Comedians made some hilarious jokes about climate change. Were they right?

(Washington Post illustration; Jamie McCarthy/Getty; Astrid Stawiarz/Getty; Vivien Killilea/Getty; Jeff Moore/ZUMA Press; iStock)

Comedy is a lot like dumpster diving. You look at things in a different light than most people.

Stand-up comedians have long cast an amusing lens on our society, crafting observations about everything we might encounter, such as family, divorce, travel, a second divorce, pets and, more recently, climate change.

Comedy may not seem like a good vehicle to showcase grim news of our planet, but just because something is entertaining doesn’t mean it can’t be useful, too. Humor can provide many benefits in tackling serious subjects. Limited research shows that climate change memes can boost a person’s civic engagement. Good-natured comedy can also help process negative emotions about global warming and sustain hope. (A note: When I’m not writing about science, I’m also a stand-up comedian).

But the human-exacerbated deterioration of Earth is not easy to make funny, especially as some climate goals are seemingly impossible now. Additionally, poorly executed climate jokes can dissuade people from engaging in the topic.

With professionals increasingly discussing environmental themes, we looked at a few recent (and funny) bits from stand-up comedians in the United States. (Sorry, no George Carlin bit included this time around.) Most clips are from Netflix, with some from independently produced comedy, as we wanted to focus on jokes with the potential to reach wide and diverse audiences. (Please comment or send us a note if you want to share other bits you may want explained.)

Enjoy these punchlines on global temperature increases, personal climate responsibility, overpopulation and flooding.

Michelle Wolf: “I raised the temperature a little.”

Climate change is a real big deal, and everyone says Mother Nature. And I do believe nature is a woman because she’s trying to kill us in the most passive-aggressive way possible. It’s not some sort of immediate fire or flood or cool explosion. She’s just like, ‘What? I raised the temperature a little. Oh, are you uncomfortable? Maybe I wouldn’t have if you’d taken out the recycling like I asked. I’m fine.’
— "Michelle Wolf, "Nice Lady" (2017)

Unlike an end-of-the-world Nostradamus scenario, a warmer Earth operates differently. A 2-degree Fahrenheit increase over the past 150 years may sound inconsequential, but research shows the incremental heating we’re experiencing is pushing climate and weather events to more extremes.

Worldwide, communities are experiencing hotter heat waves, drier droughts, heavier downpours and more rapidly intensifying storms. Each event is inflicting more damage on society, partly because of growing urban development and populations.

Many may point out that we have seen intense weather events throughout history, but now these extreme events are happening at a higher frequency because the excess warming from humans is affecting weather-system dynamics. As an extreme-weather reporter, I have probably used the word “unprecedented” an unprecedented number of times to describe natural disasters in recent years.

Alas, the explanation can get technical for a stand-up special, so I’ll take Wolf’s playful comparison on the subtlety of climate change.

Nate Bargatze: “Any chance this fight is about global warming?”

“I looked up a list of what you’re supposed to do for global warming as an individual ... Just talk to your friends and family about it.’ ... Think about how far out it goes … I had a great-aunt and uncle fistfight each other at a wedding. Let me get in the middle of that fight. ‘Any chance this fight is about global warming? Because I would just love to get that conversation rolling.’”
— Nate Bargatze, “The Tennessee Kid” (2019)

Onstage, Nate Bargatze feigns naivete, but I think he probably has one of the most relatable global warming bits in a mainstream comedy special. At the top, he says he’s “not a smart person,” which may help disarm his audience when he discusses global warming for a very funny six minutes.

Scientists say people need to talk about climate change more, but Bargatze describes how hard that task is. He’s not wrong.

People don’t really talk about climate change. Here’s how to start.

Many people don’t talk about global warming even though they’re concerned. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 67 percent of Americans said they “rarely” or “never” discussed climate change with friends and family, even though 64 percent said they are “very” or “somewhat” worried.

But how do you broach Earth’s demise to family and friends when we’re the problem? As my Washington Post colleague Allyson Chiu reported, experts suggest avoiding an attitude that is too fearful (“It’s too late to do anything!”) or too optimistic (“We can make it out!”) because either can lead to inaction. The reality is that we are baked into certain consequences on Earth, but we can still prevent further warming and adapt.

Even though Bargatze takes an attitude that pokes fun at talking about climate change with family and friends, he is doing his part by discussing it on his special with an Everyman perspective. Pretty meta.

Joel Kim Booster: “Don’t come here. Somebody has put on a podcast.”

During his special “Psychosexual” (2022) on Netflix, Joel Kim Booster asks a couple in the crowd if they plan to have kids, appearing to shift into relationship jokes. They say yes, and he quickly replies, “So you don’t believe in climate change? Wow, what an interesting way to learn that.”

What a left turn. The audience roars. He continues.

“I don’t believe that overpopulation is the major issue at play here. I do think if you want to have kids, you should have kids. I do think that if you are having kids, knowing everything we know about the way the world is going, it is sort of like when you’re at a party that you know is dying down. ... You get a text from a friend and they’re like, ‘Hey, should I still come to the party? Yeah. Yeah. Jump in that Uber, girl. I’m sure it’ll be fine. I’m sure there will be ice still at the party by the time you get here.’ When what you should be doing is calling them immediately, being like, ‘Don’t come here. Somebody has put on a podcast. Party is over.’”
— Joel Kim Booster, "Psychosexual" (2022)

Booster and the audience initially share a laugh as he addresses a concern some prospective parents have about the consequences of having children as the climate changes. Researchers, previously attempting to find the carbon footprint of such a decision, calculated that having one less child would reduce a person’s footprint (assuming their children will have children, etc.) at greater extents than living without a car or skipping one transatlantic flight.

But the reality is more complicated, reports my Post colleague Shannon Osaka. If the United States meets its goal to cut its emissions by half by 2030 and to zero by 2050, a child born today would have less of an environmental impact per year over their lifetime.

“Under that scenario, having one fewer child starts to look on a par with living car-free or skipping a transatlantic flight — significant, but not even the most important individual action one can take,” Shannon writes.

I don’t know if Booster knew the carbon footprint of having a child when writing this joke. (Disclaimer: I opened for him on his tour about a year before his special and don’t remember talking specifically about climate change or hearing this joke.) But he fast-forwards past the issue of overpopulation (unlike Bill Burr, who has mentioned it in his past three specials) to get at the heart of the issue with an apt analogy: Should I have a child in a climate-change-ravaged world?

The answer: The decision is up to us, as we work to ensure our world is a livable place for our kids and grandkids, preferably without parties that play podcasts.

Kristen Sivills: “I don’t even have car insurance.”

“I’m from Virginia Beach, so if you don’t know, if somebody spits outside, it floods outside to the point that you all live here now, so get to know your neighbors right now. These are now your roommates. Climate change is crazy. … They got me scared about property at this point. I don’t want to pay for flood insurance. I don’t even have car insurance, okay?”
— Kristen Sivills, "Ain’t Your Mama’s Heat Wave" (2021)

Kristen Sivills brings up an ever-growing effect of climate change: property loss.

The number of expensive flooding disasters has grown in recent decades. Part of the issue is stronger storms and heavier downpours brought on by climate change. Another challenge is people moving into areas with higher climate risks — and they may not even know it.

One flood model estimated that in 2020 more than 6 million homes in the United States are in areas at substantial risk of flooding in any given year. That was about 70 percent more properties than designated within FEMA’s Special Flood Hazard Areas, which determines eligibility for the National Flood Insurance Program, my colleagues have reported. By 2050, the number of properties at substantial flooding risk could rise to 16 million.

Like Sivills jokes, flood insurance premiums are another cost that can be challenging to add to everyday expenses. Last year, hundreds of thousands of Americans dropped their insurance through FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program after the agency restructured the system to more accurately show the flood risk of a property.

Unlike other clips featured in this article that aired on Netflix, Sivills wrote and performed this bit as part of an independently produced comedy special titled “Ain’t Your Mama’s Heat Wave” by the nonprofit Hip Hop Caucus. It was recorded in St. Paul’s district in Norfolk, a Black public housing community undergoing redevelopment because of “climate flooding, sea level rise, and a legacy of racist urban policies,” according to the project’s website. In recent years, many projects and nonprofit groups have partnered with comedians to find new ways to communicate the climate change threats and solutions.

“It was difficult to make climate change funny,” Sivills wrote to The Post. “It’s not what I typically talk about in my stand up, especially when it’s discussing how it’s affected MY community personally ... but comedians have always been vessels for change. Why not make use of the platform, and humanize big issues like this?”

correction

A previous version of this article misspelled Michelle Wolf's last name and misstated in which of her comedy specials a joke appeared. The article has been corrected.

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