We’re kicking off Season 2 of You’re Up Next by exploring the topic of Climate Change through the lenses of humour, creativity and science. Our guests this week are Bright Club performer and comedian, Anne Gill, and Dr. Rose Mutiso who is the former CEO of the Mawazo Institute.
You know, it’s very hard to change our personal behaviors and things that we want to be able to do, and things that other people have always done their whole lives with this whole climate thing. And I kind of feel like our society thinks about climate in the way that society in the 80s, like early 80s, was thinking about smoking, right? Like, all signs, all the facts, all the science pointed one way, with like a big shiny arrow blinking. And people were still like, “Oh, I like it”. You know, and you’d hear people say things like, “Well, my grandmother smoked every day of her life, and she lived to be 85 – what about that?” And then you hear the reverse arguments like, “Well, my aunt Agatha died of lung cancer, and she never smoked, so… what do I do with my hands? How am I supposed to drink a frappuccino if I don’t use a green plastic straw?”
Welcome to You’re Up Next, a podcast by Bright Club Ireland that explores what comedy can do for research and society. I’m your host, JessamynFairfield, and I’m a physicist, comedian, and sometimes social activist. In this second season of You’re Up Next, we’re exploring some important topics through the lenses of science and humour. In this episode, we’re talking about climate change.
When you think about big scary issues, it doesn’t really get any bigger and scarier than climate change. Even compared to the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change can disrupt more lives, kill more people, and affect not just our generation, but every generation going forward. The science is complex, but the takeaways are clear. Human activity is changing the world around us, warming the air, affecting the oceans, and we have already passed the point of no return. The question now is not about the science – it’s about finding political, economic, and leadership strategies to minimise damage. It’s literally about the fate of the world. So is cracking jokes really the right move, or does it make people feel that climate change itself is a joke?
Last year at Bright Club Ireland, we paired researchers with comedians and asked them to write something funny about climate change. Everyone agreed it wasn’t easy. At this point, most of the science of climate change is not especially surprising to most people, and it’s a genuinely pretty depressing topic. One possible approach could have been making fun of climate change deniers, basically using humour to form an in group with people who already agreed with the comedian’s perspective. But nobody wanted to do that. Both because it felt like kind of a cheap laugh, and also, it wouldn’t actually help anything. If comedy is so great at getting people to see from a new perspective, why use it to only talk to the people who agree with you? What I found really brilliant was when the comedians dove straight into the emotional difficulty of the topic. Why do we think about carbon footprint on showy choices like travel, but not on smaller choices like the food or clothes we buy? How can we reconcile wanting to have children with wanting the world to be a beautiful and equitable place for those children, when population growth is such a driver for climate change? And especially, how do we come to terms with the idea that our individual actions may not be enough to stop climate change? So we as individual citizens have to figure out how to make changes at the corporate or governmental level. It turns out that while climate change itself is a huge and complex problem, that also means that there are a huge number of possible solutions that can help change things.
So we’re talking to someone who knows a lot about those solutions across academia, government, and industry, and has seen the difficulties and possibilities of making change across the world. Our guest today is Dr. Rose Mutiso, the CEO of the Mawazo Institute, and a good friend of mine.
I am a Kenyan person with ties to the US and now the UK, kind of a little bit all over the place. But my work and my heart is mostly centred around African issues. I have an academic background in material science and applied physics, which is how I know you Jessamyn, in case you’ve forgotten our shared research interests from way back when. And kind of pivoted that background into slightly broader work, the intersection of energy technology, energy policy, climate change, and developments. So trying to think about how innovation and research ties into energy technologies, including renewable energy solutions and batteries, and all of that good stuff. But then also what are the policy levers and consideration that make these technologies a reality? And then lastly, how do we square away issues of equity and development in poor countries tied to energy and climate change?
On the side, I also love women and so I run a small organisation based in Nairobi that supports women in science. I’m helping them get their PhDs and find their area of expertise similar to what I did with energy and climate, that can kind of help them use their knowledge to make a difference in the world.
That’s incredible. I mean, there’s, there’s so many things that I can ask you about. But maybe we’ll start with, in terms of like climate change and energy, like, these are such big issues. And like you were mentioning, they really span a lot of different areas like different technical disciplines, policy… How do we find a way in to thinking and acting on those issues?
Because it’s such a big topic, it can be really overwhelming. And I guess the associated existential, you know, dread doesn’t help the bigness and the overwhelmingness of the topic. And so, I think, what I often tell people, especially just lay people, everyday people who are really concerned about climate change, rightfully, and are trying to figure out what to do. What I try and say is that there’s so many different entry points, you know, both as an everyday person in terms of everything from being aware of the issue, advocating for it, shutting down all the climate deniers in your life – politely – to, you know, the decisions you make about the food you eat, and the waste you produce.
So there’s all of that. But then there’s also an – especially for younger people who are thinking about careers – I think there’s so much scope, to design careers in everything from business to energy, to research tied to climate change to, you know, environmental conservation, you name it, oceans. Like there’s so much, because climate is tied to so many different things, and so many different topics. I think it’s very possible to leverage your career interests and professional interests into something that ties to climate, and not just for young people. Like now we find, you know, investment professionals are starting to pivot to greener investments, and everybody’s thinking about how the industry can help kind of make a difference on the climate front and on the environment front. And so I guess my answer to your question, which is possibly a non-answer is that, because climate is so big, the entry points are so many, and it is possible for all of us personally, professionally, to engage on the issue.
Yeah, that’s a great point. And I think too, like you mentioned, there are just so many ways that we can start to address this problem. But it is a hardness about it, that kind of existential dread, like you mentioned. So you’ve spoken at Bright Club, you’ve also given two TED Talks. I view these as equivalent achievements.
I mean, Bright Club is what really launched my career.
Yeah, let’s say that. Well, so I wanted to ask, like, when you are talking about climate change, and what we can do? Do you think that comedy and humour are helpful as tools in the communication toolkit? Or like, what do you think is the best way to approach these things?
One thing that has not been working for people that are working in climate or climate adjacent fields, and are trying to raise the alarm or kind of create momentum around climate issues. One is, of course, it’s a very serious issue with serious implications, including possibly the death of all of us and all the animals that we love. But then, also, you know, there’s embedded in the way we’ve thought about climate change and talked about climate change has been a lot of kind of exclusivity, technical language, jargon snobbiness, kind of self righteousness, taking ourselves too seriously, and then plus, you know, doomsdaying – all of these things, which, in some ways have been necessary to some extent, because it’s such a difficult topic with widespread ramifications, and we’re kind of fighting against forces that are making it difficult for us to make a difference. This is not a palatable set up, in terms of getting everyday people excited, and helping them feel not just excited – helping them understand the issue, getting them excited about possible change and what they can do, and making them not feel numb and helpless. And this is what I think is happening across many dimensions of our lives. It’s like politically, there’s so much dysfunction. There’s so many crises that people are just kind of sad and overwhelmed and numb. And so I think comedy could really be a great approach to bring some light into the conversation, provide an entryway for people to engage with the meatier bits of it without feeling right off the bat, like this is too much, I can handle it, I just want to wear my pajamas and not get out of bed. Wait, maybe I’m talking about COVID? I don’t know [laughs]!
And actually, one example I love to give is COP 21, which is the Paris Climate Agreement, which is one of the biggest steps we’ve made as a global community on climate change. This is when a lot of countries came forward and said climate change is real and these are the actions we want to make, and after many years of diplomatic logjam. The woman at the centre of it is this woman, Christiana Figueres, who is dynamic and smart and full of energy and, you know, serious. And you know, she’s no nonsense in many ways, but she’s such a light hearted positive presence, and I read this brilliant feature about her – unfortunately, I haven’t met her – about how she really balances that message of “this is serious, make a difference with good humor, lightheartedness”, like their anecdotes about her dancing with her team, you know, because I think she really recognises that climate is one of those topics where you have to get people to feel like it’s so serious. Like, it’s already too late, everything is over. But then also, there’s something you can still do. And I think humour and light heartedness are one of the levers you could use to square this kind of almost contradictory tension.
You’re, like, unique among people I know, in that you sort of have worked on the academic side of some of these issues. You’ve worked in the governmental side. I remember, you were in a congressman’s office, and then you were in the Department of Energy in the US government, right? And now you are running a non governmental organisation, like a nonprofit in Kenya. So that’s kind of an amazing perspective, because you’ve seen the same issue from so many sides. Like, what do you see as some of the differences or maybe different strengths in approaching something like climate change from those different angles?
It’s a really interesting question, because I don’t want to prioritise one way over the other, because everything is needed. We need the really grassroots kind of community activism. We need industry, and business, and capital to reform and unlock the financing needed to shift our energy systems and our industrial systems and you name it. We need research, and diverse players in the research and innovation space, whether it’s in universities or in labs, in industry, whatnot – we need a lot of people thinking about it, and innovating, and having kind of fresh perspectives. And so all of these are really important.
But I would say before I went into Washington DC and worked in government, I really did not appreciate how big of a role government policy plays in all of this. And so I think government is one of those somewhat opaque things that many of us don’t really understand. Maybe you might have a vague sense of its importance, or maybe if you’re on the other side of the spectrum, that it’s just these kind of awful, bloated bureaucracies taking all our money not doing anything. I think it’s kind of an opaque concept. And so once I was in it, recognising the many flaws of how many of our governments run and operate, and the dysfunction and the waste, government really does set the signals that determine how so many important players engage on climate.
And so if the government provides tax incentives for renewable energy, guess what business is going to do. Business is going to invest in renewable energy. If the government says that you have to pay a tax on carbon, that makes polluting fuels that much less profitable, and you know, all of these other sectors of the economy will follow suit. If government says that we are going to invest a ton of money in next generation technologies that will enable a clean future, you know, that really sets the tone, and that creates an ecosystem that then other private players can come and take kind of these incubated innovations to the next level. You know, if government says that to work with us to receive our funding, and you have to make sure that women in sciecne are recruited and supported, or you won’t get our grants, then guess what universities will do. They will suddenly start caring a lot about reaching out to women and supporting them, and promoting diversity and safer spaces, and you name it. And so I think, based on all of my experience, I think all of these different pieces are important. But increasingly, I think that everyday people need to really understand the power of government because guess what, government is really us. It’s who we vote for. It’s who we have represent us. And so we have a lot of power to determine what signals are set by the people that we send to represent us.
Am I remembering correctly that you were in an office in DOE that was doing renewables in developing countries, and then that whole project was like dissolved when the Trump administration came in? Is that- am I remembering that correctly?
I mean, more or less. Basically, I was in this international clean energy and climate office that was all about the clean energy part of our international diplomacy. So not just in developing countries, it was also the people that we send to climate negotiations – bilateral collaborations, so you know, US and India coming up with arrangements: “Okay, how can we help each other meet clean energy goals”, and stuff like that. So all of that was encapsulated in this office that I worked in – a lot of international collaboration. And a lot of that was ground to a halt with the Trump administration, and now is starting to be revived under the Biden administration, which is really exciting.
Yeah, that’s wonderful, and I feel like seeing all that kind of go away under one administration must have really been a kind of “laugh so you don’t cry” situation.
I think this is the thing. To some extent, the markets are moving in the direction of climate. I think it’s almost becoming a little bit fashionable. And, you know, maybe sometimes people get a little skeptical when big business is like, “oh, look, what we care about”. It’s kind of like when everybody suddenly cared about, I don’t know, women or like some online shopping outlet is sending you emails about Black Lives Matter. So sometimes business can be – we’re not wrong in being a little bit suspicious about the intention. But on climate, there has been a massive shift. I mean, just a few weeks ago, General Motors in the US made a massive commitment to have the entire fleet be electric. Even BP, a massive petrol company has this like ‘net zero, going green’ strategy. I’m still trying to kind of like, reverse engineer how they’re going to do it, in my mind. But still, even without government, I think other players, including business, and industry, and finance – obviously massive drivers, are starting to take climate seriously. But, you know, business will only go as far as their profits will take them, which is why government needs to create the regulations and the incentives that really enable the big shifts that we need.
Yeah, absolutely. And then, like you’ve mentioned a few times about with the role of women in all of this, both in terms of genuine change, and also in terms of white washing, or pink washing – that’s the term – companies and governments who want to look like they’re doing a good job. And obviously, in terms of The Mawazo Institute, your nonprofit in Kenya, you guys are doing a huge amount in this space. So could you just talk a little bit about the role of women in addressing things like climate change?
I think it really comes down to how we’re socialised, and how we’re socialised is we’re treated poorly by society. We’re on the wrong end of the power dynamic often, which means, I think, that just gives us special insights into the things that are wrong in society, the things that are difficult. Just having kind of special sight because of where we fit in society. So just acknowledging that women are kind of full spectrum individuals, who are great and complex, and are capable of all sorts of behavior. I’ll say, how I think women fit into this problem – one, I think it’s just broadening, as I said, the problem definitions, and just a different perspective about the problem. Because men really dominate in, say politics and business for many complicated reasons that we won’t get into now. And so in our work, we find, there’s actually research that shows in places like Africa, women leaders prioritise issues that affect families. There’s even research that shows that women-led administrations are more peaceful, and pursue violent or military interventions less. And again, there are many complex reasons for that. But I think it’s just like a different vantage point, a different socialisation, a different approach. The issues that touch our lives are slightly different, and hopefully, one day we’ll live in a world where that won’t be so much the case. But that’s kind of the situation now.
And you know, climate change is definitely an issue that requires really broad view. Just, for example, the fact that poor, vulnerable people are very much vulnerable to climate change. You know, this is the kind of thing that maybe somebody else doesn’t have insight into – some kind of big, cigar smoking, top hat wearing, mustachioed man in New York City might not have insight into that. And so I think that the more women – and not just women, the more people from the Global South – that you bring into the conversation, the more that you open up all of these kind of different dimensions of the problem, which is really important. And then just the other thing is, the other way that women come to play into all of this, is you know, we just need all of the human resource possible thrown at this problem. And if we are deliberately, or maybe not deliberately – unknowingly or knowingly – excluding the talents and perspective of, you know, 50% of the population or thereabouts. That I think is a loss of talents and a loss of human resource that we cannot afford for tough challenges. We need all hands on deck.
Yeah, absolutely. I think too, you know, you mentioned there the importance not just of including women in these discussions, but you know, everyone who’s sort of been underrepresented at the table, and especially people that are most impacted by things like climate change. You’re also very unique among people I know for many reasons but in terms of having worked in the African context, the American context, the European context, do you think that there’s like different strategies needed in these areas? Or is it just like, we all need to come together and actually, like, work on this together and recognise that it affects everybody?
I think both. I think there needs to be collective consensus on the direction. And, you know, it’s one of those things that it’s frustrating that we’re not yet there. Just the common goal is that we want to limit emissions, confine temperature rise to the 1.5 to 2 degree target that was set in the Paris Agreement, that polluting fuels like we agree, we want to phase those out, we want this really aggressive, ambitious, green future. So I think consensus on those big picture, kind of, North Stars, if you will – it’s really, really important.
And I think part of the reason that there’s just been so much inaction, and we’re just spinning our wheels is because we’re not kind of in agreement on the basic parameters. I think we don’t have the luxury for that anymore. So I would say, let’s all have consensus about what the problem is, and what the very high level solutions are, which is less carbon, less pollution, more conservation, more replenishing our natural ecosystems, all of that stuff.
But then beyond that, and then even the technological solutions – some things we know pretty well, like we need to move our electricity systems to renewables, we’re kind of refining the tech around that. We know what business models will enable deployment and uptake. But you know, some of the stuff that’s out there, we’re still kind of figuring it out. I don’t know, maybe nuclear fusion will be a thing, and then all our problems will be solved because we’ll have this amazing, miraculous energy source. Or maybe people will, you know – there are people who are like, I don’t know, mocking up massive mirrors that will reflect the sun’s rays back into the atmosphere. I mean, there’s all of this out there stuff, and who knows which of those solutions will enter the fold?
So as much as people experience a lot of anxiety around climate change, and how to stop it, there’s been research showing that fear based messaging enhances this, and can actually foster apathy, powerlessness, and a sense that it’s someone else’s job to fix things. But we all have a part to play and using more positive and comedic forms of communication has been shown to humanise the issues, acknowledge the emotional challenges, and inspire a commitment to act. Humour diffuses despair, which helps us bring everyone to the table in fighting these big societal challenges. You can look for suggestions on individual actions to take at sites like Project Drawdown, or at a corporate level there are organisations like Change By Degrees that help companies fight climate change. And the fact that these are such complex problems means that there are lots of pieces to the solution, which means there’s always something you can do.
This episode was made possible by support from the community knowledge initiative, the Cúram Medical Device Research Center, the research office at NUI Galway, and Science Foundation Ireland. We’re grateful to our guests, our host, which is me, Jessamyn Fairfield, our producers Maurice and Shaun, and to you our listeners, and our Bright Club Ireland community. A transcript of this episode is available at brightclub.ie where you can also find more information about what we do at Bright Club Ireland.