In 1896 the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius theorizes that as people burned coal and other fossil fuels, they’ll add carbon dioxide to the Earth’s atmosphere, which will raise the planet’s average temperature.
Flash-forward to the early 1970’s and the dawn of the environmental movement: discussions of aerosol spray cans and the demise of the ozone layer. Scientific investigation and public concern builds steam.
Flash-forward another 50 or so years and here we are. Scott Pruitt, collective handwringing, and the birth of the Good Grief group, a nine step program that is the AA for climate-concerned.
And Stephen Hawking, shortly before his death, warned us that the planet is doomed. Clearly, climate change has been communications-challenged. The message has not gotten through. Just a few months ago, the NY Times published the interactive guide Climate Change is Complex. We’ve Got Answers to Your Questions. We’re still at Climate Change 101 for the masses? Time to get a move on.
Millennials care about climate change. According to the Global Shapers Annual Survey 2017 on technology, economy, values, career and governance, which surveyed more than 31,000 Millennials from over 180 countries, climate change remains their biggest global concern for the third year in a row.
So what’s not been working? This stuff is just about as scary as it gets. (If you’re really like to go for the guts, check out the Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells New York Magazine’s most widely read piece ever.
It’s a question of framing. While psychologists, journalists and behaviorists posit theories around fear or hope as the greatest motivator for action around climate change or other tough topics, I’d promote satire as a viable alternative—particularly if your organization or brand is targeting Millennials.
As John Oliver quipped in response to a poll that found 1 in 4 Americans deny the existence of climate change: “Who gives a shit? You don’t need public opinion on fact.” He then hosted what he characterized as “a mathematically representative debate on climate change” featuring a climate denier, Bill Nye the Science Guy and 95 climate scientists. Oliver’s schtick got attention: nearly 8 million You Tube views.
No guarantee that it’s a fail-safe approach to framing the issue, but funny, clever and irreverent are provocative. Funny gets noticed, shared and liked. An irreverent video on the Affordable Care Act increased web traffic by 40 percent in less than a day.
Why funny? Because it’s a conversation-starter. Which is its biggest selling point. Fear and panic lead to dread, which leads to psychological paralysis. Funny opens us up to new ideas. That’s because when we laugh, we release endorphins and dopamine—the feel-good neurotransmitters.
Funny helps us process difficult information. Scott Weems, a cognitive neuroscientist and author. In his book, Ha! The Science of When we Laugh and Why, Weems writes that humor is a “response to conflict and confusion in our brain”.
In Personality and Sense of Humor, Avner Ziv says that “comedy and satire possess a common denominator in that both try to change or reform society by means of humor. The two forms together constitute the best illustration there is of the social function of humor.”
So while you’re debating the pros and cons of framing the conversation using fear, facts or funny, check out a few of the go-to sources of Millennial information and inspiration:
The group 350 Australia fake coal ad;
And Too Hot to Handle, a farcical multi-media series “taking a lighter look at the dark problem of climate change” supported by Ben & Jerry’s.
And if you decide that funny is too risky or doesn’t resonate for you or your brand, you could try taking a different tack: up close and personal. Next blog.