Matt Winning's 'Hot Mess' Doesn't Preach to the Climate Crisis Choir

It's the perfect book for those less in touch with climate change.

Hot Mess book cover

Matt Winning / Headline

  • Title: Hot Mess
  • Author: Matt Winning
  • Topic(s): Non-fiction, Science
  • Publisher: Headline
  • Publish Date: April 19, 2022
  • Page Count: 368

When Matt Winning described the target audience for his book "Hot Mess," he told me it was "someone's sister or maybe brother." And while that might sound like an astoundingly vague description, he did follow up with a little more explanation about what he meant: 

“It’s really someone who enjoys comedy books. They don’t work on climate change, but they’re interested in and concerned about climate change. You might buy it as a gift for someone in your life to help them start figuring out how they can be a part of the solution.” 

It’s a description that resonated strongly with me and feels like a worthwhile antidote to so many books that are really just preaching to the choir.

Winning is perhaps uniquely qualified for this task. He augments his career as a climate-focused environmental economist with gigs as a stand-up comedian. He has staged two sold-out runs at the Edinburgh Festival that were both explicitly focused on the climate crisis.

And indeed, while "Hot Mess" does offer a fairly comprehensive yet accessible overview of the science and politics of climate change, it balances the science with some wry, moving, and often hilarious first-person reflections of Winning’s journey as a new parent, as well as plenty of quips about everything from the role of A-ha in pushing electric vehicle adoption, to the questionable artistic value of the movie Waterworld. 

Here’s a clip of Winning taking the stage at a TEDx event, to give you a sense of his approach: 

During our conversation, I suggested to Winning that he had set out to achieve a rather tricky feat: raising a laugh, while also communicating a deadly serious topic that will cause untold misery to some of the most vulnerable people on earth. He agreed. His goal, he said, was to keep people engaged and entertained enough to keep learning, while never making light of the human suffering—nor minimizing the reckless behaviors of those responsible: 

“There were definitely points during the writing process where I worried about getting it wrong, and I thought I really shouldn’t do it. But I believe in the power of comedy to help tackle really difficult subjects. In fact, there’s this really great tradition of using comedy to bring light to dark times—whether that’s M.A.S.H. or Dad’s Army [a UK sitcom about World War II]. Just because you are doing comedy about a subject, it doesn’t mean that the jokes are actually about that subject. You just have to stay vigilant and make sure you’re not aiming the comedy at people’s suffering.”

We went on to discuss the fact that many climate people—from the hosts of the popular podcast "Hot Take" to a large number of climate scientists—have a tendency to use humor to let off steam and to cope with some of the darker aspects of working on this topic. And as I have argued before, humor can be a critical communication tool to engage new audiences and hold the powerful to account. It often serves to disarm folks new to the topic, who may be expecting dour lectures or joyless berating for all the things that they are doing to destroy the planet. 

I asked Winning if his approach—whether in the book or live form—really was winning hearts and changing minds when it comes to climate action:

“It’s definitely a mix. When I do a live show, a good chunk of the audience are ‘climate people’—who come because they are interested in hearing a comedy show on this topic. But there are others who are just there for the laughs," he said. "I once had a middle-aged guy come back to me after a show and say he knew nothing about climate change going in, but had gone home and changed his electricity provider to renewables. I’ve had others tell me they’ve seen my show and decided to change cars.”

The challenge, says Winning, is often marketing. And this applies to the book too. While the goal is to get into the hands of comedy fans, bookshops will often stock the book in the environment section—meaning it doesn’t get picked up by the folks who could probably use it most.

Yet this is a book that has value for anyone interested in the topic, not just newbies or unsuspecting comedy fans. While much of the science was known to me, Winning does a great job of putting it all together—and calling his audience to action, while recognizing our limitations within the system. (Much like the conclusions in my own book on climate hypocrisy, Winning is a firm believer that maximizing your influence is more important than minimizing your impact.) 

As Winning says toward the end of "Hot Mess," all of us—whether we realize it or not—are a part of what he describes as the world’s worst "choose your own adventure" book. But recognizing that fact is also about recognizing that we have power:

“Sure, the stakes are slightly higher than Spot the Dog losing his teddy bear. They are slightly higher than really anyone can cope with alone, but you are not alone, none of us are. That’s why it’s so important that you do your part, because we have to work together.”

I, for one, put down Hot Mess with an increased determination to do my part. (And that’s why I wrote this article to encourage you to buy his book.)

"Hot Mess" hit bookshelves in April 2022. Available at and other retailers.

The Treehugger Reading List

Are you looking to learn more about sustainable living or climate change? Do you want an engrossing read about nature or design? Here's a running list of books our staff has reviewed and loved.