How many lightbulb jokes does it take to save the world?

“How many lightbulb jokes does it take to save the world?”

Few academics and policy specialists can see the joke in climate change and that’s a shame, because when societies have big questions to address, some of the best work is done through the ‘cultural work’ of comedy and drama. It was a relief recently to come across Robert Butler’s blog entry on climate change comedy. There has been a healthy offering of lightbulb jokes about climate change deniers in response to his invitation. I think his own (the first) is the best.

Q: How many climate sceptics does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: None. It’s too early to say if the lightbulb needs changing.

A: None. It’s more cost-effective to live in the dark.

A: None. We only know how to screw the planet.

A: None. Eventually the lightbulbs will right themselves.

It has been assumed in the science and policy community that the only way to ‘beat the sceptics’ is to shout ever more loudly that the ‘science is finished’ and that the nay-sayers are ‘outside the consensus’. The most shrill voices have drawn on the most extreme comparisons to hand, including holocaust denial, to describe the mixed bag of libertarians and right wing retired politicians and advisers (Lawson; Monckton) and academic entrepreneurs (Lomborg) who dispute the IPCC and UNFCCC account of climate science and policy.

The tendency to paint ‘climate change deniers’ in such dark terms has greatly inflated the value of their stock in the eyes of the media. In this sense the Lomborg franchise (and a very profitable one it is too) is a creation of the environmental NGO and science community’s own making. These contrarians have enjoyed a degree of media attention out of all proportion with the quality of their science or policy arguments, and hence had a much larger impact on the public conversation than their arguments deserve.

It also does a disservice to the vital intellectual tool of scepticism to tag these doggedly contrarian commentators as ‘climate sceptics’. Scepticism should be one of the more prominent virtues of all journalists, researchers and students. Climate science is an unfinished — indeed unfinishable project. The attempt to make sense of how atmosphere, biosphere, geosphere and anthroposphere (us) work together is one of the great intellectual projects of our time, and we are working with best guesses. There will be the odd cold spell; quiet hurricane season, and badly deployed biofuels policy. However none of these need weaken the case for action on climate change if we recognise that we are working to reduce the risk of danger rather than acting on a body of certain, urgent, solid facts.

Copyright: Climate Cartoons

We all need to get comfortable with the fact that climate science and politics is a work in progress. This means we need to keep asking questions and welcoming well-considered challenges. These should include left-field thinking and yes, the odd gag. And in addition to laughing at the worst excesses of our contrarian friends we might sometimes choose to laugh with them. This simple act would help bring them down to their proper (modest but useful) size.

Joe is a senior lecturer at The Open University, focussing on environmental policy and politics. This article was previously published in May 2008 on OpenLearn.



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