WASHINGTON— This morning Stephen Colbert brought his singular brand of political satire to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Security, testifying in character about his experience picking produce alongside migrant workers.
But while satirists like Colbert provide some of the most stinging commentary on the political scene today, conservationists are often categorized as too uptight, singularly focused or angst-ridden to yuk it up.
Two prominent environmental organizations are evidently laughing off that criticism this campaign season. Both the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) released irreverent online videos this week that bite back at conservative climate deniers and the Tea Party movement.
LCV’s quirky and animated “Tea Time with Sarah Palin” features the former governor—a “patriot as pure as Alaska snow”—as a talk show host on a “network” called Flat Earth TV praising seven Republican Senate candidates for their skepticism about the science of global warming. “Even ‘mama grizzly’ and Senate candidate Carly Fiorina in liberal California is up on her hind legs about this,” she says, her eyes whirling and swirling like pinwheels.
The two-minute Sierra Club spot, “Rand Paul: In His Own Words,” strings together snippets of the Senate candidate’s insights about coal mining, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and how limiting greenhouse gases would mean a regulatory agency run amuck and an end to capitalism. Palin makes a cameo appearance as an endorser.
A cuckoo clock strikes several times after Kentucky’s Paul responds to an interviewer’s question about mountaintop removal: “You’ve got quite a few hills. I don’t think anybody is going to be missing a hill or two here and there.”
“That’s such an outrageous quote that it prompted us to look into Rand Paul,” said Sierra Club spokesman Dave Willett. “He’s clearly a lightning rod and generates a passionate response from both detractors and supporters.”
Both LCV and the Sierra Club have posted the videos on their Web sites and are circulating them to members and supporters via e-mail. As of Friday morning, “Tea Time” had registered 17,140 hits, said LCV spokeswoman Kate Geller.
The Sierra Club is releasing its video in a staggered fashion this fall, said Willett. It had generated 36 comments from the club’s 70,850-plus Facebook followers by Friday morning.
Both spots are accompanied by pleas for dollars. LCV asks viewers to pledge to vote for candidates who recognize the sound and settled science of climate change.
Sure, both pieces are likely preaching to the choir as tools to draw donations and inspire supporters. But is there anything wrong with injecting a few guffaws into what can otherwise be dour and cruel pre-Election Day fare?
No. Humor is a welcome break as long as it isn’t over the top or insulting, say a couple of experts in both the environment and jokes.
What’s So Funny?
“I like to think that even if you are preaching to the choir, there might be somebody (who doesn’t agree) listening outside the window,” University of Southern Maine professor Rob Sanford told SolveClimate News.
Sanford, who studies humor, incorporates jokes and cartoons into his environmental science and policy classes because he thinks such levity can smooth the rough edges of serious topics.
“Humor is so tricky,” Sanford said. “It’s an art form, so to be able to do it right is a real skill. If it’s too blatant and too obvious, it’s overkill. The best humor is subtle so you have to think about it, not totally random and extreme. That’s why it’s so much harder to write a good funny movie than film noir.”
American University professor, environmental filmmaker and stand-up comedian Chris Palmer admitted to being held rapt for the entire 2 ½ minutes of “Tea Time.” Though Palin fans might not be as enchanted, he said, he appreciated the spoof’s zingers such as the ex-governor’s use of her newly minted word “refudiate” and “technical” terms such a “climate changey stuff.”
As director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at the Washington, D.C.’s School of Communication, Palmer knows how formidable it is to compete for attention among a cacophony of images and messages that make it increasingly difficult to distinguish between facts and a “Saturday Night Live” skit.
“I would give it high marks,” he said about LCV’s video. “The humor gets your attention and it has a message. That makes it much more effective than if it had been serious.”
Humor disarms, Palmer said, and makes people more open to being influenced. The video won’t change many minds but it will interest, excite and motivate people who accept the science behind climate change, he added.
Sanford commended the environmental organizations, often touted as stodgy and rigid, for demonstrating their flexibility and showing that they can approach issues from a different, even skewed, perspective.
“The ability to have a little fun exudes a certain amount of confidence,” he said about the videos. “It says ‘I must be comfortable because I’ve afforded myself a little leisure, instead of writing more white papers.’”
Why They Went for Laughs
These satirical videos might well be indicators that in this antiestablishment voting season, organizations such as the Sierra Club and the LCV are laughing on the outside but crying on the inside. Opponents such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Job Security have more money. The Tea Party is throwing knockout punches. Independents are torn. Democrats don’t seem nearly as enthused as they were in the 2008 presidential election, and the GOP is convinced it can regain a majority in the House and perhaps the Senate.
LCV president Gene Karpinski has consistently lambasted Republican Senate candidates such as Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Sharron Angle of Nevada, Carly Fiorina of California, Ken Buck of Colorado and Roy Blunt of Missouri as “Flat Earthers.”
“The November elections are just six weeks away,” Karpinski said when flatearth.tv, the website the Palin video is on, was launched. “If candidates like these are allowed to replace climate champions in November, we will feel more than just the loss of a few elected officials. We will lose out on a clean energy future that creates jobs, increases our national security and protects the planet for future generations.”
A tagline with the Sierra Club piece carries this caveat: “These candidates want you to be scared of even what little progress our country has made on global warming, clean energy, and environmental protection.
“Some of their beliefs and public statements are laughable,” it continues, “until you realize that they could win.”