Ever wondered why climate change stirs such strong emotions?
Despite the daily reminders of the politically partisan sub-text of much climate change discussion, this issue hit me up front and personal about a year ago.
I was at a friend’s BBQ in suburban Sydney on a sunny Saturday afternoon, when an acquaintance casually asked what I was working on. Without giving it much thought I replied ‘how businesses respond to climate change’… Stunned silence…A look of bemusement crossed my inquisitor’s face before her partner waded in with the retort, ‘You don’t believe that crap do you?’
Oh boy – I knew what I was in for. I’d encountered it before, the snarky cynicism, the recitation of familiar climate change talking points gleaned from the tabloid press:
- ‘But the world is cooling!’
- ‘There’s been no warming for the last 16 years!’
- ‘Sea levels haven’t risen!’
- ‘It’s been proven climate scientists fudged the data!’
- ‘It’s a conspiracy by the banks to make money!’
While these myths and the appropriate responses are now familiar to me, it wasn’t the substance of the argument that mattered. What shook me were the emotions on display. The aggressive tone of my adversaries and the anger that burned inside me – this was a fight and I was damn well going to win it!
Anyway things toned down eventually, but this little event got me thinking. I’ve been studying how big corporations frame climate change as a question of ‘risk and opportunity’. However, for me the really interesting issue is how managers and employees view this as a personal and emotional issue. This is a topic that fires the emotions. In fact the more I look at the social and political debate around climate change the more emotionality I see:
- the despair of a venture capitalist in tears as he described his daughters’ challenge on climate change and his fear ‘that we’re not going to make it’;
- the anger of protesters outside Parliament House opposing the pricing of carbon emissions and the personal vilification directed at the Prime Minister;
- the hatred implicit in death threats directed at climate scientists;
- the steely resolve of climate protesters being arrested and facing prison in challenging further fossil-fuel developments.
I believe the reason that climate change stirs such strong emotions is because deep down it matters so much to all of us. This is an issue that challenges our very sense of being, of who are and want to be, and what our role is within a broader ecosystem of existence. It defines our identities, challenges and reinforces our world views, and poses very fundamental questions about our contribution to an ailing environment.
Indeed, rather than puzzling over the emotionality of climate change, the more alarming observation is how something so existentially threatening is seen as best resolved through the cold calculus of ‘risk and opportunity’.
What are your emotional reactions to climate change? Is it possible not to be emotional about this issue?