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The original “Climate Barbie”
These days, it’s good to be Barbie. But that wasn’t always the case.
Long before the Barbie movie took the world by storm, Catherine McKenna, Canada’s former Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, had a meeting with an executive at Mattel.
Her political enemies had been calling her “Climate Barbie,” a name clearly meant as a sexist insult.
But, McKenna thought, maybe it didn’t have to be.
Maybe “Climate Barbie” could be a good thing, despite all the bad that had come with it. Maybe the doll could “be on a bicycle, [have] her reusable water bottle and metal straw,” McKenna told the CBC in 2019.
At some point, McKenna told HEATED, she actually brought the idea to Mattel. She proposed a “Climate Action Barbie” made entirely without plastic and “completely recyclable.” She proposed that sales could raise money for the United Nations climate talks, “because they have a gender action plan and women are disproportionately impacted by climate change.”
But the meeting didn’t go anywhere, McKenna recalled. “I don’t think they were ready for that,” she said. (Mattel did not respond to HEATED’s request for comment).
And so the name “Climate Barbie” remained where it started, known primarily as a sexist slur used to belittle and demean Canada’s top climate official, who during her six-year tenure helped implement Canada’s first climate plan, including its national price on pollution; launched the UN initiative Women Leading on Climate; and made historic investments in public transit and green infrastructure.
But now, with the recent rebranding of Barbie as a feminist icon, McKenna hopes perhaps the name can be reclaimed—if not by Mattel (which has many climate problems of its own), then by people devoted to fighting sexism in climate politics. Because the consequences of misogyny are not just social and economic: they’re planetary.
In a wide-ranging interview, we asked McKenna about her experience with the “Climate Barbie” moniker; her recent work on chairing the UN committee overseeing greenwashing and net-zero commitments; and the effectiveness of the carbon pricing scheme she helped implement in Canada, among other things.
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This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Arielle Samuelson: You famously left politics in 2021, saying you wanted to do more to fight the climate crisis. But you also received a lot of sexist pushback while in office. What was that like, and how did sexism factor into your decision to leave?
Catherine McKenna: In my case, it is bonkers. I had to put a price on pollution across the country—that was part of my mandate from the prime minister. And you can see, the day that carbon pricing was announced, the massive spike in personal attacks on me online. They had pictures of Barbie beaten with a sledgehammer.
But then they went offline. I ended up having to have 24-hour police. I had “cunt” written on my campaign office. The police said this was the first time they were looking at this as a hate crime against women. They never found a perpetrator.
But I had a lot of different incidents, including when I was going to the theater with my kids and someone stopped and started screaming “Climate Barbie.”
This is a tactic, I believe, from folks who don't like strong women, and don't want to see climate action. So they denigrate them as “Climate Barbie.” But it also leads to, “We can go deface their office, we can go scream at them.” This is just another barrier to people reasonably wanting to do something. It's emotionally hard. It's physically hard. I'm not going to downplay the fact that it's a problem.
But I did not leave politics because of the hate. I left politics because I really felt that globally, we needed to have very strong voices. And I felt like I had done everything I could in Canada.
AS: How do you feel about the resurgence of Barbie as a feminist icon? Are you reclaiming the “Climate Barbie” name proudly, or would you like to leave that in the past?
CM: That's a complicated question. Growing up, I didn't play with Barbies. Barbie for me and my friends was someone that had nice hair, who worried about her appearance, had to be super skinny, and was wearing high heels.
But then I was named the first Minister of the Environment and Climate Change in Justin Trudeau's cabinet. And I started to notice people calling me “Climate Barbie, the haters and climate deniers. I was like, why are they calling me Climate Barbie? And then I remembered, of course: because I've got blond hair, and they want to discredit me.
Recently, I went to the Barbie movie with my three kids and I found myself bawling when America Ferrera makes her speech. I realized Barbie is full of contradictions.
I don't want to get too deep on this: It's just a doll that I didn't play with, that old white dudes used to attack me. But if there's something that comes out of a Barbie movie, where it feels empowering for women, or we're able to call out the complete contradiction in trying to be a strong woman but also being everything else that people want us to be, great.
AS: When you decided to leave politics in 2021, you said you thought you could have more of an impact outside of politics. Looking back on that decision, do you still agree with that statement? Have you been able to be more effective outside of politics?
CM: It depends. When I was in government as the Minister of Environment and Climate Change and then as Minister of Infrastructure, I actually had money to put towards massive public transit projects, green infrastructure, electric buses. It had a huge impact. So I don't want to downplay the impact of politics.
[Editor’s Note: McKenna’s record as Canada’s climate minister has been criticized. Via Vox’s 2021 profile of McKenna: “Since signing the Paris Agreement, Canada’s emissions have grown — the only G7 nations to do so. McKenna has also faced tough questions about Canada’s expansion of carbon-intensive tar sands oil projects.”]
But I just felt it was diminishing returns in Canada. And I feel like I can do more, hopefully, doing my part globally. I was asked by the Secretary-General of the U.N. to be the chair of his expert group on net-zero commitments, which was really on greenwashing. Suddenly I was in the weeds on every single climate problem, like carbon credits, phasing out of fossil fuels, lobbying, transition plans, the need to regulate. This is something that I was able to do because I was outside of government.
AS: Right, and last year, your committee at the U.N. took a hard look at business and industry’s net-zero commitments. The committee’s report said “the planet cannot afford delays, excuses, or more greenwashing.” But oil drilling projects are still being approved in the U.S., in the U.K., and all around the world, amidst record heat waves. What should leaders be doing?
CM: Just be real. This is the thing about net zero: everyone’s net zero now. Even fossil fuel companies. For example: In Canada, there's recurring advertising complaints against the Pathways Alliance of Oil Sands companies. They literally do ads everywhere. You go on a plane, you go on a train, you open your newspaper, you turn on the TV, and there's ads where they're like, “We're net zero.” But their emissions are going up. They're the largest percentage of emissions in Canada.
In our report, we’re very clear. Money needs to stop going into dirty fossil fuels. The IEA has been very clear about no new fossil fuel infrastructure. And we need to scale money to clean [energy] now. If you are not doing those things, while also considering a just transition, then you’re not net zero.
Leaders, I honestly think, are so captured by fossil fuel interests. There's a law in Canada that shows how much lobbying goes on. What you don't get to say is, “I care about climate, I'm a climate leader, I’m going to have a big summit, and I'm net zero by 2050.” No. The only thing that matters is what you are doing now.
AS: You implemented the very first national carbon price in Canada in 2018, making it one of the first G7 nations to have one. How is it playing out? And given that Canada’s emissions are still rising from the oil and gas sector, what more needs to be done?
CM: In terms of the oil and gas sector, the price is not significant enough right now to have an impact. Because they're making absolutely obscene profits, and they're not investing them in clean energy.
Obviously, the price is not having the impact one would want. And the oil and gas industry is the largest source of emissions in Canada. So to meet our 2030 target, we need a cap on emissions. Not a cap on production—a cap on emissions. They said they want to be net zero. Great, reduce your emissions and put your money towards clean energy.
AS: Is there anything that you’re working on that you are really excited about?
CM: One of the things that I've always been passionate about since I was a minister was large-scale conservation with Indigenous peoples. I just think if we’re going to meet the targets that we set of protecting 30 percent of nature by 2030, it’s only possible because so much of the land is Indigenous land. There’s really great conservation organizations, including Enduring Earth, that bring together the large conservation organizations globally to do this.
I also really believe in supporting women who are working on climate, whether it's girls, Indigenous women, grassroots women, or women leaders globally. But I also just think it’s really fun, because most of the women I meet just get shit done.
Catch of the Day: What better candidate for a Catch of the Day than a dog named Chowder?
Sent in by reader Sindri, Chowder is a going-on-14 year old lab/pit mix from the Bay Area, who was weathering (pun intended) extreme storms when his pic was sent in back in April. He mostly curls up under blankets and retreats into dreamland while the winds howl and the rain pours down.
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