Using Humor Effectively to Communicate Climate Change

Using Humor Effectively to Communicate Climate Change

As a climate leader and communicator working at Crater Lake National Park, every summer I speak about climate change in the evening ranger talks I present.

I give the sobering and unpleasant information that climate change is impacting Crater Lake National Park and use humor throughout this talk to make the audience feel more comfortable hearing very uncomfortable information.

For over four years now, my life’s passion has been communicating climate change effectively. For me, one of the key ingredients in communicating climate change is humor. Humor is a big part of the ranger evening talks that I present and I firmly believe that if people are laughing with me, they are more likely to be open to listening about a polarizing subject like climate change. 

Two years ago, The Yale Forum for Climate Change and the Media published my firsthand account of communicating climate change in a National Park, where I talked about the need to be likeable, enthusiastic, credible, hopeful and humorous to communicate effectively. 

I noted that if you can find a natural humorous way to share funny stories, images, or analogies, your audience will be more likely to stick with you on what they perceive is a heavy subject like climate change.

I posted a video of the presentation I gave in September 2012, titled The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on YouTube for the rest of the world to enjoy, laugh, learn, and hopefully be inspired to take action on climate change.

In the presentation, I have an image of an original movie poster with Clint Eastwood and I play part of the theme song. Audience members almost always whistle along to the music. I am excited and having fun playing the music and showing the movie poster, so it always seems like the audience is ready to have fun with me. With this interaction, I set the tone that this is not a serious lecture. My talk is more like a Hollywood popcorn movie or a bad 1960s ‘Spaghetti Western’ where you laugh along while watching. 

I compare the Mountain Pine Beetles to the bad guys in the movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. As if they were at a sporting event, I encourage my audience to boo and hiss at an image of the beetle. I even have the image of the beetle in the middle of an old fashioned Wanted Dead or Alive poster. The audience loves this opportunity to participate in my program and the universal feeling of rooting against a bad guy in a story. 

I also compare the mountain pine beetle to the very cheesy 1977 disaster movie, The Monster of Crater Lake, about a large dinosaur that attacks a lovely lakeside community. I joke how awful the movie is, how my co-workers enjoy watching it even though I think it is so bad, and beg them not to order the DVD and watch it themselves. The audience then roars with laughter at my strong dislike of this bad movie. 

In November 2013, I was contacted by Eric Knackmuhs, an Associate Instructor and Ph.D. student at Indiana University.
Eric’s research on communication shows that my use of humor is effective because it ‘softens the blow’ of this serious subject. He sees that my use of humor connects with the audience because it is very memorable, and it is a very effective metaphor for how the mountain pine beetles are attacking Crater Lake’s whitebark pine trees like monsters.

He thinks they will remember this if they go out hiking the next day and see a mountain pine beetle. They may even say, “Hey, there’s one of those monsters!” and recall the information from my evening program. 

Eric told me “When people laugh they are more likely to remember and share that experience. Laughter is also a social experience. It forms a strong emotional connection.”

Eric feels like humor is an underutilized technique. He thinks people make the mistake of separating arts and entertainment from science. 

In my experience using humor to explain climate change, he is totally correct. People are more open to learning about science when they are being entertained. Both of us feel using humor is vital in communicating about climate change. 


Brian Ettling is a Climate Reality Project Leader and a seasonal park ranger at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon.

Photo via (cc) flickr user Thai Jasmine