Why So Emotional? The Emotionologies of Climate Change

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/danielito311/5847295876/
Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/danielito311/5847295876/

In a previous post I pondered the question ‘why we get so emotional about climate change?

I suggested a key reason was because the implications of climate change affect us in so many fundamental ways:

  • our personal identities and roles (mother, father, journalist, politician);
  • the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are (where I’ve come from, where I am, who I want to be);
  • our world views and ideologies (e.g. social democrat, small ‘l’ liberal, conservative, free-market libertarian).

A recent article that Daniel Nyberg and I wrote in Human Relations entitled ‘Working with passion: Emotionology, corporate environmentalism and climate change‘, sought to tease these issues out in respect to the work of sustainability professionals working in major Australian corporations.

In exploring the emotional work of these managers and advisers, we focused on the concept of ’emotionologies’, that is ‘the attitudes or standards that a society, or a definable group within a society, maintains toward basic emotions and their appropriate expression’ and the ‘ways that institutions reflect and encourage these attitudes in human conduct’ (Stearns and Stearns, 1985: 813). As Fineman (2010: 27) 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’. In defining norms of ‘appropriate’ emotional expression for specific issues, subjects or identities, emotionologies are particularly relevant in organizational and work settings.

However, emotionologies are not static and often undergo rapid change due to economic, demographic, technological, and other changes. So for example, the emotionology surrounding terrorism (at least within the United States) changed significantly after the events of 9/11 (Loseke, 2009). In relation to an issue such as 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 and political parties (McCright and Dunlap, 2011). 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’ for producing ‘junk’ science and even branded public enemies (Oreskes and Conway, 2010).

In responding to climate change, organizations navigate in an increasingly volatile emotional milieu in which feelings of fear, anxiety, hostility and anger shape public debate. We argued that a range of broader emotionologies existed around climate change including:

  • 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 levels, sea-levels, extreme weather events and ocean acidification
  • climate change as ideological battleground‘ –  reflecting the passion, anger and hostility that has increasingly arisen as climate change policy has become polarised ideologically as a partisan political issue.

In the paper, we explored how sustainability specialists in major corporations sought to interpret, internalise and adapt these broader social emotionologies into the local emotional arenas of their companies.

For instance, the work of these sustainability specialists often focused on reinterpreting fear or hostility about climate change into a local emotionology of ‘climate change as challenge and opportunity‘ (e.g. harnessing concern on this issue towards new ‘green’ products, services and markets, or building employee enthusiasm for a ‘green’ workplace culture and greater productivity). However, in doing this these individuals also had to manage their own emotions, given the tensions between their personal attitudes and the local demands of their organizations.

So, while there are continued calls for a more ‘rational’ and ‘less emotional’ debate about climate change and appropriate policy responses, it is important to realise that emotional discourses and ’emotionologies’ are embedded in this issue , just as there are with most subjects of social and political debate. The more realistic proposal is to recognise this fact and seek to identify and harness the emotional levers that will affect desirable social and political change.

BTW as a postscript, here’s a neat preview for the documentary film Cape Spin, which charts the battle in Cape Cod over plans to build wind turbines in Nantucket Sound – plenty of emotionologies at work in this example!

4 thoughts on “Why So Emotional? The Emotionologies of Climate Change”

  1. Great post. I think we are seeing the erosion of climate change denial through a seemingly neverending series of weather and weather related events and it’s working on the the individual level. We humans are selfish creatures and if we see a perceived threat to our way of life we tend to react, often emotionally at first, and then with more reasoned and solemn thought. Unfortunately these attacks by the climate system working on an individual level is the only way to break down the ideological denial perpetuated by those with vested interests who also see their own livlehoods under attack from the collective awareness of the greater part of the population who see a need to act.

  2. Thanks for the comment – yes I really hope you’re right about the erosion of climate change denial. In a weird sense the more obvious and evident climate change becomes in our daily lives, so those who deny its existence seem to bunker in and become even more passionate about their rejection of climate change. My feeling is that they see this as an attack on their own identity and sense of self.

    In any case the oxygen to the fire of climate change denial is the conservative media, right-wing thinktanks and the ‘populist’ movements they have created (e.g. the Tea Party and our local variants). This is a fascinating study in its own right – the astroturfing and faux populist ‘war’ against science and human well-being. Unfortunately, the capture of mainstream conservative political parties gives this irrationality an influence far beyond the fringe elements that support it.

  3. Nice post.

    I was a little amazed to discover today that climate change denial may be increasing (http://www.garnautreview.org.au/update-2011/commissioned-work/australians-view-of-climate-change.htm, page 14 of the pdf at this link). That’s not good. The authors comment on this:

    “Reports have suggested several reasons for the decline in acceptance of climate change. Three primary suggestions are the global financial crisis, from October 2008, the failure to reach global agreements at Copenhagen, and “Climategate” in December 2009 (Australian Gallup Poll: Pugliese & Lyons, 2010). An additional reason for the decline is suggested by the relationship between political beliefs and climate change beliefs (noted in Section 3) as Australia, UK and USA have moved to a more conservative position in the last three years. To date, no study has tested any of these possible explanations.”

    I’m not sure how one could go back to denying climate change? Maybe it’s not so much that people don’t believe the science, but that faced with other pressures it’s easier to hide from the truth. That’s certainly how I’ve felt at times; who wants to feel helpless?

    On a different note, have you seen this piece on the “five stages of grief are reversed for climate hawks” (http://t.co/BMKMLXNc1G)

    By “Climate hawks” he means climate activists…what an expression. Does that make the deniers “climate doves”. I’m not sure that’s such a useful metaphor.

  4. Chris,
    Yes I’m never sure of the veracity of Australian opinion polling on climate change it seems to fluctuate wildly. The US data is I think a bit more robust where they have pretty precise breakdowns by political affiliation and religious identity.
    Re the ‘climate hawk’ thing – this is a very US centric phrase (re hawks and doves on foreign policy) – I’ve never really liked the term ‘hawk’ – associate it with neoconservatives keen to bomb other countries!

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