The Moment Of Realisation


One of the things I’ve noticed in researching organizational responses to climate change is how often in an interview the person I’m talking to (typically a sustainability manager or consultant) will relate a particular event or story which symbolized the moment ‘they got’ climate change.

In an article Daniel Nyberg and I recently wrote in Organization Studies, we explored how sustainability managers develop different identities in negotiating between conflicting discourses and their sense of self. In describing how these identities arise, moments of realisation played a key part in these personal narratives.

One example of this phenomenon was an interview with a former senior manager from a global resource company (let’s call him Greg). A geologist by background, Greg had been an avowed climate change sceptic (much to his wife’s annoyance). One day while at a doctor’s surgery, he picked up a copy of Time Magazine which featured a major story on climate change. The cover read ‘Be Worried, Be Very Worried’. As Greg described his moment of realisation in regard to climate change, it appeared much like an epiphany:

‘…that changed my world because really the information I saw in that I just found completely compelling. As a result of that I guess, I’ve now made it a bit of a mission of mine to try and understand climate change in more detail just because I wanted to understand how I could have been so wrong for so long…So yeah it’s quite a significant change as a result of that.  Forty-five minutes in time when I had an opportunity sitting in that doctor’s surgery to get re-educated about climate change.’ 

From this moment, Greg’s concerns about climate change grew, leading him to question his corporate role, resign from his job, and sell his house to lead a more ‘sustainable life’. He campaigned in the 2007 election on the issue of climate change and went on to design community campaigns to promote greater environmental awareness. While this was a particularly dramatic life-change, many others we have spoken to also documented how their careers and lives had shifted following such ‘moments of realisation’.

Echoing these insights, Jo Confino in The Guardian recently noted what he termed  ‘moments of revelation’ amongst UK managers in their engagement with sustainability. Here he talked about the ‘inner journey’ many managers went though in  finding their voice and vision on issues of ethical and social importance.

More directly, Clive Hamilton in his book Requiem for a Species talks about the ‘oh shit!’ moment – the instant when one realises the magnitude of what anthropogenic climate change actually means. Clive characterises his own moment of realisation on climate change when he read Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows 2008 article ‘Reframing the Climate Change Challenge in Light of Post-2000 Emission Trends‘. This study argues that even in the most optimistic scenarios of rapid global action and the peaking of carbon emissions by 2020, the world would still be on track for CO2 concentrations of 650 parts per million by the end of the century and at least 4 degrees average Celsius temperature increases!

Often this personal engagement with climate change appears to evolve from a key event, incident or memory, when we ‘get’ the scale and immensity of what climate change might mean. As an issue, climate change challenges both our sense of self and our understanding of our role in society and life more generally. Indeed, as the scientific evidence strengthens and we face the reality of increasingly extreme weather, more and more people are facing their own ‘moments of realisation’ of the climate crisis.

As a final comment, yesterday I watched a startling BBC documentary Sandy: Anatomy of a Superstorm. Beyond the details of this disaster, the more telling moments are the descriptions from those caught up in the superstorm and their realisation that weather is now something that exceeds our traditional understandings and sense-making abilities. Well worth watching.

4 thoughts on “The Moment Of Realisation”

  1. Good article. The people described are all those who had first adopted a denial position on climate change, based on a gut feeling that it couldn’t be true. The revelation moment was when they looked at the evidence from a credible source—or in the case of the interviewees in the film—came to a realisation based on the undeniable personal evidence. What worries me, and let’s face it, it’s why the ‘merchants of doubt’ exist, if, when those people had first sought to educate themselves they’d searched “climate change” on-line, they could have just have easily—perhaps more likely—come across a ‘climate denial’ site such as the infamous WUWT and been indoctrinated with denial memes.

    This is why it’s the responsibility of all of us to seek out those with the no-so-entrenched denial views and gently challenge them on the basis of the science, it’s all out there but we need to guide these people to the credible sites like those of NASA [ ]. The tendency is too often to keep quiet for fear of upsetting your relationship with a friend. Climate change matters more than the risk of upsetting friendship. Just stay, “look; this is not my opinion, I’m putting across the stated position of every major scientific body on the planet”:

    Let’s be frank, we’ve all started out from the position of not wanting to believe climate change was real; once we’ve seen the evidence stacks up and continues to become stronger we change our position for good and can each become a mouthpiece for action. Like no other challenge, this really matters.

  2. John,

    Thanks for the post – totally agree. Yes I’ll admit I wish the denier ‘megaphones’ were right and tomorrow we woke up and saw headlines saying ‘Climate Crisis Over – Scientists Discover No Risk of Warming – Business As Usual’. Unfortunately, the scientific data gets grimmer by the day with last year’s worst case scenario now our best hope (witness the Copenhagen ‘line in in the sand’ over 2 degrees C – which now seem to have no chance of keeping to!).

    I agree we need to continue directing people to the mainstream science and not buckle under or be bullied by the loudest voices in the room. There’s a whole piece here on communication strategies and how one frames evidence that I think is critical – finding out how individuals interpret the world and then working to these frames (this is a big part of our research re the role of productivity, efficiency, value-creation, stakeholder, generational and other discourses).

    Anyway really appreciate your input.

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