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18 September 2019updated 02 Dec 2019 4:42pm

Climate denialism is rooted in a reactionary form of masculinity

“A certain type of masculinity willing to think of natural resources as something that exist for humans to grab, use, and create value from.”

By Hettie O'Brien

The less credible that climate denialism becomes, the more its exponents react with incandescent rage. Recently, this has bubbled over into abuse directed towards female campaigners and politicians. Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg has been branded a “millenarian weirdo” and a “deeply disturbed messiah”; an Australian radio broadcaster suggested someone “shove a sock” down the throat of New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern; Canada’s environment minister Catherine McKenna was assigned a security detail after receiving abuse in public.

“Misogyny and climate denial seem to go together,” McKenna told Canada’s national broadcaster. When explaining climate scepticism, a common instinct is to follow the money back to a network of think tanks whose donors profit from the plundering of natural resources. But the story of climate scepticism is one of ideology as much as it is of economic interests.

“There’s been a misjudgement within the environmental community about how important money is,” says Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change. Ward identified a peculiar feature of climate scepticism after noticing that the trustees and advisers of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate-denialist lobbying group in the UK, were disproportionately male (34 out of 35 people). Though corporate donations have been a “major driver” in enabling climate scepticism, Ward says, “with these guys it’s a far more visceral response than a cold, calculated argument about your bottom line”.

Though not all climate change denialists are men (and men aren’t necessarily more likely to disbelieve climate science), the most vocal sceptics, Ward says, are “invariably male and usually older”. And there is a growing body of research linking a particularly reactionary form of masculinity to this climate change denialism.

Martin Hultman, a professor of science and technology studies at Chalmers University in Sweden, which is home to the world’s first research centre for the study of climate denial, tells me he was struck by “a certain group of men, and a certain type of masculinity”, that is “willing to think of natural resources as something that exists for humans to grab, use, and create value from”.

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In 2014, Hultman co-authored a paper analysing the language used by a focus group of climate sceptics. What emerged among them was striking; it was not the environment they feared was under threat, but “a certain kind of modern industrial society built and dominated by their form of masculinity”. The emergence of industrial society has coincided with nature’s transformation into a resource: grasslands and fens have been paved over for the expansion of roads and cities, complex forested ecosystems cleared to make way for fields of a single plant, and entire populations of animals poisoned by pesticides used in industrial farming.

Over the past 40 years, though, a situation has emerged in which such control is no longer guaranteed. Rising sea levels, planetary warming and ocean acidification all threaten the viability of human life. Climate denialism, Hultman thinks, can be traced to the feeling that a group’s identity is under threat. Accepting the truth of climate science involves recognising that the supremacy we have long exerted over our natural environment will have to subside. Denialism amounts to a strange form of identity politics among those who feel threatened by the sweeping changes that environmental breakdown makes necessary.

Writing towards the end of the 1970s, shortly after the era of first-wave environmentalism, when the side-effects of the Industrial Revolution began to enter public consciousness, the historian Carolyn Merchant argued that our mechanisation of the natural world had “sanctioned the domination of both nature and women” – leading to a social hierarchy that subordinated both.

The results of this mentality have been devastating. It seems that accepting the reality of our environmental crisis – and the personal, political and industrial changes required to confront it – is more difficult for those whom the old order of things benefited the most.

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This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control