21 September 2021

Knowledge about climate change is not enough to stop global warming. Decision-makers who say one thing and do something else may be part of the explanation. One of the LiU Alumni of the Year is Martin Hultman, docent at Chalmers University of Technology. He leads the world’s first researcher network for the study of climate change denialism.

"Masculine structures and ideals must change if we are to stop climate change”, says Martin Hultman. Anna Nilsen
“The starting point of our research is that we have known about climate change for 30-40 years. But, even so, we have not taken effectual action. Why is this?”

Most decision-makers in politics and the business world, together with the general public, have long known about the causes and consequences of the climate crisis. But the response has lacked effect. Indeed, it has in many cases been highly inconsistent. Martin Hultman gives as an example the continued construction of motorways and airports, in contradiction to stated climate targets.
Photo credit Anna Nilsen


“We call this response denialism – when decision-makers have knowledge but do not act on it. This cognitive dissonance (the ability to hold several contradictory ideas at the same time) is common among decision-makers. It makes it more difficult for people to act in their everyday life”, says Martin Hultman.

Some people reject the results of climate research. International research has shown that organised climate denialism, masculine industrial modernity and right-wing extremism are linked, and Martin Hultman’s group has shown that this is the case also in Sweden.

“It is quite clear that party-political denialism is strongest within right-wing extremism and among conservative thinkers. In the 1980s and 1990s, Swedish politicians were in greater agreement about the climate-based risks we face.”

Disagreement in the Swedish parliament became more visible after the Sweden Democrats party took some seats.

“In 2013, Josef Fransson, member of parliament for SD, took the floor and claimed, among other things, that the vegan movement had taken over the Swedish Board of Agriculture, since the government agency had demonstrated that animal husbandry has an effect on the climate”, says Martin Hultman.

American oil companies were the first to know about climate change. They carried out their own research into the climate and the greenhouse effect.

“The oil companies investigated the permafrost and predicted future sea levels, in order to plan for the extraction and mining of fossil fuels. It was necessary to plan such investments on a time scale of 50 years. The results, which were available as early as the 1960s, gave evidence of the consequences of global warming we see today.”

These companies did not, however, change their business model when they realised the consequences of their operations.

“On the contrary, the companies chose to spread disinformation, set up think tanks, and make approaches to scientists and the Republican Party in the US. Organised climate change denialism has been clearly identified in the US.”

Even though there is scientific evidence that human activity has caused climate change, disinformation is still being spread. This has been shown by results present by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The resistance of conservative men is probably a global phenomenon.

“This has been shown not only by previous research, but also by a new study we have published together with Norwegian researchers, and ongoing research looking at the hate and threats made against Greta Thunberg”, says Hultman.

So how does gender come into issues of climate?
A gender perspective is necessary to understand climate change denialism. The industries that have been identified as responsible for emissions are nearly totally dominated by men. We call this the masculinity of industrial modernity: it started in the 20th century and has been extremely influential, within both science and the engineering associated with the extraction of fuels. Entire countries - such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the US - depend on fossil fuel industries.”

This pattern establishes an ideal – a man must have success, a career, and consider himself to be somewhat separated from the natural world.

“My research deals with norms of masculinity, and those who identify as men. Just as I do. How locked are the structures, and how can we change them? Men cause more emissions than women. Strong reactions against climate science are often linked to working life, economics and personal identity. It is often more difficult for men to give up these structures”, says Martin Hultman.

Can you give an example?
“One reaction may be: ‘I’m going to eat as much meat as I choose’. The prohibition against barbecues introduced in the summer of 2018 was extremely revealing, since it was mainly men who reacted forcefully.”

A few years ago, Martin Hultman decided to stop using air transport. He stopped eating meat, and took a close look at the way he used clothes.
“I grew up with the traditions that are part of our culture. Eating meat and buying stuff as if there was no tomorrow. I had 15 pairs of shoes, and decided to wear them all out.”

He had previously flown to various conferences, and flown on foreign holidays with his family.
“Many researchers consider themselves to be so important that they must fly when they travel. I realised that I chose conferences based on a desire to visit a certain place. Barcelona, for example. This contradicted what I knew about the climate. But it took me a long time to turn insight into action.”

He now chooses to get involved more locally, holding talks in local libraries and folk high schools. He also collaborates MÄN, a gender equality organisation that combats violence against women and destructive male ideals. On a global level, Martin Hultman is interested in legal matters, and in particular a crime known as ecocide. This comprises large-scale harm to the environment and extensive damage to, and destruction of, complete ecosystems or habitats.

“If we defined ecocide as a crime, it would be possible at the International Court of Justice in the Hague to convict people high up in the chain of responsibility for major environmental harm. Just as people have been convicted of genocide. Maybe this would have an effect – not least on our values.”

Martin Hultman believes that his interdisciplinary background at Linköping University enables him to work with details, while at the same time seeing the entirety of a system.

“Our research at Chalmers is based on a cross-disciplinary approach. The response was extremely positive when we established our centre. And a certain number of critical voices also. This shows how important the question is”, says Martin Hultman.

Translated by George Farrants 

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