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Is satire a useful tool for climate change communications? (And some F-bombing)

Some days the climate change debate is so awfully absurd that it’s a toss up between whether to laugh or cry. Most days, in fact. On one hand,


Some days the climate change debate is so awfully absurd that it’s a toss up between whether to laugh or cry. Most days, in fact.

On one hand, we hear that leaders of the IMF, World Bank and UN are pushing for a price on carbon, and that Archbishop Desmond Tutu is calling for an anti-apartheid style boycott of the fossil fuel industry, and the New York Times says we are running out of time for effective action.

On the other hand, there is Attorney General George Brandis suggesting that those who grasp the seriousness of climate change are ignorant and medieval, the Federal Government’s chief business advisor Maurice Newman is promoting denialism, and Clive Palmer’s latest intervention, which The Guardian describes as the latest in our “sorry climate policy saga”.

But there is some good news for those in search of intelligent, informed debate and analysis – the five top essays in the Gavin Mooney Memorial Essay Competition, examining climate change and equity concerns, are now available in a free e-book. A warm shout-out to Inside Story (Peter Browne) and the Sydney School of Public Health (Glenn Salkeld) for making this happen.

The essays are:

  • Climate change and equity: whose language is it anyway?
    Tim Senior (winning entry)
  • Reframing equity for action on climate change
    Steve Campbell and Lucie Rychetnik
  • Markets say the darnedest things
    Oscar McLaren
  • Global warming: we cannot afford to fail
    Dora Marinova and Peter Boyer
  • It’s the ethics, stupid! Why climate action needs a new moral basis
    Fergus Green

While the essays offer quite different perspectives, there are some common themes, including the need to better engage the mainstream in the need for action, and to clearly identify the fossil fuels industry as the problem.

One possibility not directly explored in the book is the potential for satire to help with this reframing of the debate (an idea recently canvassed in this article, Climate change and the Koch brothers walk into a bar….published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists).

Perhaps this clip below offers ways forward? (NB: Language alert!) Film maker John Nikolakopoulos explains below the clip how it came about, and also you will find some comments from public health and communications experts on the merits of his approach.


John Nikolakopoulos explains the background to the clip

The idea came about from my routine 5am walks around Centennial Park, brainstorming ideas into my iPhone voice recorder. From idea to final film was over a few weekends in January and February.

My background in Social Research, Filmmaking, Branding and Communications Strategy not only made me aware of the deep disconnect between the climate change message and the average disengaged Australian, but also provided me the tools to give a response.

Apart from a small token sum to the actors, it was all done by me for no money.

The real audience for the piece, which explains why I left it slightly longer and gave it a non viral title, is the board of BHP. Dean dalla valle, Baroness von Shriti,  Andrew McKenzie, Jac Nasser etc.

The original film directly referenced them in the titles but it was eventually obvious these direct references weren’t necessary. The end monologue taps directly into a corporate mindset. People do not climb to the top without a fierce commitment to their company values, even if it is at the expense of their own, or human life. I hope they, or their children, see it.

The secondary audience is a less engaged public. For those who understand the science, the communication strategy of ‘lets teach the science so that the world understands our panic and lets us fix it’ is BAD.

It disempowers the general public, the message they see is, we want to take your power away.

The people who understand the problem try to explain it to those who are not geared towards understanding, and are then turned off by what then appears as unjustified histrionics.

Humour that reveals the hypocrisy of institutions is much more empowering to the average person, by disempowering the corporate elites.

In other videos I have in the pipeline, I also use humour, pragmatism, storytelling and other tools to help people listen to the climate change message in a way that empowers them and compels them to act.

I have received dozens of emails and have met with people from all over the world via Skype, looking for help with their climate communications. There is one organisation that is now filming a remake of the video for their work in fighting against the Keystone pipeline.

I have about six other ideas I am hoping to roll out as I find the time.

I am also formulating a list of essential traits that climate change communications must have to connect with a disengaged public. I am not into preaching to the choir.

There are four climate change arguments: Science, Economics, Politics and emotional Addressing these four arguments and separating them in the minds of the public goes a long way.

We are thankfully in a new stage of the climate debate where the economic argument is finally in the endgame of winning. So this should be the key for any communication and I have a few ideas around this provided I can find funding.

The trick of Climate denial has been to pretend they are arguing science, but they are in fact impeding science education to the broader public to maintain general ignorance as a political lever.

They will fall further into irrelevance as the economic arguments for action strengthen, especially in rural areas where the big issues are around windmills versus fracking wells on their land.

The latest polls showing a drop in support of the Coalition for the Greens in the regional electorates reflects this victory of economics and pragmatism which will energise the renewable power shift faster than political or moral arguments.


How effective is this clip?

GP Dr Tim Senior,  winner of the Gavin Mooney Memorial Essay competition

How should we communicate about climate change? As we realise that just discussing the scientific facts doesn’t have the traction required to stimulate change, this seems to be the question of the moment.  I wrote about it, and Crikey have run a series of articles on it.

Right on cue, a case study! The main talking point with this video will be the language. There are some jokes, which like infantile school humour, relies just on the presence of an F-word to make you laugh. They are rarely funny. Others use an f-bomb because that is the only word that will do. This video falls into that category. We need strong language to describe what is being done to our climate.

Everyone now thinks they know what climate stories will look like. We need stories on climate change to have something different – either something different to say or a new way of saying it.

This video, using a good parody of a corporate video, exposes the gap between what we all know to be true, and the behaviour of coal companies.

I certainly found it impossible to look at the Australians for Coal website (or the subsequent tweet-mocking) without thinking of this video – job done, I’d say. The main audience will be those already sympathetic to the message.

Whether it encourages more people to divest from coal shares (or whether people realised this was the message) remains to be seen.

There is no single killer message that will change everyone’s mind. The IPCC reports and realistic reporting of them is still needed, backed up by features, stories, even poems and songs. Next step is for The Checkout to do a feature on it. Perhaps followed by Peppa Pig.


Associate Professor Lucie Rychetnik, University of Notre Dame (and a Gavin Mooney Memorial Essays author)

Well it certainly made me chortle – thanks.

I think it adopts the ‘name it for what it is’ approach which is never a bad thing in my view – especially when responding to the coal industry’s incredibly irresponsible stance. I guess they could argue they are being ‘responsible’ to the their shareholders….but in this case the costs to everyone else are too great to let them get away with it.

And yes I agree this ‘name and shame via satire’ approach could well be adopted for other topics. Maybe we have all been way too polite for too long when it comes to companies or groups undertaking actions that harm large numbers of people to benefit just a few.

I don’t know about the potential for legal action though – would be worth getting a legal perspective?

Actually, it kind of has the same feel as the Bugga Up campaigns of previous decades…just a bit more gritty in the language. But that seems in tune with the importance and urgency of the issue to me!


Professor Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

The ad will go down a treat among people who already share its intended message. They will feel a tribal affirmation that they don’t belong to the corporate world shown. It’s them, not us. They will chortle over some of the great lines in it. It will get a few hundred thousand hits. It will get lots of tweets, and I’ll be one who does that.

Shaming and discrediting strategies have an important role in political change. But I’m sorry to say it will do little to engage or change those who are apathetic about climate change, whose heads are filled with self-exempting beliefs about why they needn’t worry, or who belong to tribes who mistrust science.

The actors in it speak a language that few ordinary people ever encounter. So it will go right over most heads. It’s robotic cast may be funny to those of us who get the tragedy. But their emotionless convolutions will see those we hope it might influence reach for the delete key.”


Croakey moderator Michelle Culhane Hughes

I was sent this clip with the message “imagine this is the fast food industry” and I thought, yes that about sums it up.  I think these sort of parodies work really well for getting the message out. Humour is always a great way to take a message to a broader audience.

In public health it is easy to be seen as overwrought nanny staters and doomsayers but I think if we can reflect back the ridiculous (and accepted) behaviours that are feeding the inequities in population health it may be easier to sell the message.

Instead of telling individuals what to do, can we point out the ridiculousness of the corporate behaviours feeding the problem?


Writer Lea McInerney

Depends on who the target audience is. Could be just preaching to the converted.  Or further polarising the debate.

Regarding the language –  while I’m a reasonably well-adjusted occasional user of such language, I find it jarring in something like this.
It’s a bit long for such a skit (again, depends on target audience).

This article on ‘negative’ messages was recently in NYT – don’t agree with it all, but some interesting aspects. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/09/opinion/global-warming-scare-tactics.html?ref=opinion&_r=1

Re public health/health promotion messages – am more interested in finding the positives for people – the vision in this 10 year plan for physical activity is an example – see page 7 here http://bit.ly/RjPPGL. And website here http://www.getmoving.tas.gov.au/tppa/home.

Principles of social marketing worth a look  – the idea of analysing benefits and barriers to the behavioural change that’s needed – some material here if you’re interested http://www.cdc.gov/healthcommunication/cdcynergy/cdcynergylite.html. There would be good Australian examples too.


Health communications expert Ross Green

I like it. It’s funny and conveys its message clearly and emphatically. It’s well-scripted, with some very memorable lines in there. It felt like a big corporation ‘sell’, albeit a long one though.

As a piece of communication, I think it’s clear on what it’s saying, but I’m not sure how well it will work in terms of shifting people’s mindsets or changing behaviours.

In terms of public health applications, the approach could be interesting as a way to raise awareness – it’s along the same lines as the recent and startling #fuckthepoor campaign [http://youtu.be/eBuC_0-d-9Y] from the Pillion Trust in the UK. The difference being the #fuckthepoor has a clear path to action and making a change, via donations.

Incidentally, Fuck The Poor is also a wonderful song by Australian comedian Tim Minchin [http://youtu.be/YcLAJbvwNQU].

So to raise awareness for public health issues such an approach might be worth exploring, as a way to cut through the ‘noise’ and get traction. A Big Food parody springs to mind straight away.

PS from Croakey – more about the campaign at the Huffington Post.


Professor David Shearman, Doctors for the Environment Australia


We have to get tougher with these guys in PH communication


Dr Ginny Barbour,  Medicine Editorial Director, PLOS

This approach is interesting isn’t it?

I really wonder how much effect it has when it is, as I suspect, only circling among people like us, who are already converted.

There is obviously a big debate to be had about the way to influence people and I suspect that this type of thing would puzzle most people – and it takes too long to get to its point.

My sense is that we have to be much more radical – appealing to story telling or even to humour to get people’s attention.

The Wake the F up Obama campaign in 2012 probably had more popular appeal – though I gather that divided people also.



Professor Rob Moodie, University of Melbourne

It’s good – humour, parody has been used quite a lot (Tobacco – Alf Garnett, John Clarke) .

Public health unfortunately has the need to point out the reality of products that are promoted as only positives –  that provide fun, taste, relaxation, attractiveness, coolness, ease, convenience. And the advertisers can use a number of approaches – they use humour a lot (e.g. Beer ads), but not necessarily parody.

Public health has to use many emotional pulls/pushes – fact, fear, potential loss.

In the case of climate change I think it has been the huge spend, and profound influence of the energy industries (combined with a very sympathetic media demanding “balance”) that has paralysed the community.

The other interesting opportunity is in e-BUGAUP – altering on line ads e.g. as we saw with the ‘other’ version of Cokes contribution to the world.


Steve Campbell, Director, Enviropraxis PL  (and a Gavin Mooney Memorial Essays author)

This one has been around for a little while. I first saw it about a month ago. A classic bit of agit-prop.

Personally, I think that it’s very funny, and I hope that many coal executives see it and have a good twinge of guilt. I also hope that folks in the finance sector see it, and take steps to shift their investments away from fossil fuel.

Beyond that, I’m not sure if it communicates well with a public audience who are either not across the issues, turned off by the issues or in denial.

For most environmentalists though it’s the sort of thing that gives us a moment of light relief in a world that is mostly full of thankless work, darkness and challenge.


John Flannery, Media and Public Affairs Director, Australian Medical Association

Climate change is a very divisive issue in Australia, politically and within the broader community. The key to winning the debate is winning the middle ground – the so-called ordinary Australians.

This campaign is very well-intentioned but it is preaching to the converted – the very converted.

There is no doubt this will be a smash hit in social media – but more for the ‘Fuck You’ slogan than for the important details about the damaging effects of climate change.

People will watch this and think it very clever. It is clever. And it is well written and acted. Unfortunately, the takeaway message will be the slogan, not the more meaningful messages buried in the over-long script.

The verdict – it will not shift a vote in the middle ground.


Global health advocate Dr Alessandro Demaio

Whilst I don’t support the use of swearing, I do support the use of humour in communicating urgent social issues and calling for collective, community action.

For too long, messaging around climate change has been negative, overwhelming and paralysing – as I have written about previously, this doesn’t work. Climate becomes a taboo topic; a conversation killer instead of a conversation. Focusing our messaging on opportunities, on intelligent humour and on the ridiculous ironies at play is a powerful and I believe, effective communications method.


Meanwhile, an uprising of satire

As was widely reported recently, the latest PR campaign from the coal industry, Australians for Coal, generated an immediate social media uprising (see Business Spectator, The Guardian, and Buzz Feed).

A few examples below (click on images for larger sizing)…


And some other creative examples of  public health communications

Climate name change

A symphony of science and Al Gore on climate science

Meanwhile, The Lancet gets creative on YouTube, urging health professionals to engage in transformation for planetary health.

Perhaps you’ve some other links to add?



Melissa Sweet —

Melissa Sweet

Health journalist and Croakey co-ordinator

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9 thoughts on “Is satire a useful tool for climate change communications? (And some F-bombing)

  1. Reechard

    Understand the Australians f or Coal are trying to suggest they deliberately set out to ‘provoke’ a response of this kind… Gotta love them spinmeisters, they keep spinning..

  2. Reechard

    Love the film
    Thomas Turk..
    You are one Mr Bolt’s useful idiot who swallow cherry-picked data with gusto. Most have failed elementary science 101, let alone the Advanced Atmospheric Physics module. What are you?

    There is inconsistency, yes, because this is SCIENCE.
    SCIENCE involves managing such inconsistency in a way that is HONEST and TESTABLE by the greater scientific community.
    Results found wanting are reviewed, dropped, learned from.
    There is usually a sound reason for such aberrations, which when understood, add much to our body of knowledge.

    Two such glaring examples.
    1) The recent plateau (10 years in last 100) in warming is gleefully pointed to by deny-listers as validating evidence of their desperate faith based world view.
    The real reason for this temporary slowing is that increased Trade Wind activity has increased mixing and heat up-take by the surface layers of the ocean, then pushed them deeper. There to thaw frozen methane hydrates (you can look that one up).
    2) The recent cold winter in N America was similarly no cause to crow. Warming of the Arctic region resulted in a LOSS in the normal temperature gradient between the Arctic and the equator, which resulted in instability of the polar vortex.
    See? Scientific explanations.
    Not based upon faith and fraudulent guessing, nor bought with the filthy fossil fuel industry (aka Kochs) billions. On that point, formal and informal “peer review” rules out or quickly catches and corrects bad or bodgey data. Very few would think it worth throwing a life time of work and reputation away for a few $$s.
    You appear to believe in UFOs on the basis of scanty data yet deny global warming based upon much much more… Oddly inconsistent of you.

  3. ShitsGottaStop

    Mr. Turk,
    Just so you know; the time you spent writing that piece of denialist garbage is unrecoverable. You will never get it back. And most readers here won’t get past paragraph 2.

  4. Chris Hartwell

    Naturally Mr Turk, you can provide proof of all your claims, yes?

  5. The Pedanticist

    For crissakes Thomas, you can cherry pick data to your hearts content and prove that he earth is flat and the sun orbits it.

    You say Cook is flawed? Why? Of over 12,000 peer-reviewed abstracts on the subjects of ‘global warming’ and ‘global climate change’ published between 1991 and 2011 found that of the papers taking a position on the cause of global warming, over 97% agreed that humans are causing it. The scientific authors of the papers were also contacted and asked to rate their own papers, and again over 97% whose papers took a position on the cause said humans are causing global warming.

    Have a look at the basic science – you could start in 1896 with Svante Arrhenius then apply a bit of logic. Is the greenhouse effect real? Are we pumping greenhouse chemicals into the atmosphere? Where do those chemicals go? (hmmmm – not as many trees as there used to be… Maybe the ocean can absorb more CO2 – whoops!).

    As for your assertion that there has been no temperature rise over the last 20 years… Sorry but that is just blatantly wrong. Satellite data may not be picking up temperature rises because they have been measuring upper tropospheric temperatures. To quote from skepticalscience.com http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-stopped-in-1998.htm
    :There’s also a tendency for some people just to concentrate on surface air temperatures when there are other, more useful, indicators that can give us a better idea how rapidly the world is warming. Oceans for instance — due to their immense size and heat storing capability (called ‘thermal mass’) — tend to give a much more ‘steady’ indication of the warming that is happening. Records show that the Earth has been warming at a steady rate before and since 1998 and there is no sign of it slowing any time soon. More than 90% of global warming heat goes into warming the oceans, while less than 3% goes into increasing the surface air temperature.

    “Even if we focus exclusively on global surface temperatures, Cowtan & Way (2013) shows that when we account for temperatures across the entire globe (including the Arctic, which is the part of the planet warming fastest), the global surface warming trend for 1997–2012 is approximatley 0.11 to 0.12°C per decade.”

    So stop cherry picking, open your eyes and your brain and TRY and develop some understanding of what’s going on. Really, it ISN’T THAT HARD!

  6. Thomas Turk

    The original basis for the 97 % ‘scientists concur’ claim was Margaret Zimmerman’s paper. She sent some heavily loaded questions to 10,257 earth scientists. 3,146 thought it was important enough to reply, the rest chucked it in the bin.

    For the question “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?”, she excluded all but 77 of the responses. Of those 75 answered Yes, hence her 97 % assertion, whereas it is actually 2.4 %, or 0.75 %.

    In contrast, the temperature databases still show no significant warming for 95 % of the planet over the last 16 years which still invalidate 97 % of CMIP5 models.

    The Cook et al paper is similarly flawed.

    When we had a couple of mild winters a few years ago, we were told that it was a clear sign of AGW. Then we had a run of very cold winters and the explanation was that AGW causes more extreme seasonal variations.

    After a couple of very dry years, we were told that, because of AGW we would have to get used to living in an arid Mediterranean climate and start planting olive groves. When the floods came we were told that higher rainfall is a characteristic of AGW.

    A few years ago, we were told that AGW was reaching a tipping point beyond which it would become uncontrollable and accelerate catastrophically. Now we’re being told that, actually, there has been no appreciable rise in temperature for the past two decades.
    We were told that the science was conclusive and that the argument was over. But when the Met Office’s co-conspirators at the University of East Anglia were caught lying and distorting the evidence, we were told that this was just the usual discussion between scientists about the inevitable scientific uncertainty. They can’t have it both ways.

    Sceptics are denounced for not being climate scientists (though many are) but we are expected to believe the crook Pachauri (a railway engineer), the witless Gore (a politician for goodness’ sake), the utterly discredited Stern (who claims to be an economist) – and now that deluded dreamer Rowan Williams!!!

    The examples of inconsistency and dishonesty are endless but the climate scammers are like economists – they rely on the public’s poor memory. Very few people remember their predictions long enough to notice how completely useless they are. How many islands and coastal cities were going to be inundated by the turn of the century?

    The following quote may help to put things into perspective:

    “As they review the bizarre and unpredictable weather pattern of the past several years, a growing number of scientists are beginning to suspect that many seemingly contradictory meteorological fluctuations are actually part of a global climatic upheaval…the trend shows no indication of reversing.”

    This is an extract from an article in Time Magazine in 1974. The irreversible climatic upheaval the scientists were talking about was the coming of a new ice age as a result of GLOBAL COOLING

    Isn’t it time that someone put a stop to this nonsense?

  7. cartoonmick

    In-depth studies, carried out over the last 45 seconds, confirm there is a direct link between the climate and politics.

    Both climate and politics change over time !! A fact confirmed in the afore mentioned in-depth study.

    “Man” is the main cause of all political change, therefore “Man” is the main cause of climate change.

    The climate is seen as a problem if a particular political party is in power, whereas there is no problem at all to be see with the climate if the opposite party is at the helm.

    So, the simplest way to solve any climate problems is to keep that party “who see no problems”, in power.

    Not only will this save the Earth from certain destruction, it will save a lot of money in the national budget as there’ll be no need for climate science committees, reports, analysis, action etc.

    Prior to the 45 second in-depth study, a cartoon was created, which may, or may not, conflict with the theme of the above summary.

    That climate change cartoon is here . . . . . . . .



  8. Melissa Sweet

    A reader has suggested adding the work of the Yes Men in the US to this list – they are culture jamming activists who use the tactic of “identity correction” – impersonating representatives of companies, governments, and international institutions to criticise the absurdity of their discourse.

    According to an article at The Conversation:

    In October 2009, The Yes Men staged a press conference, pretending to be the United States Chamber of Commerce. The group announced the Chamber had decided to support substantive legislative action on climate change. The Yes Men also published a press release, and established a website.

    Read more here: http://theconversation.com/coal-in-court-whitehaven-climate-change-and-civil-disobedience-15991

  9. Marcus Toynboyale

    The F You video is tremendous – by not falling into the trap of being a bit naff, with too many obvious giveaways. It’s subtle and restrained in style, but also packs the punch with the simple idea of F You. More of this kind of thing, please. Anything to break the endless earnest back and forth.

    If anyone’s interested we had a piece on good v bad satire (concerning Big Tobacco in our example) here: http://livefromgolgafrincham.org/2014/02/12/pulling-the-powerline/

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