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Climate Change is No Joke. . .or Is It?


Appeals to fear and apocalypse may have been successful for a while, but they seem to fall currently on deaf ears. The maintenance of consistent states of fear can be tiring and repetitive. An emerging strategy in creating climate arguments is to use humor to bring attention to issues and effects. For example, Stephen Colbert famously pointed fun at North Carolina Republicans who passed a law making predictions of sea level rise illegal. It may be more entertaining for us to hear, consume, and understand information about climate change when it is couched in humor. Furthermore, humor helps bring an element of hyperbole to the political battles against environmental protection. One of the potential benefits of viewing the environment through a “comic” frame (a term theorized by Kenneth Burke) is to make it easier for mortification.

Cartoon that addresses perceived humorous responses to climate change

Burke’s “guilt-redemption” cycle is a secular borrowing of religious notions of sin and repentance. Burke noted that when pollution enters a system, or there is some violation of an expected order, guilt emerges. In order to remove the guilt and the pollution from the system, there is the need for either scapegoating or mortification. Scapegoating places the blame on an “other” and then symbolically or literally kills the scapegoat. In the case of the environment, the US scapegoated developing countries such as China and India, noting that environmental protection should fall on their shoulders and not ours, removing us from culpability. Mortification is the acceptance of blame and guilt on a personal level, where symbolic or actual killing occurs to ourselves.

A simple chart of Burke’s cycle

If we wish to mortify ourselves and place our own actions (or perhaps inaction) as culpable, the comic frame is ultimately preferable. In the comic frame, those who do wrong or have flaws are ultimately foolish and should be forgiven. Conversely, in the tragic frame, wrongdoers are criminals and worthy of punishment and perhaps death. We may then be more likely to accept claims of mortification (our own culpability in not acting towards climate change and acting to produce carbon emissions) if we do not fear punishment or death. In the comic frame, there is redemption and the chance to mend one’s ways. Humor, then, may be a way to include all of us, at the local, national, global, political, and economic level, as culpable and thus in need of acting.

The comedy and tragedy masks

One interesting example is a video from Australian Coal. Given that this is an article about humor, the video may at first seem odd, but keep watching!

The video makes an intergenerational argument for removing ourselves from responsibility and giving it to future people. In this case, we may be to blame, but we are scapegoating the responsibility of clearing the (symbolic and literal) pollution. The video displays humor by posing as Australian coal executives that are adopting “Fuck you” as an official policy. This is a satire that mocks the current actions of coal companies by accurately naming it. The video succeeds then in calling attention to a problem of unfair and apathetic scapegoating of future people. The video also encourages all of us to consider how our actions might be similarly culpable of “passing the buck.” It’s video format and use of humor may also increase its spreadability in online spaces, having more people view it and perhaps adopt its message.


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