Climate change can be downright depressing. A growing number of experts think humour can motivate young people to fight global warming.
By Lakshmi Magon
“on october 31st at 9:57pm est. lets all stop what we’re doing and just vibe. it could be the key to reversing climate change.”
That tweet by Lil Nas X, an American rapper dubbed “Gen Z’s foremost cyberpunk,” won 31,900 likes and 202,100 retweets.
“Gen Z is spending 4 minutes after a meal figuring out which wastes need to be recycled or composted or thrown out because YOURE not gonna be the one to dig the earth a deeper hole”
That post on Tumblr by gen-z-culture-is earned nearly 800 comments.
On Instagram, a post by @climemechange — an account with more than 51,000 followers, more than half of them reportedly aged 13 to 24 — garnered more than 14,000 likes and 1,800 retweets for its depiction of a tweet by American writer and director Chris Kelly that said: “There are now more Spiderman projects planned than years left that the earth is habitable.”
on october 31st at 9:57pm est. lets all stop what we’re doing and just vibe. it could be the key to reversing climate change.
— nope (@LilNasX) October 23, 2019
These tongue-and-cheek posts are common in social media accounts frequented by Gen Zers, those born roughly between 1993 and 2011. But it extends beyond social media.
During climate strikes in 185 countries in late September, politically engaged young people brandished signs referring to TV shows (“Winter is not coming”), popular songs (“I just took a DNA test turns out I’m 100% freaking terrified for our future”) and Internet memes (“It’s so bad I skipped the Area 51 raid”) that conveyed flippant humour.
It seems such forms of expression are not merely a symptom of growing political engagement regarding climate change. A growing number of researchers believe climate change humour is a tool that motivates Gen Zers to take political action.
Christofer Skurka, assistant professor of Film and Media Studies at the Bellisario College of Communications at Pennsylvania State University, has studied how emotions such as fear and humour are effective at spurring some young people into climate change activism.
‘We need to cut through the noise.’
In one study, Skurka and his collaborators showed young adults one of three videos — funny, scary or informational — or a control video. The videos depicted a weather program with an actor playing meteorologist Bob Smith, who described heavy rain, droughts, deadly wildfires and coastal flooding.
The videos conveyed identical information, but the delivery was either humorous, fear-inducing or strictly informative.
The survey measured participants’ willingness to combat climate change by contacting government officials or joining an organization devoted to fighting global warming. Those who watched the humorous or scary videos were more likely to take action.
Skurka and his colleagues showed that 18-year-olds were 22% more willing to engage in activism when exposed to humour in comparison to a control group.
Skurka says it is important to motivate Gen Zers to combat climate change because young people are a growing portion of the political electorate.
“We need to think about ways to cut through the noise to help young people who care about climate change,” Skurka said. “If all young adults between 18 and 30 got out and voted on climate change matters, they would by and large be supporting climate change mitigation efforts.”
Beth Osnes, associate professor of Theatre at the University of Colorado, led a study that also suggests humour may motivate young people to fight climate change. In the study, students created humorous games and skits related to climate change solutions.
It’s ‘a dark cloud hanging over their lives.’
Some 83% of students participating in the project agreed it had helped them sustain their commitment to take action on climate change. Some 90% said the joyful and fun aspects of the program increased their sense of hope.
Climate change humour can give young people the catharsis they need to engage politically, Osnes said when asked to explain the results of her study. “If you laugh about something, it’s also outside of you. You retain mastery of it.”
For Gen Zers, climate change has been “this dark cloud hanging over their lives,” she said.
“These are people saying things like, ‘The best thing I could do is to not have children.’ That sounds depressing to some older people, but to younger people, it just makes sense. It’s a different reality to them. A lot of people have this weight around them.”
Osnes added: “What I’ve found in my continual work over the years is, you don’t need to have people who have all the solutions. Giving people access to expression really is transformative. It lightens the load and makes it bearable.”
Amy Becker, assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Loyola University Maryland, is a proponent of climate change humour. Her research focuses on the effect of political comedy on climate change attitudes and has shown that people who view satiric interviews are more likely to remember facts and participate politically.
Climate change humour isn’t a cure-all. But early research suggests that its ability to lift misery, apathy and gloom is nothing to laugh at.
Lakshmi Magon is a multimedia reporter, science communicator and former science communication and education researcher. After working in science communication in Edinburgh and the Netherlands, she became a Dalla Lana journalism fellow at the University of Toronto. Lakshmi was trained in Biotechnology at the University of Edinburgh.