When should I tell a joke? Climate Change Edition

February 9, 2023
Lincoln Sorscher

As any comedian could tell you, the key to a good joke is … … … timing. Which jokes land is heavily dependent on when they’re told. This is true for science communication, too. All messaging critically depends on its timing and its context. As more and more science communicators and comedians begin to tackle tricky subjects like climate change, we can find ourselves wondering: when can we and when should we tell a climate change joke?

Here’s the short answer: sooner rather than later. The long answer, as with everything in the world of climate change, is a little more complicated.

Climate change is a hot mess - literally

The core problem is that climate change is happening now, was happening yesterday, and, unless there’s another massive fusion update from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, will still be happening tomorrow. This makes climate change timeless, or, at the very least, something that works on time scales difficult to comprehend.

In some ways, climate change is evergreen content. Unfortunately, it will always be fresh. But, in other ways, climate change has been happening so slowly for so long, it can be a challenge to describe its scope and make new humor feel relevant. Climate change occurs over generations rather than days, and this contributes to the apathy most people feel about it. It’s the type of problem that looks, Washington Post columnist David Fahrenthold notes, “as if it was designed to be ignored.”

Climate Humor as a Serious Response

An ever-expanding body of scientific work suggests that humor is a valuable solution. Humor can effectively scale down climate change to the human level. According to a recent Grist article, climate comedy increases credibility, optimism, and action. In these ways, humor, unlike data-heavy or doom-and-gloom approaches, makes climate change impossible to ignore.

But, like any other mode of communication, humor is not riskless. As we’ve discussed previously, humor fundamentally divides people into in-groups and out-groups (typically those "in on the joke", and those who are the joke). This can be counterproductive to your messaging. The “when” of climate comedy is everything. Understanding the logic underlying climate comedy is critical, so keep this list of “whens” in mind when telling climate change jokes.

1. Know when it’s “too soon.”

Climate change is already being experienced as a global tragedy. For some people, that will make it unconditionally “too soon” no matter what, and that there’s nothing funny about climate change. For the rest of us, however, we’re desperate to use comedy as a very healthy and natural way to deal with environmental catastrophe.

Still, we should be incredibly aware of the consequences of our jokes. Always keep in mind that the impacts of climate change are inequitably felt. Ask yourself: who’s the butt of your joke? To borrow some terminology from comedy, are you “punching up” or “punching down”? Climate comedy will always be in poor taste when it targets those suffering from climate change the most.

2. Know when you’re working with the right audiences.

All humor is audience specific. This is important in making sure your jokes land, and it’s incredibly important in making sure you’re communicating climate messaging effectively.

Research suggests climate humor may generally work better with some audiences than with others. Skurka et al argue that climate humor works better with younger audiences. Politics is also a critical divide in how people experience climate information and climate humor. Geography, education, and race may also impact how your audience experiences your climate jokes, though more work needs to be done in order to fully understand these types of audience segmentations in relation to climate humor.

3. Know when you’re overreaching.

Sometimes, climate humor just won’t work. Know when to cut your losses. It’s incredibly important to be very honest with yourself about your goals. When it comes to the subject or the timing of your jokes, being overly ambitious accomplishes very little.

For instance, climate humor simply won’t resonate with climate skeptics. And that’s okay. As Professor Beth Osnes of UC Boulder explains, effective communication is not about changing minds: “Let’s not even waste our time. You could dedicate your life to change one mind… I don’t care what you’re using, you could use a bulldozer!” We can nudge people, but anything else and we’re kidding ourselves.

Never forget that some of the people who express the most doubt about climate change are, tragically, the same people who will feel climate change most intensely. Nothing is accomplished by targeting misinformed members of our society. In fact, this will only calcify them in their beliefs and almost certainly work against your climate messaging.

Humor and “A Better World for Nothing”

Joel Pett’s “What if it’s all a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing” demonstrates these principles firing on all cylinders.

Joel Pett's 2009 comic showing climate scientists asking "What if it's a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?"

Pett, a Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist, knows his “whens,” or in other words, how to calibrate his humorous message for his target, his audience, and his goal.

  1. His target: Pett chose the members of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. As some of the most influential political actors in the environmental space, Pett was clearly “punching up.”

  1. His audience: According to Pett, as the Monday morning cartoonist for one of America’s four papers of record, he knew that if he wrote something resonant, it would be passed around the conference and could make a difference. Note how Pett’s target matches his audience. This can work, depending on your goal.
  1. His goal: And, finally, Pett intends to point out an irony without assigning blame or judgment. Pett’s cartoon does not condemn, shame, or catastrophize, but rather asks a simple, admittedly ironic question and leaves it unanswered. This approach to humor doesn’t run the risk of alienating its audience.

Because of Pett’s careful calibration of his “whens” and a substantial degree of talent, the cartoon got results. Following the conference, the head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, reached out to Pett to ask for a signed copy of the cartoon to hang in her office. To date, over 40 environmental groups have adopted the cartoon as an international symbol for the ludicrousness of the environmental debate: why not make a better world for nothing?

And always remember: Sooner is better than later!

The planet is warming. Natural disasters are increasing in intensity, and all recent statistics suggest that if we don’t do something about climate change soon, the consequences will be dire. Grist argues that climate humor can be a valuable part of the solution. Still, there are no assurances that the current “climate” of the climate comedy scene will be the same in five or ten years, so write now, when most climate comedians agree that people are hungry for it!

We need more cartoons like Pett’s, and we need them yesterday. The best thing about climate change is that we’re all experiencing it, so we’re all entitled to joke about it. Go out there, know your “whens,” and get writing – while we still can.


If you follow these tips and have impeccable timing, you’ll be crafting expert level environmental comedy in no time! If you want to learn more about how to talk about climate change, make sure to check out our other article on effective climate communication.