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04/20/2014 - 16:15

Climate change and the Koch brothers walk into a bar

Dawn Stover

Dawn Stover

Stover is a science writer based in the Pacific Northwest and is a contributing editor at the Bulletin. Her work has appeared in...

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Years ago a boss took me aside to give me a few words of advice. “You know what your problem is?” he asked. He didn’t wait for an answer. “You’re too f---ing earnest.”

Ooookaaay. No wonder I hadn’t been getting those plum assignments reserved for writers who didn’t grow up in Omaha. (Then again, this was the same editor who advised a 20-something colleague of mine that she looked young but “dressed old.” So maybe I didn’t take his counsel as earnestly as I should have.)

These days I find myself writing a lot about climate change, a problem so dire that it could lead to the collapse of civilization, yet elicits a big fat “meh” from most Americans. Only “race relations” ranks lower than climate change on a recent list of things that Americans worry about.

The p-word. Earnest people like me are partly to blame for this indifference. Apparently most Americans have not only lost interest in learning about what’s happening to our world, but are actively repelled by the very mention of this world. In a recent interview published by Grist.org, marketing expert David Fenton of Fenton Communications said he tells environmental groups not to use words such as “planet,” “Earth,” or “environment.” The word “government” elicits anger, cynicism, and disgust. Even “sustainability” has become a dirty word in many circles. As the Southern Poverty Law Center explains in a new report, conspiracy theorists have “poisoned rational discussion” by spreading falsehoods about the United Nations’ innocuous (not to mention nonbinding) Agenda 21 global sustainability program.

If talking seriously about green issues makes some people see red, what is an effective way to bring a broader audience into the climate conversation? I’m reminded of a talk I attended in the early 1990s. The speaker was droning on about an important conservation issue when Hazel Wolf, a Seattle environmental activist then in her 90s, yelled from the audience: “Louder and funnier!” Two decades later, that’s still the best communications advice I’ve ever heard. And Hazel’s delivery demonstrated how effectively humor can change the conversation.

“Paradoxically we can use humor to encourage people to take environmental challenges more seriously,” explained Chris Palmer, who directs the center for Environmental Filmmaking at the American University and was a stand-up comic for five years, in a March 25 speech. Humor is attention-getting and mind-opening, he said, and the severity of problems such as climate change requires a new approach to communication.

Palmer showed examples of environmental videos that use humor, including the winners of this year’s Eco-Comedy Video Competition. First prize went to “Be a Better Roommate,” a video about ocean pollution starring the world’s ugliest whale. “Joe Wakes Up,” which tied for second place, tackled global warming. Let’s face it, though, these videos aren’t LMAO funny. Even the contest winner has only a few thousand views on YouTube and isn’t likely to go viral anytime soon.

Funny or die. As Fenton told Grist.org, the environmental movement doesn’t use popular culture effectively. An experiment designed to prove him wrong is the new Showtime series “Years of Living Dangerously,” whose creators decided it was high time that professionally trained environmental journalists stopped taking “correspondent” jobs away from hard-working celebrities like Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The series is winning praise from environmentalists but may be preaching to the choir; a 2012 study suggests that both Showtime and HBO have audiences already polarized toward polar bears. And if you think the characters on HBO’s “Game of Thrones” sound serious when they warn that “winter is coming,” just flip the channel and listen to Han Solo and the Terminator discussing climate change.

So how can celebrities, journalists, researchers, and others talk about climate change without being so blanking earnest? Here is what we have come to: kittens. Seriously.

At an American Geophysical Union meeting in December, John Cook of the University of Queensland Global Change Institute gave a presentation on communicating global warming in terms people can visualize. But rather than comparing climate change with Hiroshima atomic bombs, as he has done in the past, Cook came up with a new conversion: Our planet is warming at a rate of 7,409,177,820,267,687 kitten sneezes per second, based on the amount of energy embodied in a feline “achoo.” Unfortunately, Cook neglected to steer clear of the off-putting words “global” and “warming.” Try tweeting this instead: Kim Kardashian home bout to get cooked @ 7 quadrillion kitten sneezes per second!!!

Come to think of it, Kardashian could probably do a more effective job of reporting on hotties (and by that I mean extreme heat waves) than do climate researchers, environmental journalists, and others who sweat the small stuff. Besides, isn’t it about time that reality television started covering reality? Imagine “Survivor: Bangladesh” with 18 million people vying to avoid “elimination” due to sea level rise, or “Survivor: Tonga”  with 100,000-plus people voted off the islands by wealthier nations.

Fortunately, there is some highly effective (and reliably hilarious) coverage of climate change on television and in newspapers. Comedians such as Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart frequently focus on climate, as do newspaper cartoonists such as Tom Toles and Joel Pett. In the 21st century, artists and entertainers with a sense of humor are, hands down, the best news disseminators on the pl----. Um, I mean, the place where Oscar Pistorius, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, and millions of cute kittens live.

The Bulletin invites readers to submit links their favorite climate-change humor in the comments section.