Q: How many climate activists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: That’s not funny.
It’s not so often that you see humor used in behalf of sound climate policy, which is maybe too bad. Global warming is a serious problem, and a serious subject, but folks can only absorb so much doom, gloom and settled science before they feel an urge to turn the page.
Exceptions arise from time to time, though, and a perfectly hilarious one popped up on Monday: the Climate Name Change campaign launched by the political arm of Bill McKibben’s 350.org.
The campaign’s ostensible objective is to persuade the World Meteorological Organization, by petition, to change its current practice of giving ordinary men’s and women’s names to large tropical storms.
Instead, 350action.org suggests, the agency should name extreme storms after specific, individual policymakers who deny climate change and thus obstruct progress toward better climate policies: Jim Inhofe, John Boehner, Michele Bachmann and the list goes on.
Hard to imagine WMO actually doing that, but fun to watch the possibilities as imagined in a series of satirical TV news fashioned by 350action.org’s campaign partners at the New York ad agency Barton F. Graf 9000.
Senator threatens Florida coast
The reel opens with a shot of roiling seawater and the banner Preparing for Hurricane Marco Rubio. Narrating a relabeled montage of actual maps, storm footage and on-scene correspondent reports, a newscaster says:
Senator Marco Rubio is expected to pound the eastern seaboard sometime early tonight… Windows are being boarded up and grocery stores are virtually empty as Marco Rubio threatens everything in his path….
I could keep on quoting, but I’d be just be taking away from your enjoyment of a video you’re probably going to want to watch right here.
I called 350action’s Daniel Kessler to find out more about the intellectual origins of this cleverness, for which he generously gave all credit to the Graf agency, and added:
“A lot of groups are working on calling out Congressional climate deniers — Al Gore’s group is doing it, and so is the League of Conservation Voters. So is Organizing for Action, Obama’s grassroots arm.
“We need Congressional action, and we need to find ways to marginalize the members who are standing in the way.”
Two hurricanes from Minnesota
Perhaps it’s noteworthy in the MinnPost community that of the eight hurricanes rechristened by Graf in these clips, two have namesakes in the Minnesota delegation (Reps. Bachmann and Collin Peterson, the lone Democrat on 350action’s list of 42 deniers). A third was renamed for Wisconsin’s Rep. Paul Ryan.
Those three, in turn, can maybe be a little grateful that they weren’t picked for the clip about all the animal-shelter kittens and puppies about to be snuffed by Hurricane Rick Perry.
The 350action project got me wondering about the history of hurricane-naming, and that led me to discovery of a curiosity that Kessler assured me must be coincidence.
Back before the modern protocols were settled upon, storms were often named saints — typically the one whose saint’s day was nearest the storm on the calendar — and sometimes named for mythical creatures, for places, and for disliked politicians.
Past tweaking of politicos
A bit of history from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Christopher Landsea, a Ph.D. meteorologist who serves as a science and operations officer at NOAA’s National Hurricane Center in Miami:
The first use of a proper name for a tropical cyclone was by Clement Wragge, an Australian forecaster late in the 19th century. He first designated tropical cyclones by the letters of various alphabets, then started using South Sea island girls’ names.
When the new Australian government failed to create a federal weather bureau and appoint him director, he took to naming cyclones “after political figures whom he disliked. By properly naming a hurricane, the weatherman could publicly describe a politician (who perhaps was not too generous with weather-bureau appropriations) as ‘causing great distress’ or ‘wandering aimlessly about the Pacific.’ “
Although Wragge’s naming practice lapsed when his Queensland weather bureau closed, forty years later the idea inspired author George Stewart. In his 1941 novel “Storm,” a junior meteorologist named Pacific extratropical storms after former girlfriends. The novel was widely read, especially by U.S. Army Air Corps and Navy meteorologists during World War II.
When Reid Bryson, E.B. Buxton, and Bill Plumley were assigned to Saipan in 1943 to forecast tropical cyclones they decided to name them (à la Stewart) after their wives. In 1945, the armed services publicly adopted a list of women’s names for typhoons of the western Pacific.
From 1950 to 1952, tropical cyclones of the North Atlantic Ocean were identified by the phonetic alphabet (Able-Baker-Charlie-etc.), but in 1953 the U.S. Weather Bureau switched to women’s names after the Armed Services’ practice. In 1979, under political pressure, the U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) requested that the WMO’s Region IV Hurricane Committee switch to a hurricane name list that alternated men’s and women’s names.
Laughing among themselves
So there’s an interesting antecedent, if not squarely a precedent, for Graf’s fanciful proposal — although Kessler told me that, so far as he knew, the folks who worked on this project were unaware of Clement Wragge’s playfulness in times past.
I asked Kessler why he thought humor wasn’t used more often in advancing progressive climate policies, and he wasn’t sure. But it’s not the case, he said, that the activist community is itself humor-deficient:
“When you’re dealing with the end of civilization every day, you probably have to have some sense of humor about it or you’re going to go insane.”
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I found another interesting look at more recent history, and controversy, in hurricane names at the Capital Weather Gang page of the Washington Post.