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: