Newzz: Feminizing the great climate change debate

Arguments for and against climate change action simply envelop us. Whether you’re flipping through the science pages of the paper, feeling big emotions over an environmental documentary, or engaging in political debates at the pub, you’ve likely witnessed many different stances on this hot topic (excuse the pun).

But have you ever considered the motivations behind this discourse? Why do certain politicians, scientists, businesspeople, and environmentalists adopt the rhetoric they use?

Media experts and science communicators have long studied these questions. But until recently, we never really considered how climate change discourse differs due to… gender.

A group of psychologists at Penn State, led by Dr. Janet K. Swim, finally delved into this issue. They argue that the framing of climate change debates exists within rigid, historic gender norms.

Photo: Meredith Sherock – Denver Science March, 2017.


It’s all in the framing

What exactly do researchers mean by “framing?” In media studies, framing describes the various nuances within publicly-presented arguments.

Let’s use climate change as an example.

Conservatives may frame climate change as an uncertain theory, while liberals may frame it as an absolute catastrophe. Meanwhile, clean energy businesses may emphasize frames of future job security, while big oil may focus on climate change policy ruining their industry.

As you can see, frames allow us to use science to suit specific agendas.

Dr. Swim and her team argue that climate change framing can be split into two categories: science-business frames and ethics-environmental justice frames.

Science-business framing is your standard, logic-based sort of argument (think of the phrasing employed by scientists, politicians, and business leaders). These arguments rely on statistics and solid science.

Ethics-environmental justice frames, on the other hand, emphasize social responsibility in the climate change debate. These arguments focus on the impact of actions on individuals and the earth as whole.

Based off the descriptions above, does anyone in particular come to mind?

I immediately linked science-business framing to the likes of Bill Nye (who frequently references scientific literature in his climate debates) and Paul Ryan (who denies climate change based off business principles). Meanwhile, I pictured Rachel Carson when thinking about ethics-environmental justice framing.

Obviously, these are just a couple examples of my own interpretation, but you can already see a subtle gender divide.

Photo: Meredith Sherock – Denver Science March, 2017.

What does the science say?

With these frames in mind, Dr. Swim and her colleagues explored gender-based preferences in larger audiences. After surveying both men and women, the team developed some fascinating conclusions.

Overall, male participants favoured science-business framed climate change arguments. They also associated ethical-environmental business frames with femininity, homosexuality, and low power. Women, interestingly, didn’t show much preference between frames. But they did attribute positive male traits (i.e. power and confidence) to other women who used science-business rhetoric.

These preferences help us classify both climate change frames.

Essentially, the business-science frame is more masculine. This frame is associated with power, status, and agency. Overall, men are more likely to hold positions of higher power (in politics, science, and business), and those fields are stereotypically characterized as male-centric.

Meanwhile, ethics-environmental justice frames carry a more feminine connotation. This rhetoric harnesses ideas of compassion, warmth, and benevolence. These characteristics are stereotypically feminine, and men who display them may be met with questioned masculinity by their peers.

Photo: Meredith Sherock – Denver Science March, 2017.

But why do these stereotypes exist? To understand, let’s consider gender perceptions in early environmental movements.

This gender divide began as far back as the 1800s. Early environmentalist, nature writer, and sincere love of my life John Muir emphasized environmental justice in his work. Critics, however, dismantled his words, arguing that his opinions were simply unmanly. Flash forward to the turn of the century, when Progressive male environmentalists also adopted business-science frames to boost their cause. Then, male supporters of the burgeoning green movement, spawned by Silent Spring in 1962, faced similar criticisms as Muir. Their opponents totally emasculated these men, calling them the “birds and bunny boys” of environmentalism.

As you can see, gendered rhetoric in environmentalism is not a new thing. And because of this deeply-entrenched history, deviating from the norm is incredibly difficult today.

But why do much have such stronger opinions than women?

Dr. Swim and her colleagues argue that women simply have more wiggle room when deviating from gender norms. Over the last 60 years, women have progressed in their career prospects, social responsibilities, and temperament. Adopting feminine traits symbolizes taking a huge step back in power, and vice versa. This explains why men who favour ethics-environmental justice may be characterized as negatively feminine, powerless, and homosexual by male peers.


Photo: Meredith Sherock – Denver Women’s March, 2018.

Moving forward

In wake of recent fights for women in the workplace (hello, #metoo movement), this study sheds light on the unequal representation of gender and sexuality in politics, science, and business.

Luckily, this imbalance is finally being discussed. In 2016, the UN aimed to include more female delegates in climate change policy, which would boost ethics-environmental justice discourse in policy debates.

Clearly, we need more women in positions of power, especially when climate change policy is concerned. But we also need more men who support ethics-environmental justice framing. It is important for men to see their masculine stereotypes challenged, which promotes greater variance and acceptance among their gender.

As if climate change weren’t enough of a polarized issue, this study goes to show that perhaps our discourse on it is even more complex than we thought. If our arguments and interpretations on climate change debates can be attributed to our mere gender, it may take a lot more work to reach unity on this issue.

So, next time you encounter climate change discourse, give a little thought about the gender politics involved.

Featured Image: PYRO4D @ Pixabay



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