Film, Special Features

Confronting Climate Change with John Oliver


While the mainstream media delivers coverage of the latest headline news, John Oliver, a comedian who formerly worked with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, uses satire on his Last Week Tonight HBO show to punctuate topics ranging from fast fashion to chicken farming to methane in food waste.

The media typically treats climate change as something looming on the horizon for future generations, giving the impression that there is little need to take immediate action in the present. The media also mistakenly treats the science of climate change as something worthy of “debate”, ultimately contributing to public confusion around the fact that 97% of actively publishing climate scientists agree: climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.

In one particularly memorable episode, John Oliver skewered the nonsensical media approach to environmentalism by staging his own debate between a climate change “denier” and Bill Nye “Science Guy.” In the end, an ardent crowd of 96 scientists stormed the stage, illustrating the actual 97% consensus of scientists’ support for the facts of climate change.

John Oliver has underscored the importance of numerous environmental topics, all of which do their part to contribute additional harmful emissions to the atmosphere, speeding up the effects of changing global weather patterns. Inhumane chicken farming practices have arisen as a result of economic pressures which force chicken farmers into subcontracting agreements between massive conglomerates such as Tyson, Perdue, and Foster Farms. Factory farms, or Concentrated (or Confined) Animal Feeding Operations, house over 99% of farm animals in the United States. The manure from CAFO’s accounts for 37% of overall methane (CH4) emissions, because our farm animals produce 1 million tons of manure – daily.

Going further, grotesque statistics concerning American food waste were described in an episode as tantamount to throwing away one out of every four shopping bags of groceries. Most unnecessary waste that accumulates before coming to market is due to the physical appearance of produce and the prohibitive cost of preparing crops for donation. There is a misguided reluctance to donate unused, unsold, or cosmetically blemished food due to an unfounded fear of lawsuits. Most alarming, however, is fact that the quantity of food waste in landfills leads directly to the production of methane, a greenhouse gas with twenty times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.

Even disturbing news regarding polar bear mating habits has been given airtime. The fact that toxic chemicals in the food chain might be the cause of polar bears fracturing their baculum bone (hindering their ability to mate) is one “humorous” way to look past the clichéd image of these bears adrift on the dwindling ice. By reminding viewers of the animal’s humanity, we may come closer to understanding the pain which we are ultimately responsible for.

Audiences might be aware of the fact that their food purchasing decisions directly impact both their health and the health of the planet, but they may still be unaware that there are a myriad of other problematic industries rapidly warming our pale blue dot. The low cost of fast fashion is undeniably attributable to the intolerable, unsafe operating conditions of child-laborer staffed factories as well as a major driver of climate change. Oliver pointed out that clothing factories in countries like Bangladesh which fulfill clothing orders for the likes of Walmart, Gap, Old Navy, and others, pay superficial attention to ethical manufacturing practices, putting every one of their employees in peril. In short, our rabid overconsumption is destroying the Earth as well as the lives of others.

John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight show uses satire to air topics that would otherwise be ignored or obscured by corporate-controlled news channels. As the growing influence of “clean energy” movements threatens their traditional business, energy companies such as ExxonMobile have been funding anti-climate change organizations with many millions of dollars. However, average people can support the environment by switching to energy providers that generate power from alternative, renewable sources of energy, eschewing traditional coal-fired electrical utility companies. They can also make the choice to eat vegan, consume locally-grown produce whenever possible, and “dump the pump” in favor of bicycles and public transportation.

While the words of scientists and talking heads can often seem inaccessible to the average TV viewer, John Oliver gets his points on climate change and environmentalism across by using satire and humor, two surefire ways to get folks listening. If you don’t have access to HBO, check out Oliver on YouTube or the HBO website – you might learn a thing or two!

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