Why Climate Deniers Hate Activists So Much: Guilt

This week, leaders from across the world came to New York to discuss global action on climate change. But while public opinion in favor of political action is growing, climate denialism remains relatively mainstream. A Yale survey recently found 7 percent of Americans are either extremely or very sure that global warming is not happening.

But as the empirical evidence showing human-activity is causing climate change stacks up, climate change deniers appear to be getting even more ardent in their arguments and vitriolic in their attacks against activists working for environmental change. On Monday, the now ex-Fox News pundit Michael Knowles called teen activist Greta Thunberg "mentally ill"—a comment the broadcaster later apologized for.

But why the hate?

Martin Hultman is a lecturer in technology, science and environmental studies at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, and an expert in climate denialism. He is currently working on a project examining the formulation and spread of conspiracy theories around Greta Thunberg.

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Martin Hultman, a lecturer in technology, science and environmental studies at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and an expert in climate denialism.

In the past, Hultman has also studied entrepreneurship in circular economies and the intersection of climate and energy policy with gender.

His new book Ecological Masculinities looks at how masculinities can advocate and embody care for the global.

Here, Newsweek asks him about the endurance of climate change deniers, what drives them and why they seem to possess so much hatred for environmental activists.

Who are these climate change deniers—are there any trends that unite them?

In our and others' research we see that there are three noticeable groups of organized climate deniers. Elites connected to extractive industries, right-wing politicians sometimes financed directly or through think tanks by those [extractive industries], and men with conservative values that outright ignore or spread doubt about climate science.

Are there any key threads driving their climate beliefs?

The big issue here is the fossil fuel industry which, for decades, has been a merchant of doubt, spreading contrarian climate science. We discuss this as 'organized denial.' Then we have 'party political denial' in many countries intertwined with organized denial.

But, there is also what we call 'response denial.' This is when people in positions of power make decisions—such as the construction of oil pipelines or new airports—running totally counter to the climate policies they claim to support.

Finally, we also find 'everyday climate denial' which happen when people act as though as they are unaware of climate change, and, for example, fly several times a year to foreign countries even if they know the impact of this.

High-profile activists like Greta Thunberg have received a lot of flack from climate deniers. Why do you think this hatred comes from? Are they scared—or is it something else?

We are studying this in a PhD-project at the moment. When Thunberg and the young climate justice movement share the established climate research, 'the climate denial machine' put in a gear. Termed by Riley Dunlap, this engine is well-funded and well-established and when now connected to right-wing nationalist political agendas, the power of it is widespread.

Challenged by the energy and straightforwardness of these youngsters, I believe that these men—almost only men—feel a bit guilty.

Why do you think that translates to hatred and attacks against activists?

It seems that they are aware of what the consequences would be if they would take this knowledge for real—not least for their kids or grandkids—and by that they confront their own vulnerability.

In a 2014 paper, you describe a small band of climate change skeptics in Swedish society who described themselves as marginalized, banned and oppressed dissidents. How are they framing themselves in this way?

Framing themselves in this manner, despite their influence, make it possible to avoid responsibility as well as creating an image of us-against-the-elites. It is similar rhetoric as Trump used when he said he would 'drain the swamp.'

Conservative men in particular are more likely to deny the reality of climate change and avoid more 'feminine' pro-environmental behavior, like reusable bags and recycling. Why do you think this is? Has it always been this way?

This is not new knowledge, Eco-feminist scholars such as Carolyn Merchant, Greta Gaard, Sherilyn MacGregor have pointed this out for a long time. But, it does not need to be like this in the future. Even if we today recognize that what we call 'industrial/breadwinner masculinities' is destructive to women and the planet alike, change is possible and is on its way.

You were involved in a study that found that 63 percent of Norwegian men who identified as conservative did not believe climate change, versus 36 percent of the overall population. Do you believe this link between masculinity and climate denial is a global problem?

Yes. Forthcoming research that we will publish in anthology with Palgrave discuss this as a Global North phenomena.

It is connected to the structures of industrial modernization and our fossil fuel-based global economy, which has demanded these types of values and [practices] of men.

Connect this to the trend of right-wing nationalism and you have today's political landscape.

What do you recommend we do to fix it?

I'm working along two lines of research.

One is the need to try out laws that protect the planet. Rights of Nature has been inscribed in the constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia, while rights have been granted to rivers in New Zealand and Lake Erie in the U.S.

Local or national legislation that recognize ecosystems need to flourish is of great importance. This could also be implemented globally through the Rome Statute in forms of End Ecocide Law that could make court cases of possible at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Second is the need to change malestream norms towards greater care for men themselves, women and the Earth. I've just published a book called Ecological Masculinities in which we lay out the foundation for an ecologicalization process for men in collaboration with civil society organizations working with gender equality.

There is a huge need at the moment to be innovative and work with solutions that can make a big difference. New forms of law and transforming value systems are two of those type of solutions.

Views expressed in this article are Martin Hultman's own.

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Representative image of climate denial. iStock
Why Climate Deniers Hate Activists So Much: Guilt | Tech & Science