Breaking down disciplinary boundaries to save the planet

By Franz Wohlgezogen, Angela McCabe, Tom Osegowitsch, Joeri Mol

Sir David Attenborough's new documentary 'A Life on Our Planet' is a call to action on climate change that the discipline of business and management is endeavoring to answer.

Business and management research may not be front of mind when you consider addressing this great challenge. But our latest research points to an increasing commitment to better understand climate change within the discipline.

Published in the Journal of Management and Organisation, our research uses bibliometric methods to explore how business and management scholars have, over the course of four decades, engaged with the phenomenon of climate change and climate change research.

Our analysis shows significant and growing numbers of articles on climate change appearing in business and management journals, as well as an increasing propensity to incorporate climate change research from outside the discipline.  Yet despite our discipline’s growing engagement, it is struggling to attract the attention of climate change researchers in other disciplines.

Looking at climate change-related articles published in Nature and Science between 1980 and 2018, the share of references to articles from social science disciplines is low, reaching its highest level at just under 6% of total references in 2016.

A closer look suggests that business and management are far behind other social science disciplines such as economics, anthropology and international relations. Only 26 out of the 2,981 climate change-related articles appearing in Nature and Science between 1980 and 2018 reference business and management research.

Working together for the planet

For scholarship to contribute to climate action, it needs to be noticed and picked up outside of its disciplinary boundaries, and ultimately needs to find an audience outside of academia. Here we are failing.

Attenborough insists “We've come this far because we are the smartest creatures that have ever lived. But to continue we require more than intelligence, we require wisdom”.

Harnessing collective wisdom is at the heart of interdisciplinary research.

While the merit of interdisciplinary research in tackling ‘wicked problems’ such as climate change is well established, bringing together the natural and social science communities remains a formidable challenge.

New ways of connecting with other disciplines are sorely needed in the race to motivate and inform climate action.

Therefore, we see the need for a shift in our discipline’s unguided investment in diverse and sometimes obscure “interesting” pursuits, towards directed efforts harnessing collective wisdom to tackle pressing societal problems.

As climate change research efforts transition from mapping the phenomenon towards practical strategies for mitigating and adapting to climate change, the social sciences have much to contribute.

Business and management scholarship offers a considerable conceptual arsenal for decoding organisational, institutional, and cultural causes of climate change denialism and resistance to climate action, as well as techniques facilitating consensus-building, coordination, and adaptive change among social actors.

Finding ways to communicate and demonstrate our expertise in a manner that resonates with researchers outside our discipline is an important step towards impact on policy and practice.

Describing ‘A Life on Our Planet’ as the story of how we came to make our greatest mistake, Attenborough insists “If we act now we can put it right”.

Business and management researchers can yet play a role in putting it right.