The Current

'Disturbing' sexist abuse towards Catherine McKenna common for women climate experts, says scientist

Kim Cobb, a climate scientist and Director of the Global Change Program at Georgia Tech, spoke to The Current about the vitriol — both online and offline — she faces as a woman working on climate change.

Environment and climate change minister was assigned RCMP security detail after increase in threats

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

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To climate scientist Kim Cobb, the threats and vitriol faced by Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna sound very familiar. 

"It definitely resonates with much of the online abuse that we are subjected to as women in climate," the director of the global change program at Georgia Tech told The Current.

McKenna, who has long been a target of online abuse, recently said she was assigned an RCMP security detail because of an increase in verbal assaults and threats against her in the real world.

She told CBC's Ottawa Morning that one particularly frightening example occurred outside a movie theatre, when a man pulled up his car beside her and her children, filmed her and and yelled expletives at her, including comments about climate change.

"I will say it is worse for women in climate," McKenna said. "Misogyny and climate denial seem to go together."

Canadian scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who is one of the world's leading climate experts, has also spoken out about some of the ways she has been targeted as a woman working on climate change, including frequent sexist attacks on Twitter.

Cobb spoke to The Current's interim host Laura Lynch about the abuse she has faced as a female climate scientist. Here is part of their conversation.

How does [online abuse aimed at Catherine McKenna and Katharine Hayhoe] mirror your own online experience?

It definitely resonates with much of the online abuse that we are subjected to as women in climate, as well as, of course, spilling over into real life, in the form of letters and emails and strange phone calls. So it's not just social media.

Climate scientist Kim Cobb says the vitriol faced by Minister Catherine McKenna is common for women climate leaders. (Georgia Tech)

What kinds of messages have you received?

All kinds of things. ... They tend to be short, sweet, abusive, completely lacking substance. And generally you can brush those off. 

I find it's the ones that land in my inbox, cc'd to the president of my institution, calling for my removal as a faculty member. Or obviously [there are] the letters that come too, from all over the world: some of them full of tirades, irate tirades, from individuals. And those ones hit a little bit closer to home, obviously, as it took some amount of effort to do that.

When this started, how did you react?

I think the first time I was really subject to a torrent — really a tidal wave — of online abuse was after a fairly common appearance on CNN, in which I walked through the facts of climate change as they impact wildfires, as much as we know them.

And I got back to my office, and my Twitter was blowing up, my email was overflowing, my phone was ringing off the hook. And I just had to weather that storm for three or four days.

It's one thing to come after me and my speech, or my tweets, or my thoughts, or my work. It's an entirely different thing to start involving my children in that kind of attack.- Kim Cobb

It really puts you out of commission mentally, because you begin to comb over and second-guess yourself as an effective communicator. And you also begin to wonder how much threat you're actually willing to withstand before you reach for help, in the form of police or your dean or provost to let them know what's going on.

So it's a very complex set of emotions that kicks in when these episodes first come at you.

But with experience you get better at brushing them off, because ultimately of course, this is largely confined to people's outbursts far far away and they don't impact your life. 

But do any of the insults still get under your skin?

Yes, I mean some of them do. And I really have to express, the worst of them are exactly the ones that were the worst from Catherine McKenna's experience, which is the ones that are somehow involving my children. And that's a line for me, as it would be for most people.

It's one thing to come after me and my speech, or my tweets, or my thoughts, or my work. It's an entirely different thing to start involving my children in that kind of attack. 

And so whether it's your children that are exposed and see it, in the case of Catherine McKenna walking down the street — how horrifying, and very threatening physically — but also just to be talking about [my children], or incorporating them into my communication. Because that is part of who I am. 

I'm a mother of four, so sometimes I get to talk about that. And when I do, inevitably somebody is going to cross a line and start to bring my children into it for extra effect, almost. And those are the ones that get under my skin, and those are the ones that make me afraid to bring my whole self to my work.

Do your male colleagues receive the same kind of online treatment?

I know that they are subject to really incredible and sustained attacks as well. Obviously when we're facing the kind of gendered weapons that we are as women climate leaders, there's a whole other level of harm that can be done to people. 

And that's exactly why they are leveraging those kind of gendered weapons, because we are people who are sensitive to that, and struggle against that probably on a daily basis anyway, walking in our shoes. So it is particularly disturbing and particularly effective. 

And I'm glad that we're talking about it today so that people can understand what it takes to be out there as a woman in something as divisive as climate.

Produced by Alison Masemann, Danielle Carr and Cameron Perrier.