Becca Balint: Greta Thunberg and climate misogyny

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Why are so many right wing climate deniers afraid of Greta Thunberg? Thunberg — the Swedish teenager and climate activist who often sports pigtails and a hoodie — arrived in New York last week after a two week voyage across the Atlantic on a no-emissions sailing yacht. She was met with great excitement from supporters and vehement fury from climate deniers. And the overwhelming majority of these rageful (and clearly frightened) commentators were men.

Thunberg has been dismissed as a misguided "messiah" of the Left and as a victim of child-abuse from her "pimping" parents. She's been mocked for being on the autism spectrum and having OCD; she's been derided because of her youth. She's been accused of sanctimony because of her desire to travel in a carbon-neutral way and has been ridiculed as arrogant, petulant, and absolutist.

But all these men who reject the reality of climate change are spitting into the wind; this young woman has emboldened a fierce, massive movement to elevate science and finally address the climate crisis. And their pathetic, sophomoric attacks draw attention to their fear of women and all they perceive to be innately feminine.

Thunberg's passion and clear-eyed focus has galvanized the climate movement. And far from being a weakness, she views her autism as a "superpower" that enables her to see things in stark focus. She's a powerful messenger and a captivating, organizing figure. But she is not the movement. Millions of us across this country believe in the climate science; we're in a crisis, and the number of Americans who agree is growing every year.

The 2018 report "Climate Change in the American Mind" from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication indicated that over 70 percent of Americans believe climate change is happening, and a solid majority think that global warming is mostly human-caused. Only 23 percent say it is due mostly to natural changes in the environment. Only about 14 percent of Americans think global warming is not happening. Simply put, Americans who believe global warming is real outnumber those who think it isn't by more than a 5 to 1 ratio.

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The numbers are strongly against the climate deniers, but these panicky pundits — facing their irrelevancy — use a timeworn tool to get out their message: sexism and a distrust of the feminine. This may be because subconsciously they fear they'll lose their identities, their place in the world, and their significance.

The research of Jonas Anshelm and Martin Hultman of Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden indicates that Swedish climate skeptics' rejection of climate science is tied up in their ideas about masculinity and industrial modernity. They see themselves as defending industrial society and its values against an "eco-modern hegemony" that is perceived as more female.

The New Republic's Martin Gelin recently wrote that the attacks on Greta Thunberg are "consistent with a growing body of research linking gender reactionaries to climate-denialism." In his conversations with Hultman, the researcher "pointed specifically to the shock some men felt at the #MeToo movement — and now climate activism's challenge to their way of life." He found that these male reactionaries are motivated by right-wing nationalism, anti-feminism, and climate denialism, and that these ideas increasingly overlap.

Anshelm and Hultman contend that "for climate skeptics it was not the environment that was threatened, it was a certain kind of modern industrial society built and dominated by their form of masculinity."

These issues are certainly complex. And we're just beginning to tease apart all the threads. But as we continue to build an effective global movement against the climate crisis, we need to understand the many ideas at play under the surface and then shape our messages accordingly.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as Senate Majority Leader in the Vermont Legislature. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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