I recently heard a stand-up comedian who devoted a good chunk of his monologue to “global warming” (aka, climate change). First, he joked that he wasn’t sure how to personally prepare – so he bought a hat. And some sunscreen. Then he talked about the impacts on polar bears. He said he felt bad for them, but wasn’t really sure what we could do about their plight. Buy them hats?? He mused that perhaps the people who live in polar bear regions might actually be happy about the demise of their furry neighbors. After all, now maybe it would be safe to go to the mailbox without toting a shotgun for protection.
Hysterical, right?? Well, the assembled audience laughed and applauded. Granted, the physical and verbal antics of his delivery probably helped.
But I was deeply disturbed. After spending six years of my professional life focused on addressing the threat of climate change, I didn’t find it humorous at all. At the rate we are going, carbon pollution is on pace to bring us a host of nasty impacts that are anything but funny. The thing is – when you do what I do – you notice that this line of twisted humor is not confined to professional comedians. Following the February 2010 “Snowmaggedon” (which brought 2-3 feet of snow to the Washington, DC, region in one week), Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) famously erected an igloo on the Capitol Steps labeled “Al Gore’s New Home” and the airwaves buzzed with jokes about the “anti-warming.”
Even people who “get” that climate change is serious business sometimes make light of the topic. This week, as a late spring snowstorm hit many parts of the U.S., I heard folks ask jokingly, “So where is this global warming?” On an unseasonably warm winter day, haven’t you heard friends or neighbors say, “Bring on the global warming!”? As much as we might all enjoy the respite that a warm day in January brings from the winter doldrums, the flip side is increasingly extreme heat in August. And when those record temperatures hit, no one is laughing – because dangerously high heat, unhealthy air and water shortages are more than inconvenient. They can be deadly, especially for children and the elderly. In 2003, over 50,000 people died in heat waves in Europe.
The phenomenon of treating the serious matter of climate change with humor got me wondering what was behind all this joking. On one level, human nature – when confronted with big, scary issues – often finds it easier to laugh than cry. Call it society’s collective nervous laugh – a new breed of gallows humor, perhaps, in which our communal wit attempts to liberate us from a seemingly hopeless situation.
But it also points out that people like me whose job it has been to communicate this issue have done some things wrong:
- First, the words we’ve used have been confusing. The term Global Warming sounds relatively innocent and is misleading on many levels. Climate change doesn’t mean every day will be hotter than the last. And the impacts go well beyond higher (average) temperatures. Our changing climate is also affecting precipitation patterns, including too much rain (or snow). This makes sense, since warmer air holds more moisture. In fact, the heaviest rain events in the Northeast U.S. are already 67% heavier than 50 years ago. So, both Superstorm Sandy and Snowmaggedon are EXACTLY the kind of events we expect to see more of with climate change. Climate change is also marked by extremes in the other direction – too little rain or snow, resulting in drought.
- Second, the images we’ve used have been unfortunate. In some ways, polar bears (though definitely at risk from shrinking sea ice) were a bad choice for the flagship species to represent climate change. They are cute, but live far away from nearly everyone on earth (truthfully, no one is running into them on the way to the mailbox). Climate change, in fact, will bring impacts to all of our communities and back yards. Just like polar bears, our children will suffer.
- Finally – the message has been problematic. I guess on one level, the comedian hit the nail on the head with his “buy a hat” comment. His joking, and that of many others, has arisen in part because people aren’t sure what to do. The issue seems so big and abstract they don’t know how they can make a difference. Yet, personal behavior (such as installing LED light bulbs or insulating your home) certainly adds up to big benefits, not just on the planet, but also on our pocketbooks. [For more ways to reduce your footprint, visit The Nature Conservancy’s Carbon Footprint Calculator]
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think climate change is all doom and gloom. If I did, I couldn’t wake up every day to work for solutions. I think our collective efforts to reduce carbon pollution, and help nature protect us from the impacts, will give rise to innovative transportation and energy technologies, clean up our air and water, and bring communities closer together. This shift to a more sustainable world may not be a laughing matter, but it’s certainly something I can smile about.
Sarene Marshall is a Senior Advisor for The Nature Conservancy. The author’s views do not necessarily reflect those of The Nature Conservancy.
[Image credit: Flickr user fruchtzwerg's world via Creative Commons.]
By Sarene Marshall/The Nature Conservancy