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The Boulder Theater hosted the “Stand Up for Climate Comedy" show on April 15, 2024. The event was created by the University of Colorado Boulder.  |  Credit: Frani Halperin, H2O Media, Ltd.

Will Climate Change Factor in the November Elections?

Maybe If We Laugh About It

The November elections are starting to dominate the media, and many pundits as well as social scientists are trying to tease out which issues might sway voters. Will it be democracy, abortion, immigration—or perhaps climate change? Comedians in Boulder, Colorado, hope global warming will be motivating—if they can make people laugh about it.

By Frani Halperin and Jamie Sudler, executive producers
Published: 16 Jun 2024 | © H2O Media, Ltd.

Boulder, Colorado—On a spring evening at the Boulder Theater in Boulder, Colorado, veteran comedian Chuck Nice welcomes several hundred people to the “Stand Up for Climate Comedy” show. The event, created by the University of Colorado Boulder and now in its ninth year, is described as “good-natured comedy”—meaning it's good for nature, by having an environmental focus.

Nice, who regularly performs in New York City comedy clubs, says the show’s aim is to communicate about the climate crisis in a way where people can receive the message without “doom and gloom,” making them more apt to act.

<p>Comedian Chuck Nice, who has performed at the climate comedy event several times, was the evening's emcee.  | <em> Credit: Frani Halperin, H2O Media, Ltd.</em></p>

Nice, who is a regular contributor to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s podcast, Startalk, says he thinks comedy can get people information they need without forcing them into their tribal corners.  He thinks people are more willing to accept social commentary from comedians instead of pundits, who are trying to get audiences to see issues from their point of view.  In contrast, Nice said, “I just want you to laugh. I think this is funny. I think you should think it’s funny.  And even if you don’t agree with what they’re saying, if you laugh, you’re listening.”

If they’re listening, they may be more open to new information, which could be important in this election year.  He adds that climate change and climate science aren’t political but have often been politicized to confuse people about the true threat humanity faces from global warming—a threat he describes as existential. He jokes that people wrongly think combating climate change is about saving the Earth. “Earth is going to be here,” he jokes.  “Venus is 900 degrees, okay? It is still there. Okay. Runaway greenhouse and it’s still there. So, I'm not worried about Earth. I'm worried about me,” a point he punctuates with a hearty laugh.

This evening’s lineup has other stand-up comedians, including Rollie Williams, who hosts a hit YouTube show called “Climate Town,” as well as Kasha Patel, who, besides making audiences laugh, is a science communicator.

At the 2022 event, Patel riffs about the serious issue of deforestation, sharing that she learned that beef is the number one reason for forest loss. “So, I decided to switch to soy,” she tells the audience, “which I found out is the number two reason for deforestation.” She goes on to say she discovered that palm oil is in many foods (where forests are cleared to plant the mono crops), and jokes that willful ignorance by Americans is the ultimate reason for deforestation. She adds a positive note at the end that in the Americas and West Africa, some tropical forests are coming back.

Comics-in-Training

Most of the performers tonight are not seasoned professionals—they’re students from a class on Creative Climate Communication at the University of Colorado Boulder, most of whom are doing stand-up and some sketch comedy for the first time. The class was started by professors Max Boykoff and Beth Osnes. Boykoff is a continuing contributor to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report that periodically assesses climate change progress and the sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Osnes is a professor of theater and environmental studies and focuses in part on communications through the connection between art and science.

The three professional comedians—each of whom work in the worlds of science and comedy— held a workshop with the students prior to the event where they shared their best tips. Before tonight’s show begins and while Osnes leads about 20 students on stage in warm-up exercises, Boykoff explained that the idea for the comedy event was to offer a way for students to express their concerns and fears around climate change, as well as their hopes and aspirations about their futures. The class has been very popular, and Boykoff says that there is a budding community across the U.S. and the world where more and more people are experimenting with comedy as a vehicle, not to trivialize important issues but to overcome differences among the political divides we face through the appeal of laughing together and finding some emotional relief through humor.

<p>Comedian Rollie Williams, who has a degree in climate science and policy from Columbia University and hosts a hit YouTube show called “Climate Town,” performed at the event.  | Credit: Frani Halperin, H2O Media, Ltd.</p>

Osnes emphasizes that the way we tell the story of climate change is important and impactful. She says that when we get into the feelings about how climate change affects people and even how it is experienced in different regions of the world, there is no single truth. For example, in Boulder the biggest challenges may be fires and floods, but in San Francisco and other coastal cities it's different.

Comedy, Osnes adds, is one method to tell a story. It relies on double meanings, and it’s playful, delighting in the ridiculous. Also, it can engage the body, which she says contrasts with the image of white men in a room using only their brains to figure out a solution to the crisis. “So, try something completely different,” she says. “Laughter brings on an embodied physical response.”

Osnes says she isn’t interested in changing the mind of someone who doesn’t recognize the issue, “I wouldn't waste my precious life on trying to change the mind of a climate denier. That's really just not even my realm.” Instead, she’s focused on those in the “moveable middle” who are already convinced that climate change is a problem, but who are inactive and can be stirred into action.

Comedy can “explode your brain a little bit, and people can all explode together in an involuntary, shared and weird experience that has the power to help us feel connected and belonging.” Osnes says that could lead to sustained action. “Just because it’s comedy doesn’t mean there’s not serious content; good comedy has interesting and consequential content that’s not ridiculous.  It’s how you’re communicating it that makes it funny.”

How Important Is Climate to Voters?

Are Americans concerned enough about climate change that it could affect their voting behavior? Matthew Ballew, a research specialist at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication studies this question. Twice a year the Yale program surveys American public opinion about climate change, and on June 13, 2024, they released their latest findings.  

According to the report, of the 28 issues they asked people about, global warming isn’t even in the top ten—it’s 19th on the most highly ranked concerns among voters. Still, Ballew adds that Americans understand that climate change is happening and that it’s human caused.  Their new report shows that 62 percent of registered voters would prefer to vote for a candidate for public office who supports action on global warming.

According to Ballew, many other issues are higher policy priorities in the eyes of Americans compared to climate change, such as the economy, health care, and terrorism. It suggests that people have a finite pool of worry and can’t worry about everything, but he says, “That is unfortunate because we know that climate change and the impacts that it's going to have intersects with a lot of these other issues.”

Ballew focuses on environmental and social psychology and believes that communicating through humor can be valuable. “One thing I find very beautiful about comedy is that it allows for people to make connections between things that they might not normally think about,” he said.

Sometimes, he says, when one is trying to educate someone about an issue like climate change, there might be resistance and counter arguments because they just don’t like what’s being said. They can feel threatened, but comedy and other indirect approaches can help people experience the information in a light hearted way.

Another way to communicate on climate is to focus less on the negative consequences, such as the effects on the economy, healthcare, public infrastructure, community development, air and water quality, and job loss and instead highlight the societal gains that mitigating the crisis can bring.  
“We can also reframe it—that the clean energy transition is going to positively support these things and bring many different co-benefits.”

Leave ‘Em Laughing

Ballew says comedy can work to talk about climate because it’s authentic storytelling. Audiences can relate to how hard adaptation might be and feel a comic is on their side and it’s okay to fumble our way through it.

Humor can—as it often does—be a way to point out the absurd. Nat Towsen, a comic who performed during the 2021 show (which was on Zoom because of the COVID pandemic), told a joke about hybrid vehicles, which for some people wasn’t a good enough solution since the cars aren’t all electric.  “My dad bought a hybrid car. Guys, I know that hybrids are not going to solve the climate crisis, but people get so weirdly furious that my dad is trying to kill the planet at four-fifths the speed that they are trying to.”

The organizers hope that comedy can foster more engagement and sustained action on climate. That could potentially ensure the joke isn’t on us. 💧