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Hot under the collar about climate change? It’s natural

Climate change is an issue that fires the emotions. Our media is full of images of this emotional engagement, from the despair of a venture capitalist in tears as he describes his fear “that we’re not…

Don’t tell me to calm down - emotional expression is an inherent part of social discourse. Flickr/paolaharvey

Climate change is an issue that fires the emotions. Our media is full of images of this emotional engagement, from the despair of a venture capitalist in tears as he describes his fear “that we’re not going to make it”, to the anger and personal vilification directed at the Prime Minister over the “carbon tax”, to the steely resolve of climate protesters facing prison for challenging fossil-fuel developments.

Over the last few years, we have been researching how major corporations are responding to climate change as a question of “risk and opportunity”, and how this results in new strategies and practices. However, what has surprised us in speaking to senior managers and advisers about climate change, is how this is often explained as a personal and emotional issue.

One way to understand how businesses and managers make sense of climate change is to go beyond the supposedly “rational” logic of traditional business discourse and examine this issue through the lens of “emotionology”. Emotionologies refer to social standards of “appropriate” emotional expression in regard to particular issues.

Emotionologies are integral to social and organisational discourse and evident in different areas of public debate over time. For instance, emotionologies are currently evident in Australia in the social debates surrounding refugees, welfare, gender politics and of course the environment and climate change.

However, emotionologies are far from static and undergo rapid change due to economic, demographic, technological, and other dynamics. As the British sociologist Steve Fineman notes, emotionologies as “politico-ideological constructs” are often “shaped by prevailing currents of nationalism, ethnocentrism, racism or homophobia, as well as governmental, religious and party-political dogmas”. So for example, the emotionology surrounding terrorism (at least within the United States) changed significantly after the events of 9/11, generating new emotionologies within the discourse of the “war on terror”.

In relation to climate change, we can see how emotional norms have radically changed over the last ten years through the influence of opinion setters such as the media, business groups, think-tanks, political parties and NGOs. What used to be a field of sombre science has turned into a minefield of emotions, with scientists publicly attacked by a growing climate change denial industry and even branded public enemies.

In studying how businesses have responded to climate change, it is clear that like other organisations they navigate in an increasingly volatile emotional milieu in which feelings of fear, anxiety, and anger shape public debate. While a range of emotionologies can be identified around climate change, two predominate in social discourse:

  • climate change as threat – which reflects the fear and anxiety of many over the future of our society given scientific projections of potentially catastrophic changes in temperature, sea-levels, extreme weather events and ocean acidification; and

  • climate change as ideological battleground - reflecting the passion and hostility that has arisen as climate change has become a polarising and partisan political issue.

In our research, we have explored how sustainability specialists in major corporations interpret, internalise and adapt these broader social emotionologies into their companies' local emotional arenas. For instance, the work of sustainability specialists often focuses on reinterpreting fear or hostility about climate change into a positive local emotionology of climate change as challenge and opportunity. This might involve harnessing the environmental concerns of employees or customers into the development of more “environmentally-friendly” products, services and markets, or building employee enthusiasm for a “green” workplace culture.

For instance, one company we studied had built a pervasive workplace culture around reducing carbon emissions. This involved “carbon councils” and a sponsored competition in which employee emotionality was encouraged around the sustainability initiatives that individuals had undertaken at work and home. In organisations with a strong engineering culture, corporate environmentalism is often linked to locally resonant practices such as measurement, reporting and efficiency improvement; subjects that employees see as central to their jobs but also as sources of meaning and personal satisfaction.

However, the process of adapting and changing local emotionologies, like organisational change more generally, is often a difficult and contested activity. Indeed, such “emotionology work” often involves significant emotional labour for sustainability specialists who as “green change agents” have to deal with resistance and the tensions that arise between their personal attitudes and the demands of their organisations.

Here, managers often engage in a form of calculative emotionality. For some this meant constraining or compartmentalising their emotional engagement with climate change between work and home. As one manager confided “… so that’s the other challenge, how do you have passion without being seen as too passionate?”. Individuals spoke about their desire to do “something” about the climate crisis and their concerns about the world their children would inherit. These managers recognised that climate change challenges our very sense of being, of who we are and aspire to be, and what our role is within a broader ecosystem of existence.

While calls for a more “rational” and “less emotional” debate about climate change continue, this ignores the fact that emotionologies are an inherent part of social discourse. Indeed, calls for “rationality” are themselves an emotional statement. We understand phenomena and make decisions through emotion. Rather than decrying the emotional nature of the climate change debate, a more realistic position is to seek to identify and harness the emotional levers that drive positive engagement with this most critical of issues.

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12 Comments sorted by

  1. Carol A Adams

    Director, Integrated Horizons. Professor at Monash University

    Excellent analysis - particularly the last paragraph. Important implications for organisational strategy and government policy here.

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  2. Barry Nicholson

    Engineer

    There's nothing wrong with emotion in a debate, but the problem with this area is that the messages are totally one-sided and the responses misguided.
    If you really want to tackle climate change, then you need to look at the most populous countries and how they can reduce their emissions. Instead, you have numbers put in "per capita" terms.
    There's a heavy focus on the energy sector, ignoring the massive pollution from the food production and export business - again to feed the large populations…

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    1. Christopher Wright

      Professor of Organisational Studies at University of Sydney

      In reply to Barry Nicholson

      Barry,

      Thanks for your response. One of the purposes of the article was to highlight the false dichotomy between 'rationality' and 'emotion'. As we stress in the last paragraph, human cognition is emotionally informed, hence the claim to a non-emotional response to climate change is a nonsense. All aspects of the climate change debate (and other prominent political issues - e.g. refugees, gay marriage, national security, foreign ownership) will be emotionally framed - its how we as humans understand…

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    2. Barry Nicholson

      Engineer

      In reply to Christopher Wright

      Thanks for your follow up comments, Christopher. The emotion can only come after information, and when that is flawed, or even purposely skewed, then the emotion overwhelms the rational solutions. This has been seen so often in other areas - such as the infamous "permeate" in milk; "hormones" in chicken; fluoride in water; emotional debate about nothing in particular generated by vested interests.
      As regards an industry of deniers of climate science, I think that is a clear simplification, even somewhat paranoid, wherever it came from, and tends to skew your article, particularly as it aims at the fossil fuel industry, who are not the main issue if environmental damage is considered as a whole. The issue is population and the fact it is growing at an unsustainable rate. Once again, the facts are in front of us, but the emotion is in the way...

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    3. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Barry Nicholson

      "The issue is population". Precisely, Barry! There are just too many of us and too few resources. It'll all end in tears, when oil gets too expensive for the average bloke on the street and farmer on the land. I despair of our species.

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  3. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

    Yep, I couldn't agree more - we are indeed the "rational animal", but only insofar as we use reason to justify our behaviour, which is first and foremost driven by emotions. I suspect, from my own feelings, that a lot of "climate change denialism" derives from a realisation that the problem is far too complex, difficult and overwhelming for us to fix, and so, to avert depression or worse, is best put aside. This is seen even moreso among folk who make a living from the fossil fuel industry.

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    1. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      We remember emotionally as well. Hard wired to feel comfort by having more. This could explain, some of the objection to climate change options, which are fought against in a such a personalised way, personal freedom, picking on others, and fighting against (it). Some revert back to a tribal mentality, threatened by change. Myself, I feel anger, and want to argue. I don't like hot days.

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    2. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      "a realisation that the problem is far too complex, difficult and overwhelming for us to fix" would be a false realisation. Certainly, the problem is confronting, in scope and magnitude, but it is not (yet) beyond our capacity to address. Ask me again in another decade, when the impacts of any action should have kicked in: if nothing effective has been done by then, I will agree with your pessimism.

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    3. Barry Nicholson

      Engineer

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      On the contrary, the problems are "easy" to fix - the problem is we don't like the solutions. Instead, we will muddle on until the problem gets so great it is solved through massive conflict, reducing the world population to a more sustainable level. In the meantime, we'll go on giving aid to sustain more lives, ageing the world population to make a new wave of consumers of food and resources to add to the ever growing pile of emissions which threatens the ability to grow crops in the poorest countries - so they need more aid...while the "developed" countries continue to accelerate their throw away society, where the latest gadget comes every faster to replace the - perfectly functioning - last month's model. Do you not see some simple solutions?..now try implementing one in a "democratic" society and see how far you get...rational animal my foot.

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  4. Doug Hutcheson

    Poet

    'Individuals spoke about their desire to do “something” about the climate crisis and their concerns about the world their children would inherit'. That's good, if the "something" done is effective and measurable. Even as little as swapping a household to using LED lighting can be a step along the path.

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