Rude jokes, hate mail and violent threats—for climate experts, it’s all part of the job. That’s especially true for the women.
By Chris Turner, Chatelaine, March 5, 2020
Just months after the Alberta NDP’s surprise 2015 election win, Shannon Phillips, the province’s new environment minister, travelled to Paris for what would turn out to be a historic round of global climate change negotiations.
Alberta had long been a climate laggard, but Phillips was an ambitious and relatively young force in the province’s politics—39 years old at the time—and she was part of a wave of fresh faces in leadership. Phillips landed in Paris alongside Alberta’s new premier, Rachel Notley, and Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who were both committed to taking big steps after a decade of foot-dragging under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
It was an exciting time to be a cabinet minister working on climate change—the meeting produced what’s known as the Paris Agreement, the first major international pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions since the Kyoto Protocol nearly 20 years earlier.
And right away, Phillips noticed a remarkable detail about the negotiations: the number of women present. At every meeting, the tables were crowded with female ministers, female negotiators, female scientists and activists.
“A massive amount of the heavy lifting around the world on this matter is being done by women,” says Phillips, who still represents her Lethbridge-West riding in the Alberta legislature. “You see more women on panels. You see more women in the negotiating spaces. You see more women in leadership positions on climate.”
But, as Phillips learned, that prominence came saddled with an added burden. As her government rolled out its climate change plan, she became a target for misogynistic abuse. There was no communications channel immune to the attacks. Social media platforms provided the greatest volume of vitriol, but occasional hateful messages also arrived via email, written letters and phone calls.
For Phillips, Facebook was the worst. Staff at her Lethbridge constituency office took on the work of scrolling through her feed, deleting enraged, expletive-laden posts and deciding if any represented sufficiently serious threats to alert local police.
Lethbridge is a small city and its political circles smaller still, and Phillips’ staff could sometimes trace threatening posts to someone only one or two degrees of separation away from the politician’s family, friends and inner circle.
As a cabinet minister, Phillips couldn’t spend her days engaging in online shouting matches. “You have some constraints that are real,” she says. “It’s hard to fight back. So you just retreat.” The cacophony of abusive language simply became part of the background noise of her job.
That’s a ubiquitous experience for women leading the global climate change effort. From climate scientists who explain scientific facts to the public, to politicians unveiling climate legislation, to teenagers taking to the streets to demand a better future, women have formed the front line in this pitched political battle.
They are among the fiercest advocates for action, and a relentless barrage of abuse is unleashed upon them in response. There is no more important political arena in the world today than addressing climate change, and few as ugly and openly misogynistic. There is real heroism simply in persevering.
The intensity of the hate endured by women working on climate issues is partially due to the overall tenor of the conversation—deeply divisive, freighted with highly-technical terminology and thrown off course for decades by ferocious and well-funded efforts to obscure the basic scientific facts of the crisis.
Men working on climate change action, whether as politicians, scientists or activists, also become objects of hate. Michael Mann, an outspoken climate scientist at Penn State University, once received an envelope full of mysterious white powder in the mail (it turned out to be corn starch), among other abuses. He is far from alone.
For women, though, the scale and intensity are orders of magnitude greater. Women exercising authority of any sort endure a certain amount of gender-based vilification, and climate change advocacy inevitably amplifies it. Several recent studies have noted that climate change represents a particularly sharp challenge to traditional ideas about masculinity.
A 2014 Swedish study, for example, found that climate change was seen as a threat to what researcher Martin Hultman has called the male “industrial breadwinner” identity, causing many men “to perceive climate activism as inherently feminine.”
Another study found that men were more likely than women to view acts of environmental stewardship in general as threats to masculinity. A British market research firm has dubbed this the “eco gender gap,” noting that products branded as “green” were much more likely to be purchased by women than by men. Climate change blends all these factors together, creating a uniquely powerful catalyst for gendered abuse.
Every female climate scientist who achieves any prominence has seen her social media mentions fill with schoolyard insults, disparaging descriptions of her appearance and threats of sexual violence. Every politician in the spotlight on the climate front becomes a target for partisan attacks.
Young women who take on leadership roles are met with condescension regarding their abilities and contempt regarding their motives. And once such abuse reaches a particular volume and pitch, it spills over from the online world to real life.
Last October, Swedish student activist Greta Thunberg landed in Alberta to participate in one of the climate strikes her leadership has inspired around the world. While she was there, a camera-wielding contributor to the right-wing outlet Rebel Media tracked her to her Edmonton hotel. In a video that’s still up on YouTube, he follows her down a hallway and clearly identifies her location—a shocking intrusion on the safety of a 16-year-old girl. In climate politics, nothing appears to be out of bounds.
In Canada, Rebel Media has loomed large in the deterioration of the discourse around climate change. If there was an initial flashpoint for climate misogyny in this country, it was early 2016, when the outlet began using the term “Climate Barbie” to refer to then federal environment minister Catherine McKenna. The phrase, alongside the usual load of misogynistic abuse hurled at female cabinet ministers, had burbled in the background during the first months of McKenna’s tenure. On the advice of her staff, McKenna had largely ignored the taunts and the condescending name. But once Rebel Media began popularizing it, usage rapidly amped up. And one particular day in September 2017, McKenna decided she’d had enough.
“I was at the UN,” McKenna says, “and it was late. We had had a day of meetings with international leaders on climate change and I came back [to my hotel] and I saw my Twitter feed had exploded.” The reason? The Conservative MP Gerry Ritz had replied to a news story about the Paris emissions cuts with a tweet reading, “Has anyone told our climate Barbie!”
In the lingo of social media, McKenna decided to clap back. “Do you use that sexist language about your daughter, mother, sister?” she wrote. “We need more women in politics. Your sexist comments won’t stop us.” In the face of a barrage of criticism, Ritz deleted the tweet and apologized for using a term that “is not reflective of the role the Minister plays.”
From then on, McKenna took on her critics from time to time. In a press scrum a few weeks after Ritz’s tweet, she confronted a Rebel Media contributor directly. In response to a question about Canada’s electricity mix, she replied, “So you’re the Rebel Media that happens to call me ‘Climate Barbie.’ I certainly hope that you will no longer use that hashtag.”
“I realized that calling these things out every once in awhile is actually good,” she says now. “Because I felt that I had to bite my tongue a lot, and I didn’t think it was okay. And it’s not that it’s all about me . . . It’s about girls and women who want to get into politics who would see these horrible things.”
McKenna says pushing back makes her feel “empowered,” but the consequences of the abuse could not be so readily contained. After several encounters with angry strangers—including having profanities hurled at her from a passing car as she walked with her children—she was required to take on a security detail for her public appearances as environment minister.
Even for women with platforms much less prominent, talking about climate change in public is a powerful magnet for misogynistic abuse. Leah Stokes, a Canadian-born professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, began making media appearances in early 2019 to discuss how to transform the energy sector. She noticed a distinct shift as her social media following grew. “When you get to 10,000,” she says, “things start to get crazy for women on Twitter.”
Her response has been to put hours of conscious effort into building community and encouraging civility on social media. Stokes thanks colleagues for mentioning her work, goes out of her way to post praise of theirs and makes regular recommendations of other scientists to follow.
“I see so many women advocates doing that,” says Stokes, adding it’s partly an effort to share the spotlight, and ensure a diversity of voices. “I think the darker side of it is that it’s a way of protecting ourselves. It’s the kind of extra emotional labour we have to do . . . that I just don’t think men have to do at all.”
Even with that extra labour, Stokes sometimes finds the climate battlefield more than she wants to take on. In the fall of 2019, a New York Times reporter contacted Stokes for an analysis of the climate and energy policies being floated by Democratic leadership candidates. She decided not to go on the record with her thoughts.
“If I took a position different from some of the activists…I would get attacked,” Stokes says. The Times reporter spoke to several other women for the story, but none agreed to be quoted. When the piece ran, it was criticized for failing to include the voices of female experts.
Stokes, like many women working in climate advocacy today, points to another Canadian climate scientist, Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University, as a role model. Hayhoe has become a widely-cited voice on how to talk to a reluctant public about climate change—in part because she is an unabashed Christian and political moderate in a field whose most prominent spokespeople tend to be neither of those things. Hayhoe also has an extraordinary gift for delivering calm, clear messages in the midst of the climate crossfire.
“What’s at the bottom of all of this is fear,” Hayhoe says. “Fear that the world is changing really fast. And it’s changing in ways that make a lot of people uncomfortable, because they feel like they’re being left behind.” All those fears have triggered a multivalent storm of toxic, reactionary politics—nationalism, sexism, racism and hostility toward expertise of all sorts. As Hayhoe notes, a female scientist talking about a need for dramatic socio-economic changes in order to address an issue associated with progressive causes becomes a lightning rod for virtually the entire turbulent mess of grievances.
Hayhoe has come in for constant abuse and threats. She has removed personal information from her online bios because she was receiving strange packages and letters both at work and at home. The less frightening sexism takes a toll, too. In June 2019, when Hayhoe was called to give testimony before the United States Congress, congressmen who had addressed her male colleagues as “doctor” condescendingly referred to her as “young lady.”
“When I’m the second oldest person on the panel, and I am an expert with 25 years of experience testifying in my field, to address me in that manner is frankly unprofessional and inappropriate,” says Hayhoe, who has a PhD, more than 100 peer-reviewed climate science publications and is the director of Texas Tech’s Climate Center, among other things. “Yet, it’s common.”
She’s stopped trying to defend her expertise. “I had to consciously give up the right to be respected and correctly represented,” Hayhoe says. “I don’t like it, but that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to reach the people who can engage in respectful dialogue.”
The task is admirable, and it is bearing fruit—climate change has moved firmly into the centre of the political arena across North America and support for action is building. At the same time, the greater visibility of both the issue and the women who carry on the fight almost certainly means that misogynistic blowback will get worse before it gets better. And it continues to transpire in a rapidly-evolving social-media environment in which there are still no established norms, let alone government protocols or law-enforcement strategies.
McKenna says her office and her government have brought up the abuse directly with social media companies. The response has been rote expressions of regret and suggestions to report every transgression—which, she notes ruefully, would’ve occupied her entire staff all day, every day, at the peak of her visibility as environment minister.
Otherwise, there is no promise of action on the horizon, and police are often no more help. Phillips says nothing was done to investigate the threatening messages her office reported, which she calls “a form of intimidating people who are duly elected.” She wonders—without much hope—if CSIS [Canadian Security Intelligence Service] or the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] will ever see it that way.
In the meantime, there is the everyday heroism of the women engaged in the climate-change battle—who are all quick to insist the duty to act and the opportunity to carve out an even larger space for female leadership balance out the abuse. “Change is worth it,” says Phillips. “And from my perspective of being a partisan politician, being the boss is worth it.”