Climate and Nature

Conversations around the climate crisis can be difficult. Here's how AI and cartoons can help

'Cartoonathon': Pictures are a useful tool in bridging dialogue on climate change. Image: Photo by Josefa nDiaz on Unsplash

Gill Einhorn
Head, Innovation and Transformation, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum
Jemilah Mahmood
Executive Director, Sunway Centre for Planetary Health, Sunway University
Flora McCrone
Lead, Immersive Interactions, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum Geneva
Janot Mendler de Suarez
Research Fellow, Boston University Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future
Pablo Suarez
Visiting Scholar, Boston University
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • Humour can harbour honesty and creativity that can foster breakthroughs in crisis-related dialogue.
  • Cartoons co-created through collective ideas help identify the climate crisis’s contradictions, paradoxes and absurdity and offer a bridge between the existing world and how it could be.
  • The World Economic Forum is pioneering generative AI in the co-design of graphics that articulate the challenges around nature and climate.

Author Madeleine L’Engle said, “A good laugh heals a lot of hurts.” Humour operates on many levels in helping us deal with our current reality. Laughter can alleviate stress, depression and anxiety by producing dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins in the brain. Yet a certain kind of humour has the power not just to operate on our neural receptors but to bridge challenging discussions between the contradictions of the world as it is and the future we would like to see.

When it comes to the nature and climate crisis, absurdity is manifold. Given the speed and scale of nature and climate-related collapses, the logic of inaction and stagnant incentive structures maintaining the status quo seem paradoxical.

'Real World Chess'
'Real World Chess' Image: Eugenia Rojo and Hameed

Short-term individual interests run up against our long-term collective interests as a species as we confront the implications of the Sixth Mass Extinction. Our inability to address these wicked problems individually can engender hopelessness and anxiety. The dire state of the planet also traps humans in a trauma response of fight, flight, freeze or fold – the opposite of the motivation and possibility needed today to tackle the complex challenges we face.

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Harnessing humour and AI to confront and respond to our reality

Pioneering a new session format at the Sustainable Development Impact Meetings in September 2023, the Centre for Nature and Climate is helping decision-makers unpack incongruities in productive ways. Participants were first asked to anonymously “rant” on issues they felt most strongly about and then comment and vote on the rants of others, building a collective perspective on uneasy topics.

World-class artists build on participant “rants,” developing comics art in real time, weaving the parody, paradox and absurdity of our choices into cartoons that convey the issue’s essence. This co-creation process is called a “cartoonathon.” Cartoon drafts are shown to participants at the end of the session, allowing everyone to share feedback, strengthening the cartoon’s focus and resonance and identifying potentially inappropriate humour.

Thanks to the AI revolution, we are now getting input from ChatGPT to add its dimension and deliver generative AI cartoons via Midjourney, providing an iterative process to cartoonathons. It also adds a new layer – the collective consciousness online as well as of those in the room – so topics are addressed comprehensively.

Cartoon depicting underwater businessmen deliberating the cost of sustainable decision making.
Cartoon depicting underwater businessmen deliberating the cost of sustainable decision making. Image: Wade Kimbrough with the help of ChatGPT and Midjourney

The results from generative AI are concise, sharp and snappy visual depictions of deeply held, common truths, which help us let go of denial and better confront our reality. A good cartoon initially confuses you, then makes you smile or laugh, and finally makes you think. Delivered with humour, the ability to devise ingenious, out-of-the-box solutions opens a space of shared understanding and possibility.

The illustrations below show how one person’s “rant” is translated into a cartoon.

1. The paradox of our inaction in responding to the climate crisis

“Whilst scientific findings about climate change are alarmingly clear, it seems like society wears earplugs.” This sentence inspired a slew of cartoons highlighting the paradoxical inaction of humans in responding to the climate crisis.

Cartoon of someone touting the solution to climate change – giving up.
Cartoon of someone touting the solution to climate change – giving up. Image: Eugenia Rojo and Hameed “Ham” Khan
Cartoon depicting apathy to the climate crisis.
Cartoon depicting apathy to the climate crisis. Image: Wade Kimbrough with the help of ChatGPT and Midjourney

2. The contradictions of science communication

A common challenge scientists face is communicating changes to Earth systems in accessible ways that everyone understands and can act on. Scientists know that every bit of warming matters, yet 1.5 degrees Celsius is presented as a magic threshold. Many decision-makers are not aware of the way tipping points cascade risks, degrading the quality of life of all beings on our home planet at accelerating rates.

Cartoon plotting quality of against warming of the planet on a graph.
Cartoon plotting quality of against warming of the planet on a graph. Image: Betje

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. A cartoon co-created and refined through multi-layered inputs and feedback on outputs could be worth a million.

Humour isn’t merely entertainment; it’s smart, strategic communication. Delivering humour through cartoons helps us refine our understanding of the world we face, resonate across collective challenges and shift mindsets towards creative and novel solutions. At this point in our planetary crisis, all three of these elements are useful tools in our toolbox.


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