What's so funny about climate change?

“I drive a Prius.”

“And that’s a nice little gesture. My car runs on reclaimed cooking oil. I have some literature if you want it.”

“That’s okay—save the paper.”

“I haven’t printed anything since 2004. I was going to email you.”

“On your power-hungry computer?”

“My entire house is solar-powered. I sell energy back to the grid and donate it to save polar bears.”

“... I’m an environmental lawyer, so I’m pretty green.”

“Mmm … so is your lawn.”

That obnoxious exchange was from a 2014 episode of Modern Family. Later in the episode, both characters from the dialog have to come to terms with how alienating and frustrating they find this extreme environmentalism, eventually choosing to live a little less green.

Frankly, to this viewer, this trope is getting old.

Comedies on television have been home to some of the most problematic framings of environmentalist characters. Starting in the early ’90s, characters who raised concerns about climate issues were often low-status — portrayed as either ill-informed, lacking social intelligence, or both. Two beloved advocates for environmental responsibility, Phoebe from Friends and Topanga from Boy Meets World, had to be retooled in later seasons with a less activist edge to make them more broadly palatable to mainstream audiences. South Park, in particular, is notorious for mocking the climate change activism of its well-meaning but clueless adult characters, typically in episodes where they function as the antagonist. The comedy surrounding these characters came from mocking their beliefs as ridiculous and overhyped, undermining the message of the less extreme voices working for environmental causes outside of television.

Television is an important vector for communicating information about climate change — and plays a critical role in framing that information. More than 41% of Americans still don’t think that climate change is a big issue, but many of these people number among the 80% of Americans who watch television daily. Deconstructing the ways that climate change is portrayed on television is important for those of us who work to communicate science, because it gives us a baseline understanding of how people approach the issues. With that in mind, our 2020 cohort of Graduate Student Outreach Fellows worked with “Our Changing Climate” to create a video that examines the intersection between climate change and humor in scripted television over the past several decades. The video, entitled “Why TV Comedies Get Climate Change So Wrong,” premieres on December 18, 2020, on YouTube.

To create this video, the fellows engaged in a research project to search media databases for quotes and plot points that involved climate change. What we found is that overall television representation of anthropogenic climate change is worryingly both scarce and misguided. In children’s media, despite the popularity of animal and nature shows, climate content specifically is typically omitted. When it does appear, it is often presented in an alarmist way that lacks the local grounding to resonate with young viewers. Similarly, dramas that use extreme climate as the backdrop of disaster movie tropes often focus on an extreme negative future rather than the specific explanations underlying the phenomenon or steps that individuals can take to prevent that bleak future.

In comedy in particular, there have been massive shifts in the way that climate change has been portrayed—but often not for the better. Though we found fewer instances of the “obnoxious environmentalist” trope occurring after 2016 (no thanks to The Politician on Netflix, which built a season arc around this), we noticed a worrying trend of nihilism. From It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to The Simpsons, the humor comes from playing up how enormous a crisis we are in and how helpless people are to combat it. While this type of humor does acknowledge the problem of climate change, it can feel disempowering to be told, over and over, that there is no solution.

Studies in media criticism show that neither stories with outdated visual imagery (smokestacks, deforestation, etc.) nor stories about extreme weather drive greater engagement with climate issues. Instead, more positive imagery that manages to be personally relevant while acknowledging systemic issues has been shown time and again to be the most effective strategy for promoting engagement.

While we found lots of examples of climate change portrayals on television, there are undoubtedly more examples to be found. Therefore, in connection with the release of the Our Changing Climate video, NCSE is starting a Citizen Science Project called “Understanding Climate Change in Scripted Media.” We are asking people to contribute plot points or quotes that deal with climate change or global warming that they discover in scripted media. Learn more or submit your contribution here. It’s a great way to contribute to the public understanding of science from the comfort of your own couch.

Kate Carter
Short Bio

Kate Carter is Director of Community Science Education at NCSE.