The thermometer touched 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in the central Indian city of Nagpur as cartoonist Rohan Chakravarty spoke about the influence of climate change on his work. The record heat wave – made 30 times more likely due to climate change – underscored the urgency of the subject.
He is one of a number of comic book artists, using their comedic and creative talents to fight inaction on climate change. Cartoons, like few other media, can condense complex scientific ideas into fun, amusing forms that inspire action, without being overly godly, say researchers and cartoonists.
Climate change webcomic riff characters
Chakravarty’s “Green Humor” comics span the spectrum of environmental issues. Think anthropomorphic animals making jokes about climate change or serving up concise satire of government failures, as well as large-scale informative breakdowns of complex topics.
“What started as a series focused primarily on wildlife conservation has grown to include all things green – how climate change affects people and agriculture, climate justice, the notion that social justice is linked climate change and governance and policy,” Chakravarty said. (Also read: Fact check: do climate policies increase energy bills? Experts answer)
He is attracted to the format of cartoons because they give the reader time to reflect and form their own opinion.
“That’s the beauty of cartoons. It’s a medium that almost never becomes preachy,” Chakravarty said.
All of this came in particularly handy during the COVID shutdowns, when Indian environmentalists were unable to publicly protest the government’s moves to ditch environmental impact assessments for industries and businesses. Chakravarty said his comic has become the face of the online movement against the proposed policy.
Cartoons take people by surprise
The small number of academic studies on climate change and cartoons that exist suggest that they allow creators and readers to explore dark ideas in meaningful ways. They can also help authors deal with any stress or trauma they may have experienced as a result of climate disasters.
Graphic novels and cartoons can break through where other mediums can’t, said Nick Holm, a culture and media theorist at Massey University in New Zealand. Holm’s work focuses on popular culture as a means of understanding political thought.
“No one is on their guard reading the funny pages,” he said. “I think the form is really powerful in that regard, because it’s a daily, low-stakes form that is, at least ostensibly, primarily for entertainment. It’s a very safe space to think about new things.”
Although Holm said they wouldn’t necessarily change every reader’s point of view, the humor “perhaps sets up a better chance” of changing thinking about climate change.
A small contribution to the fight
Rosemary Mosco, the artist behind the popular “Bird and Moon” comics, told DW that drawing comics, in a way, allows her to help fight climate change.
“None of us know exactly what to do, but the experts are all telling us to use everything we have and do what we can,” she said from her US home. “I have cartoon skills, so it seems natural to talk about what matters to me.”
Mosco’s comics bounce from endearing facts about maligned species through jokes for birdwatchers to bitter truths about climate change.
Mosco also believes that injecting humor into a serious topic like climate change helps get the message across to a wide audience. She’s had comics that have gone viral on unlikely, ostensibly “boring” subjects like bogs, and added that the medium doesn’t take away from the seriousness of the problem.
“I think people understand that these are serious subjects, that people whistle in the dark and make jokes because it shows our common humanity and not because it demeans the subject.”
Where’s the line with humor?
Science communicators should keep in mind that there are risks in using humour, according to researcher Nick Holm. A society that finds humor in everything risks taking nothing seriously.
A prime example is the rise of online trolls and their constant pursuit of “lulz” – a play on LOL and a slogan used to justify often gratuitous behavior performed for personal kicks.
He also cites “South Park”‘s early mockery of Al Gore’s climate message in the “ManBearPig” episodes, which ridiculed the idea of taking anything too seriously.
But, used effectively, humor can help develop seriousness, empathy and solidarity, and could help slowly change the political climate, as long as it doesn’t turn into outright mockery of those who are not disagree with you.
“Making fun of climate change deniers won’t get you anywhere. It won’t convince anyone,” he said. “It’s going to alienate people. It’s going to upset them. It’s going to entrench them in their opinions.”
comics not funny
For Mosco, some of his most impactful comics lack humor at all.
One just shows a wall of quotes about fossil fuels meant to confuse and confuse the public taken from various documents with a flame growing bigger in the background culminating in a wildfire.
But a dominant theme through his work is that of positivity. That it is not too late to act and that humanity cannot lose hope in the face of climate change.
What about Chakravarty?
“If I were to be completely honest with you, the goal has always been to go out and have fun, get into mischief, disrupt the status quo and see what happens.”