Breaking the ice on the climate change conversation – one punchline at a time

webnexttech | Breaking the ice on the climate change conversation – one punchline at a time

“Doesn’t a bitter pill go down easier when sugar-coated?”, comedian and screenwriter Neeti Palta says. She was among the 20 comedians who performed at the Shri Ram Centre of Performing Arts in Delhi on March 10 for a show titled ‘Breathless’ that focused on the poor air quality in the National Capital. The punchlines ranged from poking fun at 999 AQI (air quality index) – for the scale cannot measure a poorer air quality level – to the blame game between Delhi, Punjab and Haryana. “They must get together and clear the air,” one comedian remarked. Joking about the environment can be tricky. One may run the risk of joining a cohort of climate change deniers or those who have little understanding of the matter. For instance, amid a severe cold wave in the USA in January 2019, its then-president Donald Trump tweeted, “Wouldn’t be bad to have a little of that good old fashioned Global Warming right now!” His comment did not go down well with environmental activists, who have time and again emphasised the urgent need to combat climate change. The message has always been that we must act now to save the planet because the alternative is death, destruction, and despair. With a constant sense of impending doom and having lost countless lives already, can we laugh about climate change? Comedian Daahab Chisti tells, “Pain brings out the best part of the joke.” During the show, she remarked, “You think smoking is injurious to health? We live in hazardous!” Chisti says, laughing, “I was personally connected to the cause. In fact, my lungs were personally connected to it.” In 2021, Chisti was severely impacted by Covid-19, leaving a part of her lungs unable to function normally. Starting from the end of September or early October till the time of peak winter, Chisti says she experiences difficulty in breathing. She is not alone. Siddharth Sudhakar, another comedian, says he starts his day by checking the AQI as he is constantly worried about his ageing mother. “So, when DeadAnt and Asar approached me for the cause I could not even imagine saying no. It was an opportunity for me to spread the word, help in my own little way.” While DeadAnt is a media organisation that focuses on comedy in India, Asar works on social and environmental issues. Comedian Rupali Thakur, with her joke on being unable to kiss her husband shortly after hearing news about dying polar bears, shed light on the rise of eco-anxiety among the young. When asked about her writing process for such a serious premise, Thakur says, “I try to feel what the characters facing the issue might feel and how those characters will find humour as an escape.” Humour allows one to “speak the truth, raise awareness, address an issue in a more palatable way,” Palta adds. Souparno Banerjee, senior director at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), says his organisation works similarly to make climate change easier to understand. “I feel the problem is that people still do not connect what is happening in their day-to-day lives to climate change, or other kinds of environmental degradation with climate change. For instance, extreme weather events. Not many people actually connect it to the fact that climate is undergoing negative changes.” A 2022 study by Yale University, ‘Climate Change in the Indian Mind’, echoes this thought. Notably, researchers found that 35 per cent of Indians surveyed said they had “never heard” of global warming. In contrast, only nine per cent said they know “a lot” about global warming. The report, however, adds that the “lack of awareness of the issue” does not mean that these individuals “have not observed changes in local weather and climate patterns.” “This suggests that many people in India may have observed changes in their local climate and weather patterns without understanding that these changes are related to the broader issue of global climate change,” the report said. Banerjee says these linkages need to be talked about more. He welcomes the comic take on climate change, adding, “We are desperately in a situation where there is real and present danger, and we need to be talking about it to any kind of medium that we can get access to.” When asked if one would run the risk of trivialising the issue, Banerjee reasons, “Air pollution is a fairly serious issue. And there are clear linkages that we find between air pollution and climate change. It is a very welcome change where you have stand-up comics actually talking about it and making light of it. I am sure the audience which is listening does not think about it like that. I do not think there is any question of trivialising.” Clinical psychologist and head of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, at Fortis Healthcare, Dr Kamna Chhibber, says that while humour may not necessarily make people pay more attention, “when something is presented in a lighter manner they may be more willing to engage with it and may not want to ignore it or distance themselves from it. As a result, they may be more receptive towards it, as it is more palatable.” Thakur adds, “When the right intent, effort and craft come together, the results can be powerful.”

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