Climate Activists Turn to Political Humor, for a Serious Purpose

Organizations are increasingly using satire to capture the attention of the public and the media

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"Whoever has the memes has the power," Adbusters creator Kalle Lasn wrote in his 2000 book Culture Jam. Environmental activists, up against well-paid lobbyists and billion-dollar corporations, are hoping that modern adage holds true.

In just the last month alone, four major climate change stunts have caught not only the media’s attention but the public’s as well, as activists hurled satirical darts at major countries and fossil-fuel firms.

The Yes Men, a group that impersonates officials from organizations they oppose, has been a driving force behind the recent mockery.

On May 17, in the wake of Gulf coast oil spill, the group sent a press release posing as Shell and claiming that the oil company was planning to stop all offshore drilling and start remediating the mangroves it has decimated in Nigeria. The prank came just a few months after the Yes Man successfully staged a phony press conference claiming that Canada will completely shut down its controversial tar sands oil operations.

Likewise, environmental group Greenpeace has been stepping up its forays into satire.

Last month, as part of its campaign to unveil the greatest funders of the climate denial industry, the organization shone a light on the oil giants running Koch Industries, a business empire built on oil refining, by producing a series of mock "Climate Crime" videos

In one video, Greenpeace filmed a Law & Order spoof on the streets of New York City, asking real people if they have seen David and Charles Koch, the "wanted" billionaires behind the family business.

Meanwhile, in a more artistic attempt at climate change wit, Dutch sculptor Ap Verheggen recently placed a sculpture on a melting iceberg in Greenland. The sculpture is currently floating around and will eventually sink into the ocean as the iceberg continues to melt. Verheggen has three more installations planned in climate sensitive areas in northern Canada and Siberia.

In a similar vein, DJ Spooky, a hip-hop artist and world-famous DJ, spent several months recording the sounds of glacier ice melting in Antarctica as part of his Sinfonia Antarctica project. Through the project, the artist hopes to "create an acoustic portrait of a rapidly changing continent," according to the statement accompanying the piece.

And most recently, the Twitter feed @BPGlobalPR has racked up over 100,000 followers in just two weeks, raising the hackles of the real BP, with tweets like:

"As part of our continued re-branding effort, we are now referring to the spill as ‘Shell Oil’s Gulf Coast Disaster." #bpcares" and "The oil leak was caused by a natural gas explosion, or sea fart, which is now having silent but deadly consequences. #bpseafart"


Pranks Expose Environmental Realities 

Political humor is nothing new. It has been used for centuries to point out the flaws of leaders and legislation. But in the environmental world — where most of the news is discouraging — activists seem to have found both a better way to deliver bad news, and a way to shift away from what William McDonough, the American "green" architect, has referred to as the "shrill message of environmentalists."

Perhaps more importantly, though, these gags are not only informing the public but also the media.

Both Greenpeace and the Yes Men are extremely media savvy organizations. The Yes Men’s press releases and conferences almost always draw press attention, with some members of media realizing that the "news" is just a gag, and some not.

In the case of the Shell hoax, for instance, a Financial Times blogger was duped. But for other environment reporters, the prank was simply the first they had heard about the company’s annual spills in the mangroves of Nigeria, which are said to be equal to an Exxon Valdez spill every year.

Even once it became clear that the release was a hoax, reporters continued to cover the factual information of the release, much of which was previously unknown to the American public.

The release was actually crafted by the Nigerian Justice League as part of the Yes Men-run workshop "Yes Lab."

"Shell, Chevron, and the others are perpetrating a massive, life-threatening hoax by claiming that they can’t quickly stop their gas flaring, reduce their oil spills, and clean up their mess in the Niger Delta," said Chris Francis of the Nigerian Justice League.

"Our press release revealed the truth: that there is a decent way forward, instead of the continual deceit we get from them."

While the Yes Men and Greenpeace don’t exactly have corporate-sized PR budgets, they do have some money to spend mounting their humorous attacks. Other stunts, however, are carried out on a shoestring.

The @BPGlobalPR feed, for example, appears to be one person with a Twitter account and a budget of zero. The $25 he or she is raising per "BP Cares" tee-shirt it sells is being donated to And yet, the account has managed to gain 103,718 followers in two weeks, while the real BP account has only 7,000.

Although BP is ignoring the fake account for the time being, that hasn’t stopped other Twitterers from pretending that the company is calling for Twitter to shut the account down.

"Apparently BP wants the @bpglobalpr account shut down," writer Neil Gaiman tweeted. "Very wise. Once that fake twitter account has gone, people will like them again."


Potential Backlash from the Mockery?

The downside? The jokes could distract activists and other concerned members of the public from taking real action.

"BP is making the right call by not making a big deal of the parody," Salon’s Andrew Leonard wrote about the BPGlobalPR feed. "Social media networks are the adult playgrounds of the 21st century — better to let the masses let off steam there than, oh, filing class action suits, or chaining themselves to dead pelicans."

According to environmental sociologist James William Gibson, author of A Reenchanted World, the increased use of humor to communicate environmental messages is an indicator both of the desperate nature of the situation and of the sliver of hope that we may claw our way out of it.

"There is nothing funny about global warming, the Gulf spill and the arrogance of the oil companies, dolphin and whale capture and killing, if we are facing a future in which nothing can ever be changed," he said. "But humor can poke holes in the establishment; humor can raise public consciousness and help people understand politics; humor can help motivate and sustain activists."

"For that matter, self-deprecating humor can also help people cope with changes that are perhaps unpleasant, but necessary," he continued. "The environmental movement needs to get out of the trenches of despair. We radically slowed down the Bush agenda; the evangelical coalition fragmented; the environmental movement lawyers filed a jillion lawsuits and won a fair number. The culture is becoming re-enchanted. Humor could help people cope and get moving."

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the strategy could backfire.

Striking the right balance between smart and silly, fact and fiction, is crucial to success. If activists just create skits that could run on the Daily Show or articles that could run in the Onion, they run the risk of just getting laughs and not moving their agenda forward.

"Any approach can get overdone and backfire," Gibson said. "Too much humor and it might comes off as stupid — but we’re a long, long ways from that point. Too much sexual innuendo and we’re back in mainstream culture."


See also:

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Extra! Extra! Special IHT Climate Edition (Published by Greenpeace)

Chamber of Commerce: Nixon to China Moment or ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’?

Operation Pittsburgh: Anatomy of a Climate Action

Climate Activism Soars Planetwide Ahead of Copenhagen Climate Talks