Climate Change Is No Laughing Matter. Or Is It?
In 2017, Rollie Williams was a struggling comedian when he came across a copy of “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore’s book on climate change.
While a New York Times review describes the book as “lucid, harrowing and bluntly effective,” Mr. Williams was struck by the potential for comedy. It had been 10 years since the former vice president’s passionate appeal, and the planet had just kept heating up.
“I thought Al Gore on an ‘I-told-you-so tour’ would be a funny premise for a comedy show,” he said. The resulting production was a hit.
Mr. Williams, who lives and works in Brooklyn, now makes comedic videos about the environment. He is part of a growing movement that takes on the climate crisis with humor. From Hollywood movies like Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up” to independent sketches on YouTube and TikTok, comedians — no strangers to tackling difficult subjects — are increasingly looking for punchlines in one of the greatest existential threats ever to the planet.
Many people find the topic of global warming tiresome or depressing because of the apocalyptic stakes at play. But even some scientists and activists agree: Climate change has a messaging problem.
“Academics are trained to write in their own language, sending you to the dictionary every three words,” said Sarah Finnie, the founder of the 51 Percent Project, an initiative at Boston University that aims to help people communicate better about climate change. “Humor is a really great way to kind of calm the Doomerism and the panics that can paralyze people.”
During the two-year run of “An Inconvenient Talk Show,” in which Mr. Williams played Mr. Gore as a talk-show host, he noticed how easy it was to recruit top-tier scientists to interview. Guests included Gavin Schmidt, the director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a renowned marine biologist.
“They were like, ‘someone actually wants to hear about climate change, and it’s not like a bunch of depressed people who are already researching this,’” said Mr. Williams, who ended the show in 2020.
Scientists also connected with comedians in “Climate Science Translated,” a British collection of video shorts that converts research and data into relatable banter. “Climate science is complicated,” the videos state in their introductions, “So we’re translating it into human.”
The series plans to make its debut in the United States later this year in time for the presidential election, said Ben Carey, a co-founder of Utopia Bureau, the group behind the project.
Climate activists have noticed the effectiveness of humor, too. Marc Weiss and Rahwa Ghirmatzion were part of a coalition that successfully campaigned for New York’s Climate Act, legislation approved in 2019 that requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 and at least 85 percent by 2050. Last summer, they grew concerned that pro-business groups were lobbying to soften the law.
Mr. Weiss, a fan of “Don’t Look Up,” in which a world-ending comet is a metaphor for climate change, was interested in collaborating with its director, Mr. McKay, who had just started a new organization, “Yellow Dot Studios,” in May of last year. The nonprofit media studio produces short videos — mostly comedic — on climate change.
A meeting with Yellow Dot resulted in a new comedy campaign, aimed at the fossil fuel industry in New York State, to raise awareness of efforts to slow down and question the climate law. The campaign plans to target particular energy executives for snarky ridicule.
(The main cause of global warming is humans burning fossil fuels, according to thousands of scientists. Emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide by burning coal, natural gas and oil for energy were projected to reach a record — 36.8 billion metric tons — for 2023.)
This is the first time Yellow Dot has taken on a regional campaign. If it goes well, Staci Roberts-Steele, its managing director, said she would be interested in more collaborations. “It’s a little bit of a trial run,” she said. “But it’s a really fun way to look at specific laws.”
For Mr. McKay, humor provides a way to get at the truth of climate change, instead of resorting to slick language. “The problem with communicating the scale and immediacy of the climate crisis is there’s a tendency to want to use the approaches developed by ad agencies, PR firms, corporate news and commercial entertainment,” he said.
For many of the videos on its platform, Yellow Dot targets everyday scenarios that lend themselves to comedy. Sketches include moms debating whether they can leave their babies on induction stoves and a gas nozzle that acts like a jealous boyfriend when it notices his driver swooning over an electric vehicle. It also uses star power: A recent video features Rainn Wilson, who is best known for playing Dwight Schrute on “The Office,” as a climate scientist visiting from the future to warn the characters in “Game of Thrones” about fossil fuels.
Humor hasn’t just helped with messaging around climate change but has often been an essential ingredient in many societal movements or transitions, said Caty Borum, the executive director of American University’s Center for Media & Social Impact.
“Comedy played a significant role in the U.S. civil rights movement, and the use of memes on social media was very important in the Arab Spring uprising,” Ms. Borum said, giving two recent examples.
Andrew Boyd, a humorist and one of the activists behind the Climate Clock in Union Square, believes that laughter can help those who feel despair over global warming.
In his new book, “I Want a Better Catastrophe,” Mr. Boyd applies the five stages of grief to climate change, adding a sixth one: gallows humor. “We are facing an impossible situation, and that’s exactly what gallows humor was designed to handle,” he said.
During the pandemic, Mr. Williams earned his masters in Climate and Society at Columbia University. Now, his YouTube channel, Climate Town, has over 550,000 subscribers, and he is hosting a podcast, “The Climate Deniers Playbook,” with Nicole Conlan, a writer for “The Daily Show.”
Recently, he started a collaboration with Climate Changemakers, a nonprofit organization that recommends simple actions people can take to influence politicians and other leaders.
Mr. Williams hopes that his comedy can do more than persuade people to sign petitions or forward links, he said. “My ultimate goal is to inspire people to make systemic changes, rather than to try to recycle extra hard.”