Reflections on Gender & Climate Denial

Last week, I attended the Climate Puzzles for Diplomats session on Climate and Gender hosted by Zdenka Myslikova and Rishi Bhandary, PhD students from the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy. Kinsey Spears, Dipali Anumol, and Alex McCauliff, three Fletcher PhD students focusing their research on gender studies, sat on the panel to discuss the ways that climate issues and gender intersect. Each of the panelists provided a unique perspective on the connections between these topics – from waste management in Lebanon, floods and water shortages in Chennai, to the gendered ways we view extractive vs. renewable energy sources. I left the event with a renewed awareness of the importance of taking a gendered lens to the way we view any issue – particularly climate change. Below are some of the key thoughts I left the session with:

Power, privilege, and climate denialism

As the panel discussion shifted to the topic of economic power and its influence on who is most able to escape from the effects of climate change, I started to think about climate denialism as a form of privilege in the United States. For many of us living comfortable lives in the U.S., we have yet to feel the effects of climate change on our everyday lives. This is not the case for much of the world today. Climate change is and will continue to exacerbate global inequality as temperatures rise and these effects will impact low-income communities the hardest. Individuals of all genders will experience the impacts of climate change in different ways, which is why a gendered lens is crucial in every national climate policy. In the face of frequent extreme weather events and continually record-breaking heat waves, who is still denying that climate change is happening? Panelist Alex McCauliff pointed out the idea that those who deny the existence of climate change are often the ones most able to escape from its effects.

According to a report in the journal Global Environmental Change, there is strong evidence that conservative white males are more likely to deny climate change than other adults in the United States. As white men hold a majority of political seats in the US and stand at the top of the pyramid of systemic privilege, it is likely that they will be the least affected by climate change while simultaneously having the most power to actually do something about it. Though there may be little chance at convincing politicians like Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), who infamously brought a snowball to the Senate floor to ‘disprove’ global warming, there certainly is a need to question how we can better communicate the importance of climate action among all parts of our society. To do so, I think it is necessary to try and better understand the dynamics of climate denialism among white men in the U.S..

When I was walking with a large group of Tufts students from our campus climate rally to the larger Boston Climate Strike on September 20th, we passed by a construction project where one of the workers shouted that all of us should “get a job.”  I was reminded of this when panel moderator Zdenka Myslikova brought up industrial breadwinner masculinities and I asked the panel how we could combat this gendered perception of climate activism as feminine, weak, and unimportant in comparison to more masculine activities like “paying the bills.” Panelist Dipali Anumol expressed the importance of understanding the immediacy of a problem rather than framing it in an abstract way. In her hometown of Chennai, India which is experiencing a water crisis and has oscillated between flooding and water shortages in recent years, the immediacy is certainly there. But how to communicate to a local Boston construction worker that he should care about water shortages in Chennai? Those of us who study climate change and look at the flood maps know that it’s only a matter of time before Boston itself will be dealing with increases in floods (as it did last year and last week), but is the connection being effectively communicated between these events and climate change?

As a white female student of climate policy who drinks out of metal straws and carries reusable bags, I know I fit the mold of stereotypical climate activist. Like most white men in the U.S., I also have very little exposure to the real, daily effects of climate change that are being felt by people around the world. Despite my distance from these issues, I see how important they are, and I want more of my country to see that too. The U.S. political system’s denial of climate change is unmatched globally and is the result of a number of factors, but gender definitely plays a role in this unfortunate reality. Understanding these gendered dynamics and strategically reframing how we communicate the urgency of the climate crisis is a crucial first step in combatting climate denialism in the U.S.

Sources: McCright, Aaron M., and Riley E. Dunlap. “Cool Dudes: The Denial of Climate Change among Conservative White Males in the United States.” Global Environmental Change 21, no. 4 (October 1, 2011): 1163–72.

Written by: Bethany Tietjen, F20