The RSA's excellent comedy night on the seven dimensions of climate change contains lessons for communicators everywhere
Can a comedy night be said to have been successful if you leave feeling rather downbeat? Judging by last night's RSA event on Seven Serious Jokes About Climate Change, I'd have to say yes.
The event to mark the launch of the latest report from the RSA and COIN on The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change, brought together seven comedians to reflect on each of the dimensions identified by report authors Dr Jonathan Rowson and Dr Adam Corner - just with added jokes and occasional swearing.
The central premise of the report is that climate change is a multidimensional challenge that is affecting almost every aspect of our society and yet we continue to address it through a narrow lens that rarely widens beyond 'The Science' and poorly defined calls for 'Action'. Consequently, what is needed to break the political, cultural and societal impasse that is allowing climate change risks to escalate is a multi-faceted approach that 'reframes' our understanding of climate change through seven inter-related dimensions: science, law, economy, technology, democracy, culture, and behaviour. Put like that, you can see why Rowson and Corner wanted to get the jokesmiths in to bring some levity to their critique.
Each of the comedians was tasked with delivering a five to 10 minute show on one of the dimensions and how climate change can be better understood by seeing it as a democratic challenge or a technological challenge or a cultural challenge and so on. The results were unsurprisingly varied and it is fair to say some acts were more successful than others, but the combined impact was thought-provoking, profound, challenging, and, most importantly for a comedy night, funny.
The brilliant punchline from the Pappy's comedy troupe delivered after they had eaten through their allotted 10 minutes delivering their standard non-climate related set of (brilliant) sketches deserved its ovation, as did Marcus Brigstocke's face as he admitted that he found insulating your home and shopping less to be extremely sexy. It is worth catching the set online to get the full effect.
However, if the jokes were good it was the manner in which they were harnessed to make some deadly serious points that gave the evening its power. Brigstocke's exceptional Dr Seuss inspired poem on the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit highlighted the absurdity of our leaders' inaction more effectively than any petition, just as Steven Punt's sceptic-baiting monologue on "so-called science" hammered home the anti-intellectualism that defines that particular clique.
But it was the two most challenging performances that served to highlight the paucity of our collective response to climate change.
Rob Auton's shift from one liners to a genuinely moving poem on the world we stand to lose hammered home the risks inherent in trusting technology to save us. In taking the self-satirising analysis of those who believe technology will always protect us from environmental crises to its logical extreme and imagining "anti-hurricane missiles" and "ice cap rebuilding apps", Auton perfectly articulated the uncertainty those of us who believe in the promise of clean technologies wrestle with every day. It made for an uncomfortable yet inspiring listen.
Holly Burn's eccentric sketch (you need to see it) was equally thought-provoking, seizing on the theme of culture's response to climate change to imagine a former lover who as a writer had seen environmental damage being wrought and chosen not to explore it as a topic. "Why didn't you tell us what we were doing to the world?" she asked her imaginary beau, while simultaneously challenging an audience that had been completely wrong-footed.
You can see why I was left feeling somewhat downcast by these performances, despite there also being plenty of laughs. In many ways, I found several of the sketches more serious and hard-hitting than Professor Chris Rapley's wilfully serious and hard-hitting 2071 lecture on the latest climate science.
Having been asked to find comedic potential in climate change pretty much all of the performers had been forced to settle on gallows humour, some of it pretty dark. There was little on the identification of the tangible and clearly defined actions that Rowson and Corner argue will be needed to genuinely start to tackle climate change. At times it felt more like one long, and yet funny, sigh at the daunting reality we face.
Moreover, the effectiveness of the comedians' analysis of our collective failure on climate change only served to highlight the inadequacy of what has gone before. As the excellent compere Pippa Evans observed at the start of the evening, the question for those who are concerned about climate change is how do you make it "as interesting as Kim Kardashian's bottom"? Reading this morning's analysis by George Monbiot on the criminal extent to which environmental issues have been sidelined by mainstream media only underlines the enormity of that particular challenge.
However, it is a challenge that has to be taken on and the RSA's new report and the communication skills demonstrated by the seven comedians last night provide some important pointers as to how it might be overcome.
Rowson and Corner's seven dimensions hypothesis offers a useful reminder to business leaders and policymakers that climate change cannot be confined to a clearly defined silo. Companies that are serious about tackling climate change need to wrestle with the issue through their operations, investment, risk management, marketing, customers, supply chains, and even culture, not just through a sustainability department. Politicians cannot credibly declare that they care about tackling climate change while simultaneously maximising fossil fuel production. You need to attack climate risks from multiple angles.
Meanwhile, mining the comedy that comes with environmental catastrophe - and there is definitely comedy there - reminds advertiser, marketing departments, and campaigners that there are more effective ways to build support for green technologies and initiatives than the traditional approaches deployed by public awareness-raising exercises. I hope it is a lesson Al Gore, Pharrell Williams, and the latest Live Earth shindig are willing to embrace.
Most of all though, it is Burn's plaintive inquiry - "why didn't you tell us" - that resonates. If you accept that climate change is happening and serious, the question for every individual, every business, and every politician is what are you going to do about it and how are you going to build support for the actions you want to take. If you accept that climate change is one of the most serious issues we all face, you need to prioritise building this support and taking these actions as a matter of urgency. How many of us - in business, politics, or civil society - can honestly say we have done that?
Last night, Marcus Brigstocke challenged the audience, if you think climate change is serious and you are confident in that fact, how far are you willing to go? It was as part of a joke, but as Winston Churchill famously observed, "a joke is a very serious thing".
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