by Brendan Busch
Observing that even believers in climate change are reluctant to take significant action against it, Dr. Inger-Lise Kalviknes Bore, a Lecturer in Media and Cultural Theory at Birmingham City University, and Dr. Grace Reid, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta, tried to determine if satire could be used as a mobilizing force to convince people to become active in the movement to halt climate change. In their article “Laughing in the Face of Climate Change? Satire as a Device for Engaging Audiences in Public Debate,” Bore and Reid analyze a satirical play, entitled U: The Comedy of Global Warming, that attempts to use humor to inspire its audience to combat climate change. By interviewing the director of the play, examining surveys taken by audience members, conducting focus groups with select audience members, and analyzing the play itself, Bore and Reid were able to identify several strengths and weaknesses of using satire as a means to increase public engagement with climate change.
The first benefit that Bore and Reid identified is the idea that satire encourages reflection amongst audience members. While strictly scientific discourse may seem dry to the general public, Bore and Reid found that, for the most part, satirical humor helped to hold the audience’s interest and keep them engaged in the material. In addition, it encouraged the audience to think about the message of the play long after leaving the theater and gave them a vehicle through which they could discuss their thoughts on climate change with friends and family. Another benefit to using satire in the discussion about climate change is that it helps to alleviate the fear, guilt, and helplessness people feel when confronted with the realities with climate change. These feelings tend to immobilize people and make them think that there is no action they can take to deal with a problem of such enormous scale. However, Bore and Reid observe that the humor associated with satire can diminish these negative emotions, allowing it to become a powerful enabler for climate change action.
In addition to these positives, though, Bore and Reid warn that there are dangers involved with using satire. For one, placing climate change in a humorous light (if done incorrectly) can trivialize the issue. If the humor overshadows the serious undertone of the material, then the audience may fail to get the correct message. Additionally, Bore and Reid point out that there is an issue with labeling works as “satirical” or “comedic.” If audiences view works with these preconceptions, they expect to laugh and be entertained. However, if the audience does not find the material funny, then they may become unresponsive to it and either miss or ignore the underlying message entirely. Therefore, Borne and Reid conclude that satire is a good form of encouraging climate change activism, but only if these weaknesses are acknowledged and taken account for.
Bore I.K., & Reid G. 2014. Laughing in the Face of Climate Change? Satire as a Device for Engaging Audiences in Public Debate. Science Communication, 36, 454-478.