The arrival in New York this week of climate activist Greta Thunberg has thrown the Right into their version of pearl-clutching hyperventilation. Unfortunately for civil discourse, their version involves death threats and impotent rage. So why has Thunberg's quest for a reduction in climate-changing pollution make so many people so irrational?
Possibly they're hyper-masculine climate deniers, with more than a soupçon of misogyny:
In 2014, Jonas Anshelm and Martin Hultman of Chalmers published a paper analyzing the language of a focus group of climate skeptics. The common themes in the group, they said, were striking: “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.”
The connection has to do with a sense of group identity under threat, Hultman told me—an identity they perceive to be under threat from all sides. Besieged, as they see it, both by developing gender equality—Hultman pointed specifically to the shock some men felt at the #MeToo movement—and now climate activism’s challenge to their way of life, male reactionaries motivated by right-wing nationalism, anti-feminism, and climate denialism increasingly overlap, the three reactions feeding off of one another.
“There is a package of values and behaviors connected to a form of masculinity that I call ‘industrial breadwinner masculinity.’ They see the world as separated between humans and nature. They believe humans are obliged to use nature and its resources to make products out of them. And they have a risk perception that nature will tolerate all types of waste. It’s a risk perception that doesn’t think of nature as vulnerable and as something that is possible to be destroyed. For them, economic growth is more important than the environment” Hultman told Deutsche Welle last year.
Or perhaps it's because she's a teenager:
Thunberg and a handful of other young climate activists were receiving the Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International in Washington, D.C., last Monday. In the past 17 years, Amnesty has given the award to other icons: Nelson Mandela, Colin Kaepernick, and Ai Weiwei. Backstage, grizzled men in their 40s exchanged boisterous handclasps. Interns and assistants buzzed around: anxious, helpful, and attuned to hierarchy. Somewhere Maggie Gyllenhaal was in a dressing room.
Yet when I saw Thunberg—in jeans, sneakers, and a pink tank top—she seemed small, quiet, and somewhat overwhelmed. Thunberg has Asperger’s, which she calls her “superpower,” and which she says allows her to be more direct and straightforward about climate change.
Her answers were direct but earnest. She sometimes searched for an English word. Unlike politicians and book-touring authors who have been brain-poisoned by media training, she answered the questions posed. When I asked whether there was a climate fact that caused her particular worry, she frowned and first said she could not think of any one fact in particular. Then she added that she was worried about what she’d heard would be in the upcoming UN Intergovernmental Panel report on sea-level rise. Same, Greta.
She is strikingly nonradical, at least in tactics. Unlike other young climate activists—such as members of the Sunrise Movement in the United States, which is led by college students and early 20-somethings—she rejects specific policy proposals such as the Green New Deal, instructing politicians instead to “listen to the science.” She has even declined to endorse a specific platform in the European Union, where her “Fridays for Future” movement has taken hold. When I asked how other teenagers should fight climate change, she said, “They can do everything. There are so many ways to make a difference.” Then she gave, as examples, joining an activist movement and “also to, if you can, vote.”
Thunberg epitomizes, in a person, the unique moral position of being a teenager. She can see the world through an “adult” moral lens, and so she knows that the world is a heartbreakingly flawed place. But unlike an actual adult, she bears almost no conscious blame for this dismal state. Thunberg seems to gesture at this when referring to herself as a “child,” which she does often in speeches.
But if you just read what Thunberg says, ignoring her age, gender, and national origin--not to mention every other irrelevancy--then she makes a lot of sense. So attacking Thunberg really just exemplifies the old adage, "If the facts are against you, hammer the law. If the law is against you, hammer the facts. If the fact and the law are against you, hammer opposing counsel."
The Right are, as always, hammering opposing counsel.