Opinion: Jo Brand translated my science - I’m certain comedy can connect people to climate change

Mark Maslin
Mark Maslin

Comedy can be used as a transformative tool in science communication and helps to create a positive impact on the general public’s understanding of climate change, explains Professor Mark Maslin (UCL Geography) in The Conversation.

A new comedy project pairing leading comedians with climate scientists presents a novel way to communicate the climate crisis.

"If people like me have to get involved, you know we are in deep shit," says Jo Brand, renowned British comedian and The Great British Bake Off host. Why? Because she has joined the ranks of other notable comedians such as Nish Kumar, Kiri Pritchard-McLean, and Jonathan Pie in Climate Science Translated, a project that translates complex climate science into accessible and funny content to spur millions of people into action.

Even though climate change is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced, research by the Climate Science Breakthrough team shows that just 2% of the public can name a climate scientist. Nearly everyone knows Jo Brand. Getting famous comedians to translate what climate scientists are saying in a funny, ironic and often blunt way makes the science much more accessible.

And it works. Research shows that humour can be a transformative tool in science communication and have a positive impact on people’s understanding of climate change. So far, my video with Jo Brand has been viewed more than 3 million times and has gained mainstream attention, with celebrities like Ellie Goulding, Gary Lineker, Rainn Wilson and Thom Yorke retweeting the videos. Each time, that brings the core message to a broader audience.

It also works because comedians can say things that scientists cannot - for example, they can swear. Jo asked me in our chat after recording the main film, "was it time for scientists to be allowed to swear, as things are so bad?" My answer, which is in the video clip below, is no. Because the public expect scientists to be calm, rational and to stick to facts - as soon as we "become human" we lose credibility. So, in many ways, Jo Brand is my human side screaming at everyone to do something, now!

The video launch also caught the eye of Good Morning Britain - Jo Brand and I were invited to appear on the show. Susanna Reed asked me why I had agreed to make the video with Jo Brand. My answer was simple: "Would I be on national breakfast TV discussing climate change without the wonderful Jo Brand?"

Celebrities can access a much wider audience than a scientist. Just imagine if Taylor Swift was dating a climate scientist and not an American football player.

Later that morning, TV presenters Susanna Reed and Richard Medley asked the UK environment minister Steve Barclay one of my questions: "Why has the government granted new oil and gas licences when we already have enough reserves to push the climate way beyond 2?C warming?" Because the new licenses will not be operational for ten to 15 years and will make no difference to the global cost, so consumers will still have very high energy prices.

Not surprisingly, he avoided the question - but it was asked on breakfast TV because I was on a comedy video.

Finding the funny

Comic Relief is a great example of how effective comedy can be. In 2022, it passed a milestone of raising over £1.5 billion to support people worldwide by harnessing the power of comedy. It now stands out as a calendar moment in British culture.

In politics, comedy has been used in a largely satirical way to engage the public, proving its power. Spitting Image and The Thick Of It crystallised the essence of politics at the time in people’s minds.

Jo Brand’s involvement in the climate comedy project marks a significant step up in celebrities sounding the alarm about the accelerating environmental crisis. Others include Kevin McCloud, Mary Portas, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Chris Packham who featured in Channel 4’s climate emergency season last year. Even William Shatner, the original Captain James T. Kirk, has added his voice saying we must act now to save our planet.

This trend signifies the increasing urgency of the climate crisis and its recognition across various sectors of society. The blend of humour and science clarifies complex environmental issues, making it more relatable to an everyday audience. It underscores comedy’s influence in driving change and awareness, presenting a potent strategy for addressing one of today’s most critical challenges and an alternative to the direct action activism of Just Stop Oil and other groups.

The irony, as Jo Brand would say, is that we have all the solutions at hand. Renewable energy is cheaper, safer, cleaner and more secure than fossil fuels. But globally, according to the International Monetary Fund, we subsidised fossil fuel use to the tune of US$7 trillion (5.5 trillion) in 2023 - up US$2 trillion on the previous year. As Brand said, "even the dinosaurs did not subsidise their own extinction".

This is why the comedy films invite everyone to step up and act to pressure governments for urgent change, ending with a call to ban new fossil fuel investment and the rallying cry: "All hands on deck now."

Even the climate summit COP28, held in a major petrostate, the United Arab Emirates, called for a transition away from fossil fuels. But we are not moving anywhere near fast enough. And why should billions of people suffer just because a few people and countries want to make huge profits from selling us polluting fossil fuels? That is just not funny.


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