A sexist climate for activists

Dissecting the sexism faced by women climate change activists

Women climate change leaders face increasing sexist attacks for wanting to save the world, recent evidence shows. Not only are they targeted by mostly male climate sceptics, but studies show ‘green behaviour’ may be resisted by some men for being too ‘feminine.’ But what the hell does sexism have to do with climate change?

Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist in charge of September 20’s School Strike For Climate, has been receiving backlash that escalated after her UN Climate Action Summit Speech. Attacks on her gender, as well as autism and age, have swarmed social media and news sites. White men make up the majority of those targeting her, now a widely reported phenomenon.

The Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt called Thunberg “the deeply disturbed messiah of the global warming movement.” “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” tweeted President Trump on a CNN clip of the speech. One social media user quote tweeted CNN’s speech video: “This is another example of terrible parenting raising a self-entitled brat(s). Spank her for being disrespectful and send her to her room.”

While seemingly isolated insults, Thunberg’s backlash follow in the wake of similar attacks on women climate advocates. Alan Jones’ widely-reported remark on Jacinda Arden to “shove a sock down her throat” in August followed the New Zealand Prime Minister’s claim to be carbon-free by 2050. That being said, Ardern is, of course, no perfect prime minister. Maori communities recently criticised her handling of disputes between them and a construction company, which plans to build 500 houses over sacred land in Auckland.

In early September, a man shouted  “F*** you climate barbie!” at Candian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna. This preceded verbal abuse and death threats on social media via the trending of hashtags #hypocriteBarbie and #climateBarbie. A special security detail was eventually assigned to McKenna’s house on 7 September. Mckenna later tweeted: “Unfortunately the attacks on and offline is a trend faced by women in politics, in media and especially women working on climate issues. It’s not okay.”

On the other hand, McKenna has also been criticised as one of several former anti-oil activists appointed in Canada’s government over the past 10 years. One investigative article ties this to the plummet in its oil industry and workers.

Women in STEMM industries face similar comments. For example, Katherine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, told The American Scientific she has been called a “sad, little mediocrity,” an “ugly fake scientist” and an “old thin-looking hag,” by men online. Larger gender inequities in STEMM industries foreground this issue. In both the US and UK, men receive the majority of research funding. In Australia, just 17% of senior academics in universities and research institutes are women.

Reducing broader gender inequity in areas like science, contributing to this issue, has been generally ineffective so far. “Current approaches to tackling gender equity in (STEMM)… have been fragmented and for the most part unsuccessful,” Dan Wheelahan from the Australian Academy of Science told Honi. The Academy’s 10-year roadmap developed in partnership with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, outlines a number of areas to strengthen gender equity in STEM in Australia. Despite efforts to tackle the issue more must be done.

The overlap between climate sceptics and misogynists is a new area of study, however. The threat posed by climate activism to industrial modernity “built and dominated by (their form of) masculinity,” is what many climate-deniers fear. This was found by a 2014 paper published by Swedish researchers. The American Scientific also reported: “Men are less likely than women to accept scientific conclusions about people being responsible for rising temperatures. And they’re more likely to overestimate their knowledge of the issue.”

Men are also less likely than women to embrace eco-friendly behaviours because they are often seen as emasculating. This so-called masculinity intersects with western culture itself, advocating humanity’s ‘right’ to manufacture goods using the earth’s resources. It prioritises economic growth over the environment, often premised on the assertion (of white men) over Indigenous lands. Today’s environmental mismanagement has been largely spurred by these values. Men and women both labelled green behaviour as more feminine in an experiment conducted by The American Scientific. The New Republic’s ‘The Misogyny of Climate Deniers’ linked this to Thunberg’s case: “The idea that white men would lead the attacks on Greta Thunberg is consistent with a growing body of research linking gender reactionaries to climate-denialism.”

Meanwhile, climate warnings grow. Catastrophic levels of temperature change will hit harder and sooner than originally forecast, reported The Science Advisory Group to UN Climate Action Summit 2019. Current climate policies must be tripled to meet the 2030 goals of emission reduction, as they continued to rise in 2018. The point then is women climate leaders must be heard, just as much as male ones. Tackling climate change must become a global priority. For everyone’s sake, listen to that sixteen-year-old girl.