Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist, has become the new target for rightwing men, who are losing their shit over a teenager. On Fox News on Monday night, Michael Knowles, a conservative troll and Daily Wire podcast host, described Thunberg as a “mentally ill Swedish child” who is “being exploited by her parents and by the international left.” Then there’s John Nolte of Breitbart, who calls supporters of Thunberg “Gretards” and recently mused that Thunberg needed “a spanking or a psychological intervention.” And Harry Cherry, a conservative “journalist,” felt the need to call her a “freak” before apologizing (though he has continued to tweet out disparaging articles about Thunberg).
While it’s not only men who feel threatened by Thunberg—Ann Coulter called Knowles’s segment “SPECTACULAR” and Laura Ingraham compared her to Stephen King’s Children of the Corn—it is largely adult, white, conservative men who attack her youth, her Asperger’s, and paint her as irrational and unwell. The gendered nature of these attacks is clear. As Martin Gelin wrote in the New Republic, Thunberg has attracted a “tsunami of male rage,” a rage that can be partly explained by the links between climate change denial and a particular type of affronted, aggrieved man who believes their masculinity is under attack from all sides. Climate change has become “feminized,” and it’s become one of the new targets for conservative men’s culture war. “What was once a practical problem, with general agreement on the facts, has become a matter of identity,” Gelin noted.
Gelin pulls from researchers like Jonas Anshelm and Martin Hultman who’ve found that for these men (and some women), “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.” These findings are backed up by other studies, like that of Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap, sociologists at Michigan State University and Oklahoma State University who found that, no surprises here, conservative white men are more concerned with maintaining a (vanishing) order than tackling climate change. “More generally, [conservative white men] are likely to favor protection of the industrial capitalist order which has historically served them well. Indeed, they are likely to want to return to an earlier era of significantly less governmental regulations,” McCright and Dunlap wrote in 2012. (This may also help explain why a recent poll found that virtually every group in the United States is concerned about the climate crisis, except older Republicans.)
Climate change disproportionately affects women and girls around the world—they are more likely to be displaced, more likely to be living in poverty and thus more vulnerable to climate change’s destabilizing effects. It is also women and girls who are leading the global movement to ensure a livable future.
Yet to conservatives, climate change activism has become wrapped up in the so-called “war on men,” and Thunberg, as well as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with her championing of the Green New Deal, have come to symbolize all that they fear to lose. But for all their whining and their rage, as Thunberg said on Monday before the United Nations, “The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”