Climate Change Isn’t Funny—Yet the Climate Movement Must Be

Humor can help us shift our perspective and explore complex topics from a new or surprising angle.

A closeup of Greta Thunberg at the Fridays For Future COP26 Scotland March
Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Did you hear the one about the all-encompassing global crisis that is threatening the future of humanity? Let’s be clear: There is nothing actually funny about the climate emergency. Whether it’s heat-related deaths, island nations threatened by rising seas, or the ongoing 6th mass extinction event, the devastation that’s been unleashed as a result of fossil fuels is as horrific as it is deadly serious.

And yet climate activists, advocates, and experts can and should learn to harness humor as one more weapon in our arsenal. The good news is, there are many people who are doing exactly that. 

In the runup to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland for example, activists were rightly talking up the life-or-death stakes of the negotiations. Yet they were not above also finding a little levity and joy as they did so. Here’s Greta Thunberg, for example, rickrolling her audience mid-speech: 

These moments matter. Given that there is no plausible version of our future in which the climate crisis is fully solved within our lifetimes, we are all going to have to find ways to sustain ourselves for the long haul. Within this context, dancing, joy, and even the occasional prank can be seen as important acts of self-care. 

Humor is also a powerful communication tool that we can use to our advantage. When I interviewed Amy Westervelt and Mary Heglar—the duo behind the Hot Take podcast and newsletter—they were very clear that humor was absolutely central to making their projects work. Not only does it help listeners and readers connect with the subject on a more fully human level but, Westervelt argued, it also helps to disarm concerns about elitism or gatekeeping that so often derail our movement:

“I remember like when I started doing climate stories, I would worry every time I was meeting up with a climate person. Should I get a to-go cup? Should I do this, or do that? And that kind of barrier to entry is really unhelpful. I think people are really afraid of judgment, and having the humor just makes climate people more relatable. It's like we’re regular people.” 

Humor can also help us shift our perspective and explore complex topics from a new or surprising angle. And here it’s often professionally funny people, as opposed to professionally "activisty" people, who are leading the way. Here’s comedian Matt Green using humor to take on accusations of climate hypocrisy, for example: 

Meanwhile, as others have noted before me, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You used scathing humor to call out the narrative failures of traditional, white-led climate organizations to connect with non-white audiences. 

Ultimately, though, the reason we need to learn to use humor more effectively is the same reason we need to learn to use beauty, anger, fear, and hope. In other words, we need to connect with people on a level that engages their full humanity—and we need to keep them engaged as we move forward together toward solutions. 

Fortunately, we’re a movement that’s well suited to the task. While there’s a common stereotype of a dour, preachy climate activist, my own experiences suggest the opposite. As I said in a recent conversation with author Janisse Ray, whose recent book "Wild Spectacle" is a breathtaking delight, the climate activists in my life are some of the funniest, funnest people I know. While it’s true we spend more time than most staring into the abyss, we have also learned to look to the future and begin imagining what comes next. 

And that future had damn well better include some humor. Otherwise, I’m not going.