The Missing Factor in Climate Change Adaptation? Human Psychology

How well do humans respond in a crisis and how we will react in the ‘new normal’ of on-going climate crisis? This is a question I’ve been pondering more and more in thinking about the human and organizational dimensions of climate change.

For instance, within the mainstream discourse of climate change policy the argument is often made that we need to move beyond climate change ‘mitigation’ and focus increasingly on ‘adaptation’. While adaptation is a critical part of responding to the impacts of climate change, the implication is that adaptation is now the ‘main game’ and will involve relatively manageable infrastructure and planning changes. The problem here is that the scale of climate change on ‘business as usual’ (BAU) projections will likely exceed manageable parameters. Physically, there are clear issues over how humanity can adapt to 4-6 degrees Celsius warming in terms of a habitable climate, extreme weather events and the demise of food supplies. Indeed, some researchers have now started to focus on ‘transformative’ adaptation. As a recent commentator noted, ‘The words that need to be in our conversations are transformation, rationing and shared sacrifice’. However, this becomes even more complex once we consider humanity’s psychological ‘adaptive capacity’ in a situation of societal breakdown.

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‘We’re F#cked!’ Conceptualising Catastrophe

Galveston Aftermath (Image: Cody Austin)
Galveston Aftermath (Image: Cody Austin)

Climate change is often characterised as a ‘crisis’ but is it more accurately understood as a ‘catastrophe’? This is a question I’ve been pondering during the last few days at the 8th International Conference in Critical Management Studies at the University of Manchester. Along with colleagues Christian De Cock, Daniel Nyberg and Sheena Vachhani, I’ve been involved in organising a conference stream which pondered the meanings of catastrophe under the somewhat mischievous title ‘We’re Fucked! Conceptualising Catastrophe’.

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Creative Self Destruction: Corporate Responses to Climate Change as Political Myths

Image: iStockPhoto
Image: iStockPhoto

Recently I’ve been pondering the worsening news on climate change, escalating greenhouse  gas emissions (400ppm!), and the continued political obfuscation around this most critical of phenomena.

One response has been to get increasingly angry and frustrated at the lack of substantive and coordinated action in confronting climate change. Another has been to ponder why humanity fails to engage on this issue. Recently Daniel Nyberg and I have penned a paper seeking to explore how political myths underpin much of the current corporate response to climate change. I’m presenting the paper at the forthcoming European Group for Organization Studies (EGOS) 2013 conference in Montreal. You can read the paper here: Wright & Nyberg EGOS2013 Paper Final – be interested in your thoughts and feedback.

Bill McKibben – Do the Maths

Bill McKibben - David vs Goliath (Image: Christopher Wright)
Bill McKibben – David vs Goliath (Image: Christopher Wright)

Last night I attended Bill McKibben’s first public Australian lecture at the University of Sydney. It was sell-out event and the Seymour Theatre was full as young and old crammed in to hear what one newspaper has termed the “rock star of the global warming movement”. Waiting for the doors to open it did have that feeling of a big event – a performance by someone who has been willing to call-out the elephant in the room – our convenient but ultimately suicidal race to change the physics of the Earth in the name of “business as usual”. People were hungry to see and hear the unassuming American who has become the most prominent public face of the fight against global warming.

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Sustainability and ‘Stuff’

Image: Brian Barnett (http://www.flickr.com/photos/isdky/3460713256/)
Image: Brian Barnett (http://www.flickr.com/photos/isdky/3460713256/)

In researching the practice of corporate sustainability, many of the people I interview highlight the problem of trying to promote and live in a more sustainable way. Here, they stress how trying to take public transport, reduce your carbon footprint, choose renewable power, or build a sustainable home, seem to be increasingly difficult and costly, as if our entire economic system is biased against sustainable options. As one manager put it ‘I feel like I’m working upstream all the time.’

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Symposium on Business Responses to Climate Change

In March this year, the Sydney Network on Climate Change and Society in association with the University of Sydney Business School organized a one-day symposium exploring how businesses as social actors have responded to the emerging climate crisis. The symposium featured a keynote address by Professor Andy Hoffman, the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, followed by contributions from other influential academic writers on climate change, and insights from a range of business practitioners at the leading edge of corporate environmental sustainability.

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Interview: Researching Business Responses to Climate Change

Oil Sands (Image: Pete Williamson http://www.flickr.com/photos/4blueeyes/4981183847/sizes/l/in/photostream/)
Oil Sands (Image: Pete Williamson http://www.flickr.com/photos/4blueeyes/4981183847/sizes/l/in/photostream/)

Recently I did an interview with radio station 3CR’s Beyond Zero program about my research into business responses to climate change. You can hear the interview and my thoughts on the problems of engaging business on this critical issue at the link below:

This interview coincided with the visit by Professor Andy Hoffman to the University of Sydney, where he spoke about developments in US industry on climate change action. You can hear the full interview with Andy here.

Incorporating Citizens: Corporate Political Engagement with Climate Change

Orson Welles Citizen Kane (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Orson Welles Citizen Kane (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Business corporations are key players in the on-going political debate surrounding climate change. In producing the goods and services of the global consumer economy, corporations are major producers of greenhouse gas emissions. However, corporations can also play a leading role in the mitigation of those emissions through increased efficiencies and the development of new technologies. As a result, the business response to climate change can often appear conflictual. ‘Corporate greening’ and innovation contrast with examples of business obfuscation and the organised funding of climate change denial (e.g. as this recent documentary outlines).

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Prof Andy Hoffman on Climate Change and Green Business

Last month we were lucky to have Professor Andy Hoffman from the University of Michigan visit the University of Sydney Business School and present a number of talks on climate change and business responses. Andy is one of the world’s leading experts on business and climate change and has published extensively on this topic.

Above is a short interview on ABC’s Business Today program hosted by Whitney Fitzsimmons, where Andy discusses some of the business implications of climate change and related regulatory and market changes.

Measuring ‘Sustainability’

‘Sustainability’ has become a pervasive part of social and business discourse. However getting down to specifics on sustainability is a much debated issue.

This is of particular relevance for climate change. In particular, how can we speak of, or imagine ‘sustainability’, given the underlying conflict that emerges between the pursuit of ‘economic progress’ defined in terms of the production and consumption of goods and services, and the ever escalating production of greenhouse gas emissions.

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Climate Change as Culture War

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mugfaker/5847464425/in/photostream/
Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mugfaker/5847464425/in/photostream/

The social and political debate over climate change continues unabated, despite an ever worsening procession of extreme weather events and increasingly dire scientific climate projections (on track for a 4 degree warmer world).

While there is a significant over-estimation of the extent of climate change denial within society, those who reject the phenomenon of anthropogenic climate change appear to have become even more strident, despite the overwhelming weight of climate science.

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The Power of the Visual

November 19th, 2012: Along the beach in the Rockaways, NY (Image: Jenna Pope)
November 19th, 2012: Along the beach in the Rockaways, NY (Image: Jenna Pope)

The complexity and pervasiveness of climate change sometimes make this a difficult subject to communicate. We are after all talking about the basic physics, chemistry and biology of our ecosystem and the way in which human activities are changing these in profound and fundamental ways; what some have termed a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene.

And yet, the physical and social implications of climate change are becoming daily more evident.  One of the most powerful ways in which this can be conveyed is through visual imagery. For instance a growing procession of extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Sandy and its impact upon New York City have provided a multitude of powerful images of the micro realities of extreme weather and how even the centre of global capitalism is no match for a ‘climate on steroids‘.

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Global Business Responses to Climate Change: Where to Now?

Image: Flickr Dave Clarke
Image: Flickr Dave Clarke

The following is a short piece published in The Conversation which I wrote with Andy Hoffman, Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.

Despite the widespread scientific consensus regarding anthropogenic climate change, ideological rhetoric dominates the global political discourse. This is preventing the development of clear policy frameworks that companies need for long-term investments. In spite of this, there are signs of progress at the international, national and corporate levels.

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The Physical Reality of Environmental Destruction

The other day I watched a powerful presentation by noted photographer Garth Lenz. Speaking at a TED event in Canada he outlined the appalling environmental destruction that is being unleashed by the tar sands industry.

I’ve been following the news coverage on Canada’s tar sands for some time now, given the huge implications of non-conventional fossil fuels for escalating greenhouse gas emissions and the ever worsening climate crisis. I’m also editing a forthcoming special issue of the journal Organization on climate change and future imaginings, which includes an excellent study of the discourses employed by companies in the Athabasca tar sands industry written by Jane Lê.

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The Moment Of Realisation

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulo2070/4206290259/sizes/o/in/photostream/
Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulo2070/4206290259/sizes/o/in/photostream/

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.

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Studying the Human Implications of Climate Change