When to laugh about climate change

There is a uniform facial expression when it comes to discussing the global state of the climate: v-shaped eyebrows, straight-line lips, straining neck, cocked head. Look at the majority of images from COP negotiations or Davos and you’ll see what I mean. Grim faces deliver grim facts. 

But does climate work need to be like this? Does emulating the physical stance of war-room strategists help make more progress setting and achieving greenhouse gas emissions targets? Must you scrunch your forehead for your executive team to move with purpose on a biodiversity strategy? 

Not according to stand-up super star Stuart Goldsmith, whom I’ll be interviewing at GreenBiz 24 about strategies a comic offers those doing tough climate work. (Watch live tomorrow at 11:40am MST here.) 

“Panic and despair might drive us temporarily to beat a deadline or achieve some desperate goal, but they lead to exhaustion and demotivation,” he says. “Comics know that we do our best work when we feel confident and motivated.” 

For a comedian, that’s the ability to come back from a bit that falls flat (for you, maybe a review and presentation of year-over-year ESG data). Below Goldsmith offers a few remedies that work for him and can translate beyond the stage. 

Plan for setbacks

When a joke results in crickets — or a three-pronged supplier engagement strategy is met with rebuttal — know how to get back to a place of confidence. Goldsmith loosens his grip on the microphone to tell his body to relax, and reminds himself that he’s good at getting one person in the audience to laugh until he adds three, then 30, then the room. Kate Brandt, Google’s chief sustainability officer, told New York magazine she overcomes self-doubt by re-centering on the big picture: “Staying focused on the mission, on the impact I wanted to have, and ensuring I was helping to make the change I wanted to see in the world.”

Go together

Identify people in your network that know what the work is like and ask for help, commiserate and celebrate together. For example, when Goldsmith has a high-pressure gig and a late drive home, he arranges with another comic to have a phone call from the road so that they can unload to each other, or pick each other up. This can work even if you’re on team A that believes more in direct carbon capture and your friend on team B believes more in solar, he says.

Develop an enthusiasm for risk

One way to manage is to know that the greatest “risk” is to do nothing. Rather, when going towards a scary or stressful situation, think “even if the worst happens and this is terrible, it will prepare me to cope better with the next disaster I have to face,” says Goldsmith. Similarly, Gina McCarthy, head of President Joe Biden’s Climate Policy Office, says: “It’s not life-threatening to be criticized,” She reframes set-backs with questions like, “How do I think differently? Who is my ally in this?” 

Normalize the emotion of it

Know that you’re not losing your mind if you swing wildly between elation and distress. Those are natural reactions to heightened circumstances. 

Find humor in the hardest parts

It’s difficult to not read current climate science without at least occasionally getting a reminder of your mortality. Goldsmith has perspective on that too, featured in one of his comedy specials, “I Need You Alive”: “Me and my wife had a conversation about the making of our wills. You get set up as a family, have a couple of kids, you gotta get life insurance. You gotta talk about your wills. During that conversation I made the alarming discovery that if everything goes to plan, I die first. That’s the plan. That’s the best case scenario. And it is; it’s the best case scenario ethically… financially… effort-wise…” 

Watch the whole GreenBiz keynote live stream, starting at 1:30pm MST today.

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