Remaining emotionless in the face of catastrophe: a gender perspective of climate change communication

“If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.”

Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

In the film Don’t Look Up, a particularly memorable scene features scientist Dr. Kate Dibiasky, portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence, tearfully proclaiming on national television, “We are all 100% for sure gonna f***ing die.” Subsequently, she is dismissed as hysterical, her credibility undermined, and the image of her distressed face becomes the basis for a viral meme. While this is just a satirical movie that employs a fictional comet as a metaphor for the imminent threat of climate change, this specific scene sheds light on societal challenges related to the communication of environmental issues, particularly global warming, and the gender biases entwined within these challenges. In this brief article, I will delve into these complexities and their implications. I will provide some examples that show how these gender biases impact the communication of climate change knowledge. I will argue that the scientific norm of “emotional restraint” directly influences how scientists convey information about climate change and its impacts.

Systematic biases in scientific knowledge production, communication, and reception have been widely analyzed by feminist science studies scholars. As the philosopher Sandra Harding argues, while science generates reliable information about the empirical world, it is also political and thus reflects the power relations that traverse society.[1] This reflection occurs not only in terms of gender but also in relation to class, religion, and race. In addition, Donna Haraway asserts that knowledge is “situated,” meaning that it is intricately shaped by its specific surroundings—comprising historical, social, and cultural context.[2] Diverse personal experiences and physical embodiments significantly influence the nature of knowledge that an individual generates. The situated nature of knowledge is relevant not only in its creation but also in its communication and reception. Knowledge is filtered through the cultural system in which someone is living, and thus, it gets shaped by someone’s class, gender, and race. Black feminist scholars have long recognized that the intersection of oppression produces subjects who experience the material world and the associated knowledge according to their unique status.[3] Given that science is generally produced by and for those who follow, using Audre Lorde’s concept, the “mythical norm”—white, thin, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure men—when communicated to the public, it will generally have an impact on the same elite group and not the community at large.[4]

This small group that creates scientific knowledge, which has traditionally been referred to as the “scientific community”, has established implicit norms intended to define the “adequate” behavior expected of a scientist, especially in the public sphere. One norm particularly relevant to my argument in this article is “emotional restraint”, meaning the necessity to avoid displaying emotions while communicating scientific findings. In other words, being seen as too emotional is generally viewed as a negative attribute of a scientist.[5] While emotions play a role at all stages of the scientific process, feelings and the act of expressing them are deemed inappropriate by many scientists. In consequence, they tend to bottle them up, keeping them at a subconscious level.[6]

Let us focus on some examples of climate change science. Like any other scientific issue, gender biases exist in the production of climate change sciences, as well as in its reception by a diverse public.[7] One particular bias arises from the pressure that scientists face to maintain emotional restraint; scientists who express emotions such as fear or anxiety while discussing global warming face significant criticism both from the public and within the scientific community. They are often labeled as “irrational” and “politically biased,” which indirectly influences the way scientists express themselves. Given that scientists serve as the primary source of information about climate change for governments and the public, this bias has profound implications for how climate change is presented, framed, and understood by these entities.[8]

The first ones to strongly attack and criticize scientists who have publicly addressed the issue of climate change are representatives of the denial movement. The so-called “skeptic scientists,” funded by conservative think tanks and oil companies, have consistently accused the scientific community of being alarmists and exaggerating the potential impacts of climate change.[9] They portray these scientists as overly catastrophic, suggesting they do so to attract attention or funding. Particular focus has been given to scientists who appear “too” emotionally invested in the issue, who are accused of compromising scientific credibility and providing biased opinions instead of “rational” knowledge. 

This criticism is not exclusive to climate scientists; conservative and denialist journalists commonly mock scientists and environmentalists for expressing fear and pessimism about the future. Such individuals are accused of acting irrationally. As a famous case in point, Rachel Carson and her well-known book Silent Spring, faced harrasing criticism for its “hysterical” tone, with her gender widely used as an argument against her rationality.[10] Several decades later, the conservative press similarly criticized NASA scientists who announced the effects of the destruction of the ozone layer. They were accused of acting based on emotional imperatives rather than adhering to the dictates of scientific objectivity.[11]

When scientists face criticism and feel vulnerable, they turn to traditional scientific norms to demonstrate their trustworthiness.[12] In response to accusations of being overly emotional, scientists alter their approach, emphasizing their “objectivity” and “value-neutrality”—a decision backed by their colleagues.  This shift is perfectly exemplified by the change in the discourse of climatologist Bert Bolin. Regarded as one of the most prestigious climate scientists of the twentieth century, Bolin chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the most significant assessment institution in the international arena for almost a decade. While being a staunch advocate for climate change policies in the late 1980s, once Bolin assumed the leadership of the intergovernmental organization and faced the increasing pressure of public criticism, he started refraining from policy advocacy. Despite never abandoning his concerns about the consequences of climate change, he chose to prioritize presenting the IPCC assessments as value-neutral and objective in the public arena, giving up any emotional or advocacy connotation in his discourse.[13]

This is not an isolated case. The widespread inclination among scientists to adhere to the principle of scientific rationality has indeed established a pattern in how scientific results about climate change are presented. Brysse and his colleagues have documented this effect and have labeled the bias it produces as “erring on the side of least drama.”[14] They argue that climate scientists, in striving for objectivity, may unintentionally foster a reserved approach that downplays the immediacy and importance of the evolving climate situation. In essence, scientists, trying to appear balanced and credible, have often underestimated the magnitude of their results, leading to the underprediction or downplaying of the potential severity of future changes. This bias runs counter to an important guideline in environmental policy: the precautionary principle. Scientists themselves have acknowledged this phenomenon. Climate modeler James Hansen, highly criticized for his activism and advocacy approach to the communication of climate change science, has denounced the imposition of reticence as a scientific norm. He argues that it hinders scientists from effectively communicating the dangers and catastrophes that climate change will cause. Hansen also decries the pressure that scientists feel to be conservative and extremely careful and only communicate completely certain knowledge.[15] This tendency may result in a misunderstanding of the urgency of the issue, as climate change science involves uncertainty, and it is within this uncertain knowledge that the most dangerous—yet still plausible—scenarios appear.  

As these examples show, in the public sphere, scientists are expected to eschew drama, which is often regarded as a feminine attribute and tied to subjectivity. There is a fear of being labeled as “overly dramatic,” “hysterical,” or “catastrophists.” To project objectivity and credibility, scientists feel compelled to present information in numerical and quantitative terms, devoid of emotional connotations.[16] In other words, scientists are forced to remain emotionless in the face of the catastrophe they are addressing. 

Philosophers of science have long called for a reevaluation of the value-neutrality ideal in science to make it more objective, responsible, and trustworthy. As illustrated in this text, the association of science with male characteristics like objectivity, rationality, and unemotionality introduces a gender dimension to some biases in the communication of climate change knowledge. 

It is time to challenge the traditional norms imposed on the scientific community, particularly on how climate change knowledge is communicated. Firstly, it is essential to enhance the epistemic adequacy and social justice of science by significantly increasing diversity, not only in terms of gender but also in terms of class, race, and epistemic cultures.[17] Socially marginalized groups should be systematically incorporated, or even privileged, in the creation and communication of climate change knowledge. Secondly, it is crucial to recognize that the barrier to action is not a lack of information but a lack of emotional connection to this knowledge.[18] To address this emotional disconnect, we should permit emotions to be fully present in scientists’ discourse.

Today, we are more aware than ever that climate change is a tremendously unjust phenomenon, with inequalities deeply engrained in both its origins and its impacts.[19] Feelings of anger and frustration commonly arise in response to this knowledge. The alarming impacts of global warming are particularly detrimental to less privileged groups, including Black people, Indigenous communities, women, and the poor, not to mention the non-human world. Those who generate and document knowledge about these injustices should have the space to express the fear and sadness they feel about it, especially if they want this information to reach the public. 

However, we should not succumb to pessimism; it only dooms us. Not all the emotions around climate change are necessarily negative, and we need the positive ones more than ever. We should create a space to express and communicate positive feelings too, since it is only through empathy, affection, hope, and care that we will gather enough energy and momentum to confront the economic and corporate powers that are destroying our planet and build a better and more just future for all of us.

[1] Harding, Sandra. ‘Introduction. After the Science Question in Feminism’. In Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking From Women’s Lives, 1–16. Cornell University Press, 1991. 

[2] Haraway, Donna. ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’. Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 575–99.

[3] Hill Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought : Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990

[4] Lorde, Audre. ‘Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference’ In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 114-123. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984.

[5] Keller, Evelyn Fox. Reflections on Gender and Science. Yale University Press, 1985; Harding, Sandra. The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1986; Merchant, Carolyn. Science and Nature: Past, Present, and Future. New York: Routledge, 2017. 

[6] Barbalet, Jack. ‘Science and Emotions’. The Sociological Review 50, no. 2 suppl (October 2002): 132–50.

[7] Israel, Andrei L., and Carolyn Sachs. ‘A Climate for Feminist Intervention: Feminist Science Studies and Climate Change’. In Research, Action and Policty, Adressing the Genered Impacts of Climate Change, edited by Margaret Alston and Kerri Whittenbury, 33–51. Springer, 2013; Moosa, Christina Shaheen, and Nancy Tuana. “Mapping a Research Agenda Concerning Gender and Climate Change: A Review of the Literature.” Hypatia 29, no. 3 (2014): 677–94; Ford, Allison, and Kari Marie Norgaard. ‘Whose Everyday Climate Cultures? Environmental Subjectivities and Invisibility in Climate Change Discourse’. Climatic Change 163, no. 1 (1 November 2020): 43–62. 

[8] Oppenheimer, Michael, Naomi Oreskes, Dale Jamieson, Keynyn Brysse, Jessica O’Reilly, Matthew Shindell, and Milena Wazeck. Discerning Experts: The Practices of Scientific Assessment for Environmental Policy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2019.

[9] Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M Conway. Merchants of Doubt : How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

[10] Granado, Carolina. Manuel Toharia ¿Divulgador de la ciencia o de la ignorancia? Un análisis del negacionismo climático a través de su discurso. In Florensa, Clara; Nieto-Galan, Agustí and Bartomeu Sánchez, José Ramon. Agnotología: La creación de la ignorancia. Valencia: Tirant lo Blanc, 2024 [In press]; Smith, Michael B. ‘“Silence, Miss Carson!” Science, Gender, and the Reception of “Silent Spring”’. Feminist Studies 27, no. 3 (2001): 733–52.

[11] Brysse, Keynyn, Naomi Oreskes, Jessica O’Reilly, and Michael Oppenheimer. ‘Climate Change Prediction: Erring on the Side of Least Drama?’ Global Environmental Change 23, no. 1 (February 2013): 327–37.

[12] Oppenheimer et al. Discerning Experts (7). 

[13] Based on my research. An article on the issue is currently in review.

[14] Brysse, Keynyn, et al. ‘Climate Change Prediction’ (9).

[15] Hansen, J. E. ‘Scientific Reticence and Sea Level Rise’. Environmental Research Letters 2, no. 2 (May 2007): 024002.

[16] Porter, Theodore M. Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1995.

[17] Harding, Sandra. Objectivity and Diversity: Another Logic of Scientific Research. University of Chicago Press, 2015.

[18] Norgaard, Kari Marie. Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011.

[19] Cripps, Elizabeth. What Climate Justice Means and Why We Should Care. Great Britain: Bloomsbury Press, 2022.

*Cover Image: Boris Rasin on Flickr.

[*Cover image description: This cartoonish picture features on the left a female scientist with blonde hair holding a graph, a blue book and a brown suitcase, and on the right a puppet show performed by a group of three men wearing a “big oil”, “big coal”, and “big lumber” cap.]

Edited by Trang Dang; reviewed by Evelyn Ramiel.

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