How to Find Common Language on Climate Change

NBS September 15, 2017
Too often, people talk about climate change in superficial soundbites. Researchers Lianne Lefsrud and Renate Meyer explored the deeper beliefs of a critical group: professionals in the oil and gas industry. Their findings offer guidance for those trying to find common ground — and a common language — on climate change.

Lefsrud and Meyer are runners-up for the inaugural Research Impact on Practice Award, sponsored by NBS and the Organizations and the Natural Environment (ONE) Division of the Academy of Management. Their article entitled Science or Science Fiction? Professionals' Discursive Construction of Climate Change was published in Organization Studies. Lefsrud is a Fellow at the University of Michigan and Doctoral Candidate at the University of Alberta. Meyer is Professor at Vienna University of Economics and Business.

“Pouring Out Their Hearts”

Lefsrud and Meyer surveyed over 1000 engineers and geologists in Alberta, Canada. Many work on the oil sands, which are often criticized by environmental groups for their greenhouse gas emissions. These professionals’ views matter because they and their companies can influence energy-related policy and other actions.

In their survey, Lefsrud and Meyer asked about views of climate change; sources of knowledge; and opinions about individual, industry and government roles. Using open-ended questions, the researchers asked for comments — and received them.

“These professionals poured their hearts out in the surveys” says Lefsrud. “Even senior folks from oil and gas companies responded. They gave a voice to a group of people that had yet to be asked about their views on climate change.”

Agreement and Disagreement

An overwhelming 99 per cent of the people who responded agreed that the climate is changing. They disagreed on whether climate change has natural or human causes, how serious its effects are and the response required.

Lefsrud and Mayer identified five different viewpoints:
  1. “Comply with Kyoto (36 per cent of respondents). These people believe climate change is caused by humans, that its effects are serious, and that the Kyoto Protocol needs to be implemented.
  2. “Nature is Overwhelming” (24 per cent). These people believe climate change is natural, that its effects are unavoidable, and that, hence, regulation is futile.
  3. “Fatalists” (17 per cent): They believe climate change to have natural and human causes, but also that the issue’s complexity makes knowledge uncertain and action impossible.
  4. “Economic Responsibility” (10 per cent). Independent of the cause of climate change, they see ecological impacts as minimal; they are concerned that compliance costs could jeopardize business.
  5. Regulation Activists (5 per cent): They believe that climate change is both natural and human caused; they urge action, but are skeptical that the Kyoto Protocol serves the purpose.

A Common Language: Risk Management

Risk management can be a common language that brings together diverse views, Lefsrud and Meyer say. Engineers and geoscientists are intimately familiar with risks and experts at managing them. Focusing on the diverse risks posed by climate change can unite different perspectives. Financial risks resonate with those who advocate “economic responsibility.” Environmental risks resonate with the “comply with Kyoto” and “regulation activist” viewpoints. Regulatory risks are meaningful to all opposing regulation.

People may not agree on root causes and courses of action, but viewing climate change as a risk that needs management can help them discuss the issue and find solutions.

Lefsrud and Meyer encourage managers to frame climate change in terms of risk when they’re making the case for company action. “Pitch initiatives…in language that upper management will understand,” says Meyer. “This idea of ‘risk’ in all its forms becomes very useful.

Research with Impact

The article has received a whirlwind of attention. Two articles in Forbes were viewed 42,000 times, leading to debate and follow-up questions from NASA scientists, Environment Canada and researchers in climatology, public policy, and communications. The original journal article has been accessed more than 17,000 times.

“It’s been an interesting experience receiving both academic and public attention,” said Meyer. “It’s not what we expected to happen.” The authors urge other researchers to be passionate about their work, even when critics push back. “Say what you care about,” says Meyer. “Don’t just say what you think will sell.”

Next, the researchers plan to revisit survey participants to see if their views have changed since the original 2007 study and Canada’s dropping out of the Kyoto Protocol in December 2011.

The Research Impact on Practice Award will be given annually to recognize research that provides such actionable insights. While academics produce high-quality research, much of it remains in publications and conferences targeted at other academics. This award seeks to celebrate and share research that has the opportunity to change business.

About the Winners

Lianne Lefsrud is Dow Sustainability Postdoctoral Fellow at the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, University of Michigan and Doctoral Candidate in Strategic Management and Organization at the University of Alberta School of Business. She studies sustainability and the development of energy sources.

Renate Meyer is Professor of Public Management and Governance at WU Vienna, Austria, and Permanent Visiting Professor at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark, at the Department for Organization. She is also the current chair of the European Group of Organizational Studies (EGOS).

Additional Resources

How to overcome resistance to regulating greenhouse gas (news article by researchers)