The case for treating climate change like a joke

To understand how satire can influence an audience, several researchers have looked at climate change. One of them is Paul Brewer, a communications researcher at the University of Delaware, who got his first faculty job around the time Jon Stewart took over hosting The Daily Show in 1999. Brewer at first used the show as a teaching tool. Then, because a lot of his students watched it, he realized it might make a good research subject.

Since then, Brewer’s studies of satirical TV news have shown that these programs can affect people’s beliefs. In a 2015 study, Brewer and a graduate student, Jessica McKnight, showed university students a video clip from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report about climate change, or a control video on another topic. Stewart used jokes and sarcasm to address the subject, while Stephen Colbert spoke ironically, in his usual character of an over-the-top conservative pundit. After seeing either satirical news clip, subjects reported a greater certainty that global warming is happening.