By Lianne Lefsrud
Twelve years ago, I was told that studying climate change was a ‘nothing’ topic. Yet, as I worked for a regulator, I was shocked at the degree of disagreement amongst professional engineers and geoscientists – who share the same institutionalized education, experience requirements, employers, industries, and supposedly objective beliefs. This motivated me to develop and administer a survey asking them about their beliefs of the causes, consequences, and solutions associated with climate change. The response was overwhelming. I got 1077 respondents within weeks, with no reminders.
Surprised by this, I thought that these data would make an interesting empirical paper, as a side project to my PhD research. But my supervisor told me that these data were shit. He said that it would be a waste of time to do further analysis beyond the simple descriptives that I had done for the regulator. Again, I disagreed. And started talking to Renate Meyer (who was visiting the University of Alberta at the time) given the similarities between these professionals and her executives in Meyer and Hammerschmid (2006).
Beyond quantitative analysis of the survey, we were struck by the richness of the open-ended comments from over 300 respondents in their use of emotion and metaphor. So, we decided to take a mixed methods approach to analyzing their responses. From this we created a more nuanced typology of framings than an overly simplistic dichotomy of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ climate change. We got feedback from Royston Greenwood, Mike Lounsbury, and others and presented at EGOS, Academy of Management, and elsewhere, as we developed a more abstracted analytical and theoretical approach. The special issue in Organization Studies was the first mainstream management attention to climate change (Wittneben et al., 2012) and the perfect outlet for our article (Lefsrud & Meyer, 2012).
It was published in November. The holiday season passed. There was little attention to our article and this special issue, which was surprising to me given the vitriol from our respondents. So, I talked to the public relations person at the Alberta School of Business and asked her to do a media release on our article findings.
Our article was immediately picked up and misrepresented by a Forbes magazine columnist. He generalized our findings from a self-selected (i.e., non-random) sample of engineers and geoscientists in Alberta in 2007, to all engineers, and then to all scientists. Our paper then became a political football as the columnist’s interpretations became challenged by other researchers, industry folks, and as other climate deniers and skeptics joined the fray. Renate was in the hospital at the time. So, I was left to answer the deluge of emails. This ‘exposure’ left me feeling painfully exposed. When Renate became available again, we wrote a letter to Forbes editor, which caused this columnist and others to further misrepresent our research, attack us personally as failing ‘left-wingers’ and ‘feminists’, and insult each other.
While it was painful at the time, our paper now has 198 citations and over 32,000 hits on Google. I have had personal discussions with researchers in the New Zealand Academy of Science, NASA, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics. It is listed on a Wikipedia page with over 500 edits (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surveys_of_scientists%27_views_on_climate_change ). And it has been cited by natural science articles (Climate Risk Management, Journal of Risk Research) and used as for education purposes in textbooks (Jenkins, 2015). It was an NBS-ONE Best Practice Paper 2013 finalist, Best International Paper 2012 finalist with Academy of Management, profiled by Sage Publishers Social Science Space, and written as an Op Ed. Our paper was the most read article in Organization Studies for every month since, until recently, when it was surpassed by an article on Volkswagen’s emissions scandal (Rhodes, 2016). Given that our paper has had over 100,000 downloads since its publishing, Organization Studies now includes Altmetrics for all its papers.
This experience was quite revelatory to me. First, it taught me to be inspired by the conundrums that I see in the world. If something does not make sense to me, it likely does not make sense to others either. This is most interesting. Second, if I am not getting research support from my closest colleagues, then I create a virtual ‘department’ of those who are intellectually supportive. As a result, I am working on fantastically interesting and valuable topics (climate change, workplace fatalities, energy transitions) with wonderfully inspiring and innovative collaborators. Third, I am creative in considering “What is data? And how can it be analyzed?” Qualitative analysis of a quantitative survey is nonstandard but gave us the most interesting insights. Our research on visual rhetoric and multimodal data (text, images) has also been nonstandard (Lefsrud, Graves & Phillips, 2019). Fourth, I work hard to make my writing accessible, interesting, and engaging: a scarlet begonia amongst a sea of grey. The more that I make every paper a ‘dream paper’, the more interesting I hope to make it for readers. Fifth, I promote my research and others’ in nonstandard ways – through media releases, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, and industry talks. What is the point of doing research if no one is reading and using it?
Last, while much of what I study is quite controversial, I am careful to not let controversy prevent the creation of common ground and solutions-based conversations. I choose my words and my outlets carefully. Many sustainability issues are painfully fraught with conflicting values, paradoxical framings, and heightened emotion. But rather than avoiding these issues (Don’t discuss politics at the family dinner table!), it is imperative that we examine the underlying root causes. We must find a way to have these difficult conversations if we are ever going to find solutions. I believe that as organizational scholars in universities, it is our unique responsibility to navigate and host such conversations.
Jenkins, S. H. (2015). Tools for critical thinking in biology. Oxford University Press, USA.
Lefsrud, L. M., & Meyer, R. E. (2012). Science or science fiction? Professionals’ discursive construction of climate change. Organization Studies, 33(11), 1477-1506.
Lefsrud, L., Graves, H., & Phillips, N. (2019). “Giant Toxic Lakes You Can See from Space” A Theory of Multimodal Messages and Emotion in Legitimacy Work. Organization Studies, 0170840619835575.
Meyer, R. E., & Hammerschmid, G. (2006). Changing institutional logics and executive identities: A managerial challenge to public administration in Austria. American Behavioral Scientist, 49(7), 1000-1014.
Rhodes, C. (2016). Democratic business ethics: Volkswagen’s emissions scandal and the disruption of corporate sovereignty. Organization Studies, 37(10), 1501-1518.
Wittneben, B. B., Okereke, C., Banerjee, S. B., & Levy, D. L. (2012). Climate change and the emergence of new organizational landscapes. Organization Studies, 33(11), 1431-1450.