, the government’s inaction increases Exxon’s share price. Exxon then uses that money to influence politicians. It’s a phenomenon called the ‘green House effect’ (flash picture of the Capitol dome awash in cash). Also the ‘green Senate effect.’ They spread it around.”

Colbert: Lobbyist’s money makes for ‘green House effect’ and ‘green Senate effect.’

Not all of the comedians’ environmental barbs aim solely at climate change, of course, at least not explicitly. In a recent monologue, Colbert spoofed the Trump administration for, in Colbert’s opinion, initially inflating the number of inaugural attendees and later under-stating the numbers involved in a controversial face-to-face meeting at Trump Tower involving top campaign staff and a Russian promising “dirt” on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. With the number of participants eventually acknowledged climbing to eight, Colbert cried out “That’s more than work at Trump’s EPA.”

Finding humor amidst ‘doom and gloom’: hard, not impossible

So, late-night comedians find humor in pointing out what they see as the absurdity of arguments built on denial or calculated dismissal of facts.

But it can be tougher for people who study climate change for a living and think about it all the time to find humor in the subject, says Aaron Sachs, an environmental historian at Cornell University. At a lecture this past spring, Sachs began by saying many environmentalists are at their core – how can I summarize his point? – “Debbie Downers.”

“What comes most naturally to us, to environmentalists, of course, is doom and gloom,” Sachs said. To Illustrate his point, he recited some book titles on environmental topics, and they’re not uplifting:

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization

Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change

Storms of my Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity

… And those are just a few. Certainly, climate change fatigue is a real phenomenon, and scholars and news organizations were talking about it as long as a decade ago. But …

“What would happen if we stepped back and approached climate change with a sense of humor?” Sachs said, offering some examples of attempts to deliver environmental messages with humor.

In a “Funny or Die” video, famous actors, now all seniors, face the camera and offer reasons they don’t care about climate change. Ed Asner, for example, says he’s more occupied with “stealing silverware and getting enough fiber …. My grandkids are spoiled anyway. They could use a little hardship.”

A lot of comedy is wrapped up in identity politics, and some of the best comedians turn the mirror on themselves. “Black comedians, Jewish comedians, working-class comedians, female comedians all tend to make fun of the group they identify with,” said Sachs. “Environmentalists, not so much. So people continue to make fun of them.”

The Onion has cracked plenty of jokes at the expense of environmentalists. In a farcical “Prius Solution” ad, people can lower their carbon footprint by getting into the Prius Solution, which then drives a stake through their heart. “When you’re dead, you can’t pollute!” the narrator exclaims.

“It’s an obvious joke, but let me spell it out,” Sachs said. “Environmentalists seem so hung-up on the abstract goal of saving the planet, that they come across essentially as anti-human. Which is kind of a turn-off if you happen to be human.”

So, how can environmentalists tell jokes instead of too often being the butt of jokes? “Climate change deals with spatial and temporal scales that we’re just not wired to comprehend,” Sachs said. “It’s hard no matter what you use. But, comedy can make the abstract concrete. What if we environmentalists tried making fun of other people?”

A funny video by Australian filmmaker John Nikolakopoulos poses as a corporate PR ad for an “Australian Coal Mining Company,” featuring fake executive testimonials, accompanied by typically bland corporate motivational music. The basic message: how the company has reconciled two contradictory positions – on the one hand, “to act on our responsibility to humanity,” and on the other, “to deliver on our commitment to superior value for our shareholders.”

“We needed to take a leap of faith … an intuitive step outside of the limitations of science-based argument,” the mythical executives say.

The mythical CEO: “I am proud to announce the company’s new policy of F-ck You. … F-ck You is more than a policy. It’s a philosophy where we are able to straddle the dichotomy between what we know is true and how we can benefit by ignoring that truth.”

And the mythical company president “F-ck You means we can be passionate about our values, but not act on them.”

Making light of a dire situation can be offensive to people who devote their lives to combating climate change, Sachs acknowledged.

“But I do think it’s important that we create a middle ground between fatalistic apathy on the one hand, and heroic activism on the other,” Sachs said. “The choice between those two poles is really a false one.”

Confronted only by prophesies of doom, most people will “shrink toward … fatalistic apathy,” Sachs said.

“It’s not that I believe that the comic mode will suddenly turn all of us into heroic activists, but even if we slide a few centimeters in that direction, that might provide a glimmer of hope.”

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...