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The role of humour in the climate crisis

What role does humorous content such as memes play in the climate discourse? A team of researchers from the fields of communication science, computer vision and computer science is investigating this question in the KLIMA-MEMES project. Communication scientist Simon Lübke presented the initial findings at re:publica24.

Internet memes are a popular phenomenon on various social media platforms. In Germany, social media timelines in early September 2023 were dominated by internet memes showing Olaf Scholz with an eye patch after a sports accident, which the Federal Chancellor himself had previously called for on his social media profiles. While in Scholz’s case, it was probably primarily an image-building strategy, in controversial political discourses, such as climate change, internet memes are considered an effective format for political actors to generate attention for their own positions. Internet memes can be used strategically to express certain views on climate change in a humorous way.

Protest movements such as Fridays for Future use internet memes to attribute responsibility for the climate crisis and mobilise people to tackle the crisis. At the same time, climate sceptics use some of the same meme templates to defame activists and create doubt about man-made climate change. New internet memes are regularly created, adapted or simply shared by users, especially during major political events such as climate conferences. However, how often internet memes are published in the climate change discourse and what humour is used is still unclear. The few existing studies mostly only examine the internet memes of meme profiles, and analysing them hardly allows any conclusions to be drawn about the actual distribution and relevance of the posts in the discourse.

Memes and the (potential) effect of humour

A key feature of memes is the use of humour. The special thing about memes is that the humour is usually only created through the interplay of image or video and text elements. Different effects can be distinguished for the use of humour in political communication, which also apply to memes. One of the positive effects is that humour can generate more attention and increase the learning effect for people with little prior knowledge. It can also be suitable for addressing taboo topics. The negative effects include the fact that humour can distract from key information, damage the credibility of communicators, and reduce the willingness to act because the topic is perceived as less serious. However, the exact effect of humour in memes also depends very much on the style of humour used. Initial studies from other political discourses show that aggressive humour is often used in memes to make fun of others in a negative way.

UN World Climate Change Conference in Dubai

To better understand the role memes and humour play in the current climate debate, we collected social media posts from the Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube platforms during the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai as part of the project. In doing so, we recorded posts related to climate change through the use of keywords and hashtags or published by the profiles of relevant stakeholders in the German climate discourse. During the conference, we were able to use exploratory real-time analyses of this data to show that humorous content and memes were used on all four platforms, but that significantly more posts with humorous and meme hashtags were published on TikTok. In climate discourse, the memes primarily use aggressive humour and portray certain groups, organisations, or people negatively. However, these posts do not usually originate from political actors but primarily from private users.

Presentation by the KLIMA-MEMES project at re:publica24

This is also confirmed by the results of a manual content analysis of posts by actors in the German climate discourse, which we presented in a talk at re:publica24. As part of the analysis, we examined 1,000 posts from profiles of politicians, political parties, profiles of organised climate sceptics, NGOs, and activists. The results show that memes and humorous posts do not play a major role in terms of sheer numbers. We could classify less than one per cent of the images and videos examined as memes. Instead of memes, the actors primarily publish images that contain digital posters and share pics or photos of events without a text message in the image. This applies at least to the platforms Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube, where memes hardly play a role in our data in purely quantitative terms.


The low number of internet memes on the profiles of political stakeholders did not come as a great surprise to our project team. It is quite understandable that many actors shy away from the internet meme format because the risk of flopping in the serious climate discourse or even becoming a target for memes themselves is very present. Nevertheless, the results emphasise that the existing potential of the format was not fully exploited during the climate conference. The generalisability of these results will be tested in the project by collecting further data during the next UN Climate Change Conference in 2024 (COP29). Further explanations for the low number of memes were discussed with the participants at re:publica24. According to this, internet memes on other platforms with smaller and more homogeneous groups, such as Reddit, are likely more relevant. The lack of image rights was also discussed as a possible obstacle to using memes. Regardless of the respective explanations, however, the result remains that the few memes available on the platforms with the widest reach use aggressive humour, which can lead to discrimination against individual groups and polarisation of the discourse.


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The blog posts published by bidt reflect the views of the authors; they do not reflect the position of the Institute as a whole.