Emotions & Climate Change Education

by Ivan Montiel

2019 AOM ONE Teaching Award

The climate crisis seems to (finally) be at the forefront of most business agendas. Recent events such as the publication of the 2019 IPCC report which indicates that we have very little time to maintain the Earth’s temperature below a 1.5* C increase, as well as the youth revolution lead by Greta Thunberg and #FridaysForFuture, are contributing to push climate change further and further into the spotlight.

Our community, organization scientists, researchers and educators, also have the duty to inform our students about the urgent crises we face due to climate change. This means that we need to go beyond traditional educational approaches (mainly focused on cognitive learning outcomes) and also incorporate emotional learning goals. We believe that sound scientific evidence combined with effective emotional triggers will drive our future business leaders to action to mitigate climate change.

In 2018, Raquel Antolin-LopezPeter Gallo and I published the research article “Emotions and Sustainability:  A Literary Genre-Based Framework for Environmental Sustainability Education”, in which we called for more effective uses of emotional learning to drive action towards protecting the natural environmental. To translate our academic findings, we published this short video to summarize our proposal that using sustainability case studies which elicit certain emotions to increase the likelihood of action on the part of students to alleviate grand societal challenges like climate change:

 In our study, we borrow from works of literary criticism to propose a case study pedagogical approach based on emotional learning. Our inductive case study analysis revealed six different case genres that are able to elicit different types of emotions needed to promote action: mystery, epic, tragedy, folklore, science fiction and fable. In an effort to avoid a very extensive blog, we’d like to showcase two of these case genres which can be particularly effective at exemplifying the climate challenge: tragedy and epic.

Tragedy Cases. These case studies are stories of environmental disasters resulting from everyday management decisions. As we state: “Tragedy cases make visible, sometimes viscerally, the ethical, ecological, and sociological consequences of business” (p. 168). From a cognitive learning perspective, such cases illustrate environmental degradation derived from business activities. In addition, we also identify an emotional learning outcome derived from what we label “Environmental Fear”. Emotions such as disturbance, provocation, urgency, terror, pity, sense of inner danger and even anxiety can have a crucial impact on students’ learning as well as their predisposition to act. We believe that in the current state of climate emergency, all business students should understand tragedy cases which showcase the negative impacts of climate change.

Epic Cases. These case studies should be used to present a more optimistic side of business in its quest to mitigate climate change. Epic cases are stories of companies that undergo environmental sustainability adversity yet emerge victorious due to skilful and heroic managers. We suggest that such stories will have an emotional impact on students labeled as “Environmental Inspiration” derived from feelings of admiration, identification and deep resonance. It is very important to illustrate the potential that business has in mitigating climate change and therefore by including such climate epic cases we would like to show significant signs of hope!

Our case genre approach that focuses on both cognitive and emotional learning outcomes has worked very effectively in our CSR and sustainability courses, both at the undergraduate and MBA levels. For example, in the case of tragedy I usually use a recent case study on the 2010 BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to elicit emotions such as disturbance, deception, and even horror. This case also provides an opportunity to not only discuss industrial accidents but also more generally the impact of the oil industry in climate change. Some students end the case discussion a bit hopeless but also motivated to work towards preventing climate change to get worst. I then move forward and in a different session I introduce an epic case such as one on Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and their founder and CEO’s Ken Grossman quest to convert their brewery into a 100% self-generated renewable energy company. These “hero” cases are good motivators for some students as they feel empowered and inspired to become sustainable entrepreneurs and work toward alleviating climate change.

We invite you to think about the cases you select for your courses (or those cases you write) without being afraid of stirring up emotional responses in students if, in that process, they are more likely to become responsible climate business leaders. We tend to think that as academics our major impact relies on our academic publications sometimes neglecting the impact that we can have in our students and future business leaders. Effective teaching in climate is likely to be a more effective strategy to change business behavior than a well-crafted academic paper that can take up to 10 years to be impactful – if it actually ends up being!


Montiel, I., Antolin-Lopez, R., & Gallo, P. 2018. Emotions and Sustainability: A Literary Genre Based Framework for Environmental Sustainability Education. Academy of Management Learning & Education 17 (2): 155-183.

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