Menu Close

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

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.

Christopher Wright is a member of the Academy of Management

The academy is a funding partner of The Conversation US.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 174,400 academics and researchers from 4,802 institutions.

Register now