Why climate denial and misogyny go hand in hand

OPINION: Catherine McKenna. Greta Thunberg. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. All three support climate action, and all three face sexist abuse. Can it really be a coincidence?
By Lauren McKeon - Published on Sep 18, 2019
Catherine McKenna
Catherine McKenna, the federal minister of environment and climate change, now requires a security detail for some events. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

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This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Federal environment minister Catherine McKenna has long faced misogynistic backlash for speaking out on the climate crisis — and not just from the murkier corners of the internet. In 2017, Conservative MP Gerry Ritz caused a brief uproar after he referred to her on Twitter as “Climate Barbie,” a sexist nickname originally coined by Rebel Media. While Ritz quickly apologized, the insult stuck. On Twitter, people using the hashtag #ClimateBarbie call McKenna a hypocrite, an authoritarian, a drunk, and worse. Recently, all this hate moved offline: McKenna told the Canadian Press that a man who had spotted her exiting a movie theatre with her children slowed his car, rolled down his window, and shouted, “F—k you, Climate Barbie.”

This isn’t the only time McKenna has been confronted in person. As she told CP, people have shouted slurs, calling her both a “c—t” and a “communist piece of garbage.” Her family has been threatened. McKenna now requires a security detail for some events — a level of protection, the CP story notes, that is not usually offered to cabinet ministers. And McKenna is far from the only high-profile female environmentalist to face threats and online vitriol. She’s one of many — which suggests a dangerous reciprocal relationship between misogyny and climate-change denialism.

There have been numerous examples of anti-feminist climate-denial trolling in recent weeks. A right-wing organization in the United States created a video of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talking about decarbonization and labelled it “Shallow Thoughts.” Closer to home, Maxime Bernier went on a sexist, ableist Twitter rant about 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg in which he said she must be “denounced and attacked,” largely because she was “not only autistic, but obsessive-compulsive.” Other high-profile right-wing men have also joined the chorus: Fox News commentator Steve Milloy, for example, tweeted that “the world laughs at this Greta charade”; David Vance, a blogger with more than 125,000 followers, tweeted, “Yes, Greta. We hear but we’re not remotely interested in what you say. We also hear the shrill chorus of your infantile acolytes and laugh at them.”

What jolly men!

As one Slate article noted, the desired effect is to promote the message that any woman who voices an opinion on the climate crisis is “too stupid to know what she’s talking about.” Dubbing someone a “Barbie,” slinging mud about their disability or mental health, insinuating that they’re vapid — these are the same tricks men have used throughout history to discredit other genders and repudiate their power. Climate-change deniers are using these tactics now because they’re easy and because they work. We’re already primed to believe that women have little to offer on critical political issues. Why wouldn’t they be ditzy about climate change, too?

An emerging body of research suggests a further possible reason for climate-change misogyny: men may see the issue as too feminine. In a 2017 article in Scientific American, researchers discussed a study that found that men distance themselves from eco-friendly behaviours because they’re worried that such behaviours might “brand them as feminine.” A 2019 study showed that people may question a man’s heterosexuality if he engages in activities such as recycling or shopping with reusable bags.

On a larger scale, this may translate into support for industrial activities such as gas, mining, manufacturing — whatever is deemed manly, in other words. A 2014 paper published in the International Journal for Masculinity Studies found that certain skeptics believed that it wasn’t the environment that was under threat, but rather “a certain kind of modern industrial society built and dominated by their form of masculinity.” Similarly, the Centre for Studies of Climate Change Denialism has found consistent links between climate-change denialism, strong conservatism, and nationalism — the last two of which also feature strongly in the anti-feminist movement.

When it comes down to it, this troubling behaviour — misogynistic threats, refusing to engage in “girly” environmental choices, supporting an industrial, nationalistic economy — is all about the same thing: a deep desire to protect perceived world orders and a fear of change, of shifting power structures, of equality. But it’s far past time that sexists stop worrying about whether the feminists are winning or whether carrying a cloth bag is unmanly. We have more important things to worry about. Like our whole planet.

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Correction: An earlier version of this article cited a CBC story; in fact, it was a Canadian Press story published on the CBC's website.

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