By: Enrique Pinto-Coelho
When I was a kid, probably around the age of my 11-year-old son, I sent a drawing of a flying Superman – copied from a piggy bank – to my school’s magazine. I still remember the excitement of reading my name under the full-page picture the day it was published, a mixture of pride and delight that I only felt again many years after, when I signed my first journalistic article in a (paid) publication.
Image 1: The History of “Supermán”, one of my favourite childhood reads
It’s funny that my debut in the publishing world was through an image instead of a text, because my talent for drawing turned out to be almost nil. But it is not surprising that the theme was a superhero, because I never got rid of the stories that inhabited my childhood, whether they were science fiction characters or ancient mythologies.
Speaking of myths: I first read about climate change in a book that linked it to the myth of Cassandra and our “natural tendency” to reject mortal prophecies (or, more prosaically, bad news). Another Greek myth, Heracles, was famous for his strength and his far-ranging adventures – in particular, The Twelve Labours, accomplished over 12 years. Both figures are skilfully mixed in the superhero par excellence – Superman, of course – whose parents had to send him away because their planet, Krypton, was on the brink of destruction (and no one believed them).
Like the divine Heracles, the Man of Steel possesses a level of heightened physical abilities. Yet not even his superpowers are effective to fight kryptonite, a fictional mineral that has become synonymous with an extraordinary weakness, a kind of Achilles heel. And the Achilles heel of our civilization is the greenhouse gases, a faceless threat that is, at the same time, a cause, and a consequence, of the greatest crisis our species has ever faced.
Climate change is a scientific fact (thoroughly documented in the latest IPCC report) but so are our psychological obstacles to accept the need for action. This existential challenge has been under the media spotlight at least since the late 1980s and, despite the increasing availability of information, the world has not been putting in place effective responses.
In recent years of apparent saturation of sombre discussions, humorous approaches – such as satire and comedy – are progressively looked to as potentially useful vehicles to meet people where they are on climate change. The satirical mode can work better than a straitlaced one – and, as long as it is properly done and handled with care, it can ignite positive change.
Image 2 ‘Kryptonite’: the “first Portuguese podcast on humour and (climate) changes”
Explaining complex ideas to broad audiences in a funny way can be tricky, though. Most networks avoid satire because it might alienate audiences, and subjects such as climate change can be intimidating. Enter podcasts. Since these audio files are easy-to-produce and distribute to the public, they are tools with great potential for science communication – and, like comic book stories, quick and cheap, making them an ideal medium for experimentation.
Research shows that science communication mixed with humour presents great public approval. Shockingly, there are no podcasts of this blend in Portugal – even if humour is the dominant genre (8 out of 10 podcasts in the iTunes ranking on 2020 were labelled “comedy”). Podcasts that combine climate change with comedic approaches are extremely rare even at a global level: among the ~1,000 science podcasts in English in Spotify, I found only six (and half of them were no longer operating).
To explore this promising niche (recent data shows an overall rise in podcast listening), I am currently developing the first-ever comedy & climate series in European Portuguese. Drawing from my experience as a journalist , host and state-of-the-art research, the podcast will be the backbone of my PhD thesis: a real-life experiment, and an opportunity to accomplish “the most powerful thing that individuals can do to confront climate change” according to a renowned climate scientist: talk about it.
Additionally, podcasting can provide an opportunity for guests (not only scholars: politicos, comedians and other stakeholders as well) to take a step back and think about the big picture. What does climate change mean to different audiences and why? But also: have I had my last good oyster?
By interviewing relevant people from various spheres, I will have access to privileged information and the opportunity – just like a beneficial Trojan horse – to spread the virus of urgent climate action amongst a group of leaders who can, in turn, inspire and mobilize audiences across the planet.
“The greatest leaders of mankind, in fact, those who are remembered, have one thing in common: they chose the right moment to put our future before the present”, writes Malena Ernman, mother of Greta Thunberg – a Cassandra of our time, the girl telling that the emperor has no clothes. “Now, our destiny is in the hands of the media, and it couldn’t be in better hands.”
Cassandra has always been associated with tragedy: her warnings could not prevent the destruction of Troy, just as Superman’s parents (Jor-El and Lara) could not prevent the destruction of Krypton and all its inhabitants (except Kal-El, sent in a spaceship to Earth).
Climate change will never be a barrel of laughs, but humour can help in overcoming the social silence around it.
According to Maxwell Boykoff, to address the challenges connected to climate change, “we must be prepared to take communication risks, to potentially make mistakes and apply imagination to come up with new and innovative ways of retelling climate stories in the 21st century”.
I’d like to end on a humorous note: pretending that a modest podcast – no matter its potential impact – could make a difference after much more ambitious attempts by the likes of Al Gore and Leonardo di Caprio – both stars and creators of award-winning documentaries with record audiences around the world – is likely hilarious.
But at least I will be using my own voice, and “there is nothing more powerful than the first-person narrative” – particularly in a context in which science communication is “supremely accurate, short on humour, devoid of emotion, and increasingly ineffective”.
Image 3 : Poster for the Kryptonite podcast
Enrique Pinto-Coelho is a freelance reporter, fixer and writer and a PhD student at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon (ICS-ULisboa), in the Doctoral Programme in Climate Change and Sustainable Development Policies.