Climate Change Is Boring

August 21, 2015 | 10:07 am
Rod Lamberts
Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science

When it comes to climate change, I’m pretty sure there are really only three types of people. Those who believe we’re buggering things up, those who don’t believe we’re buggering things up, and those who don’t know (and maybe don’t give a toss) either way.

Sure there are sub-groups, cliques and factions, but these are the big three. And nowadays it’s clear to me they all have one fundamental thing in common. For all these groups, hearing more science information about climate change makes no practical difference. The acceptors keep accepting, the deniers keep denying, and the ‘meh’ crowd keep on meh-ing.

So why are we still spraying the media waves with public communications full of climate science?

Most answers I’ve heard boil down to this: “climate change is important”. I agree. I really, really agree. But it seems ‘important’ not only means critical or urgent, it also means serious, solemn, and science.

Has climate change become boring? Flickr/Bruce Edwards CC BY-NC 2.0

Has climate change become boring? Flickr/Bruce Edwards CC BY-NC 2.0

If something is ‘important’, does that have to mean we must deliver dry, detailed (science) data about it? Is the most important information about climate change still science information? If your goal is to engage people on climate change, and perhaps goad more – or different – action, the answer is a resounding no.

Borrowing the words of Fred Pearce in his recent New Scientist Opinion piece (11 July), “it’s time for a new act”. And that act is not about science. It’s not more serious and earnest lists of the latest horrible facts. No more spouting apocalyptic warnings about how screwed we are (even if they are backed up by reams of robust and valid research). Fred suggests scientists should back the hell off, and let “artists, lawyers, priest and playwrights” take over.

I thoroughly agree.

Two important things about the message from climate science need acknowledging now more than ever. One, there’s enough of it now to be very confident that things have to be done. Two, using climate science reports and facts is no longer the way to engage people and nudge them to action. Repeating this ‘throw more facts at people’ pattern of communication, and expecting things to become different is pretty much the definition of insanity, and it’s had its day.

So if communication, discussion and debate about climate change in the public sphere are to have any hope of cutting through, we could do much worse than look to our entertainers.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos reboot offers a gentle gateway drug experience for the entertainment approach to climate science. His segment explaining the difference between climate and weather is easy to understand, it’s a bit cute, and there isn’t a smidgeon of formal data in sight.

But we can go further. Much, much further.

In a recent piece by Megan Garber in The Atlantic, she explores the idea of comedians as the new public intellectuals. As she puts it, “People look to Amy Schumer and her fellow jokers not just to make fun of the world, but to make sense of it. And maybe even to help fix it.” Yes, yes we do.

So how’s about we get people laughing about climate change and how we handle it? Take this by now perhaps over-shared example where John Oliver shows us what a climate ‘debate’ would look like if we actually had 3 deniers and 97 scientists in the room together. It’s a great sight gag, and makes the point better than any hard data ever would. It’s also hilarious.

And humour cuts through. Humour can highlight the gravity of an issue at least as well as a serious broadcast, but without having to make us feel horrible, and without boring the snot out of us with facts and figures.

Humour switches us on, boring switches us off. And for climate action, we want people switched on.

Humour can also bring us together in numbers that are normally the preserve of wars and major sporting events. In the build-up to the U.S. mid-term elections in 2010, John Stewart and Stephen Colbert held their “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in Washington DC. The point of the rally was to target “…the caustic level of discourse in Washington, and its nasty echoes on cable television’s 24-hour news cycle. Stewart said that noisy debate obscured a reality that he perceived: that everyone throughout the country had found a way to work together.” CBS news estimated 215,000 people turned up on the day. More than two hundred thousand! Washington’s entire population is only somewhere around 650,000.

Humour engages and excites us. It lets us play and explore ideas. It allows us to challenge the status quo in ways other interactions and communications rarely do, without shutting people down (at best), or bringing them into direct conflict (at worst).

So let’s bring humour and climate change together. Let’s embrace Randy Olson’s early attempt to lighten-up climate change communication, and by doing this maybe make more people want to engage with it.

Of course there’s no guarantee that laughing at the state of the climate will lead to some watershed in climate action. And just like communicating facts and figures, it wont be everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s pretty clear that sticking with our current earnestness is getting us nowhere fast. And that isn’t funny.

This article was originally published on ‘Is This How You Feel?’. They’re fed up with climate change being boring too and are asking climate scientists to write down their feelings on how climate change makes them feel. If you want to add your thoughts to the conversation, whether you are a scientist or not, write your own letter, take a photo and tweet it here.