A congressman’s insult highlights the misogyny women in the climate movement face

Women and nonbinary experts and activists in the climate movement are frequently cast as overly emotional, irrational and even un-American.


Raya Salter, a lawyer and energy policy expert, was called "boo" by a congressman during her testimony. (FRANCIS CHUNG/EENEWS/POLITICO/AP)

By Jessica Kutz, The 19th

During a House committee hearing on the climate crisis and the fossil fuel industry on September 15, Raya Salter gave expert testimony on the disinformation tactics the oil and gas industry has used to obscure its role in causing climate change and highlighting the industry’s harm on frontline communities.

Salter is a lawyer and founder of the Energy Justice Law and Policy Center, a public interest firm, who also serves on the New York State Climate Action Council and has spent her career working on energy policy and law.

But her testimony became overshadowed by an exchange that occurred later in the hearing with Louisiana Rep. Clay Higgins. During his five minutes of questioning he began to talk over Salter, raising his voice and repeatedly calling her young lady — Salter is 49, Higgins is 61 — and at one point referring to her as “boo.”

The exchange prompted New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to apologize on behalf of the committee. “For the gentleman of Louisiana and the comfort he felt in yelling at you like that, there’s more than one way to get a point across.” She added: “Frankly, men who treat women like that in public, I fear how they treat them in private.” The hearing made headlines, but not for Salter’s testimony—that became buried under the controversy.

The sparring was emblematic of broader misogynistic undertones in attacks on women in the environmental movement, experts say. These attacks go as far back as the 1960s, when Rachel Carson, who exposed the dangers of the then-widely used pesticide DDT in her book “Silent Spring,” was framed by her critics as “hysterically overemphatic” and depicted as a witch in a chemical industry magazine.

“Climate leadership is pretty rich in leadership from girls. Not just women, but girls, women, nonbinary people, which makes it ripe for bad-faith actors,” said Kristina Wilfore, cofounder of #ShePersisted, an organization that researches the impacts of disinformation and misinformation on women politicians and activists. “It’s a fruitful tactic to discredit these women and their ideas. So when women lead climate discourse, we find in some of the research we’re doing it is often framed as irrational or an over-emotionalization of the issue.”

But what is different between then and now is the way in which digital media carries the attacks further through the web of far-right media personalities and social media platforms, said Wilfore.

In the case of Salter, a press release from Higgins’ office went on to describe her as “unhinged with Green New Deal madness.” He also referred to her as a radical “talking anti-American trash.” Higgins, a Republican, later appeared on the Tucker Carlson show, where Carlson commended him for “doing such a good job” at shutting her down.

Since the incident, Salter has faced a wave of insulting messages from Higgins’ supporters or people who watched the Carlson segment.