A slide from Pablo Suarez's presentation on human and climate change.

A slide from Pablo Suarez’s presentation on humor and climate change.

What do Mary Poppins and geo-engineering have in common with respect to climate change? Think about billions of Mary Poppins’ reflective umbrellas, miniaturized and deliberately placed in the earth’s upper atmosphere, to cool us down. It’s a funny image, right? What if those tiny umbrellas were made of sulfuric particles? What could go wrong?

Humor can help us understand and engage on climate change – an increasingly depressing topic. Given the slew of the latest scientific reports, including the U.S.’s Fourth National Climate Assessment, the IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degrees C, and the 2018 UN Environment Emissions Gap Report, the evidence is clear. The earth is getting hotter, government policies are woefully insufficient in helping us meet our climate goals, and we really only have 12 years to reach our goal of containing the worst impacts of climate change. It’s dire and thinking about our depressing climate future seems far from humorous.

But this is exactly why we should be looking towards humor, according to Pablo Suarez, Artist in Residence at the National University of Singapore (NUS-LRFI) and Associate Director for Research and Innovation at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre. On Jan. 23, Suarez held a special session at Yale-NUS College to talk about his latest endeavor: harnessing humor to help communicate and break barriers on climate change dialogue.

Image of distracted audience at UNFCCC meeting.

A disengaged audience at a UNFCCC climate conference meeting.

So often we’ve seen images of people completely bored, disengaged from the climate change debate. According to Suarez, it’s not a good sign if even the people who are attending climate negotiations and representing the general public are asleep at the wheel. So how can we jumpstart and liven the communication to develop some really innovative solutions? Suarez gives 5 takeaways:

  1. Humor re-engages the disengaged – it has been scientifically shown to raise attention and alertness, increasing the probability that the message actually reaches intended audiences.
  2. Humor surprises – we laugh because of the unexpected, so lending humor can reveal new insights and ways of viewing the same problem.
  3. Humor breaks down barriers – people who may not be inclined to engage or see themselves on opposite sides may be more willing to collaborate.
  4. Humor makes people and organizations notice patterns – including how existing systems can frustrate us (thus making us ask: “what’s the alternative?”).
  5. Humor enables difficult conversations – especially when something is simultaneously accepted as normal yet remains completely, ridiculously unacceptable.

The session explored humor as an unconventional approach to engage people and organizations as diverse as subsistence farmers, activist youth, humanitarian donors, and NASA. Combining the fascinating science of how humor works with serious-yet-fun activities involving cartoons and games, we learned innovative ways to support climate risk management.

See his entire presentation for yourself: