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Using Comedy to Communicate Climate Change

Leshner Leadership Fellows Ben Poulter (left) and Josh Willis (right) with Josh's puppet, Dick Dangerfield

Not many people can say they have a dual career in climate change science and comedy, but Josh Willis gives it a shot. After he and his wife saw the well-known improv comedy group Second City perform, Willis approached the director for some advice.  “I went up to him and said, ‘Look, I’m a climate scientist, and I’m in desperate need of comedic assistance.’” Willis recalled.

Now, Willis is a graduate of the Second City improv school in Hollywood and has helped write, produce, and star in a sketch comedy for kids about climate change called “The Lollygaggers.” He also created the persona of “Dick Dangerfield,” a square-ish-jawed puppet and climate change skeptic who is accompanying Willis on his scientific pursuits.

In his day job, Willis, a 2016-2017 AAAS Leshner Leadership Fellow, is a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he studies sea level rise driven by human-induced climate change. He is the principal investigator for a mission called Oceans Melting Greenland (affectionately known as OMG), a five-year effort to assess the extent to which warmer oceans are melting Greenland’s glaciers, and how this information can be used to better estimate global sea level rise.

As part of his fellowship, Willis planned to build a social media presence for the OMG mission on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, with items posted to official NASA sites as appropriate. During his team’s time in Greenland, he filmed videos of their field work and life to post on the OMG Facebook page. “At first they were very time-consuming, but I got better and faster at making them,” he says. He also used the videos at NASA Headquarters to describe the project. “I think it helped the people there feel invested in the project, so it was also good for internal engagement in that way,” he says.

As the results of their work come in, OMG researchers will have to “figure out what the story is” about the project’s findings, Willis says, and build messaging around that story. Willis has experience in this – he participated in the week-long Leshner Leadership Institute communication and engagement training at AAAS in June 2016, as well as the training AAAS led at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory this past January. Willis is also working with more junior scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, encouraging them to give public lectures and interviews about their research.

Finding a way to integrate his engagement efforts into the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s official outreach has proven to be a challenge, Willis admits. “I think my personal style versus a more serious institutional style might make some people nervous. But on the other hand, I think it’s an important time for me to keep doing what I’m doing.” He hopes his public engagement can go beyond piling on further facts, instead helping to overcome the “emotional block” that some people have about climate change. “I think that art and comedy and humor—if you put those first, you might get past that emotional barrier, and have an honest conversation about climate change.”

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.