Climate Change Is Class Struggle

To build the power to take on climate change, we can’t simply validate individual movements or assume single-issue struggles will add up to something greater than the sum of their parts. We need class politics to connect the dots of our many struggles — and to save the planet.

Motorists navigate a flooded highway during the onslaught of Typhoon Kammuri on December 3, 2019 in Lipa town, Batangas province, Philippines. (Ezra Acayan / Getty Images)

The main value of reading Naomi Klein’s collected essays written between 2010 and 2019 in On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal is that it allows us to see how Klein and much of the climate left’s thinking has evolved over the past decade, from the debacle in Copenhagen in 2009 to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey’s Green New Deal resolution in 2019.

Ten years is a really long time in the climate fight. If we’re honest, those ten years have largely been wasted. Emissions hit a record high in 2018, and it appears 2019 will be even higher. As long as emissions keep rising, we are still losing. If we’re going to start winning, the next ten years must look very different.

The most exciting part of reading this collection is the clear sense of a marked political shift over the last few years. The bulk of the chapters read as an onslaught of disasters — the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Trump’s election, summer vacations marred by apocalyptic smoke — occasionally punctuated by glimmers of hope: the Vatican’s encyclical that argued for better planetary stewardship, the radical “Leap Manifesto” building a case for climate justice, and scientific pronouncements declaring the need for revolutionary economic changes.

Yet these early chapters were written in a political context where the climate movement was still grasping for what a winning strategy would look like. In the context of failure, Klein rightly disposes of false solutions like capital-led geo-engineering schemes or lifestyle changes. But what a winning strategy looks like was not always clear.

It is only in the essays written in 2018 and 2019 where Klein’s writing starts to coalesce around a larger political shift toward “a democratic eco-socialist vision, connecting the dots between the economic depredations caused by decades of neoliberal ascendency and the ravaged state of the natural world.” It is this broader movement that Klein suggests gives us a chance: “In the nick of time, a new political path to safety is presenting itself . . . it’s the moment to get the hell on that path.”

What has changed in these recent years? Obviously one aspect is the “game changer of the Green New Deal” that inspires the title of this collection. But, as many have pointed out, the Green New Deal (GND) is not new. Klein herself says, “This kind of ‘climate justice’ framework . . . has been attempted locally for many years.”

I would argue this political shift is a product of a broader awakening to the nature of the struggle itself: climate change is a class struggle — that is, it is a struggle to build mass social power to confront some of the wealthiest and most powerful sectors of capital in world history. We have understood this enemy for a while, but only recently have we begun to realize how we might build the kind of power capable of challenging them.

In the ebb and flow of power between the capitalist and working classes, we are clearly in an ebb. The nineteenth and early twentieth century cycled between sputtering and growing working-class movements that built confidence through strikes and victories until finally exploding to win generalized working-class power during the original New Deal period. This power — working-class power — erected a framework of trade unions, progressive tax structures, and a welfare state to secure real gains for most workers throughout the middle of the twentieth century.

We all know what happened next. Starting in the 1970s, capital struck back – and restored its power through a “free market” agenda of austerity, tax cuts, deregulation, and union-busting. From No Logo and The Shock Doctrine onwards — before she began writing on climate change — Klein’s writings have always been crystal clear that we are fighting a wider political project she calls the “global neoliberal revolution.”

Although working class and environmental politics are often thought of as separate, both forms of politics face the same enemy: capital. Historically, only mass working-class organization has proven capable of challenging capital on the scale needed. This is why Jane McAlevey persuasively argues that the only way to win a Green New Deal is to organize working-class power once again.

One could also argue that the most significant environmental victories of the twentieth century in the US – the environmental regulatory state behind the Clean Air and Water Acts and the Environmental Protection Agency — came at a time where that working-class power was still relatively strong.

As long as we are losing this larger class struggle, we are also losing the climate struggle.

It isn’t difficult to make the case that climate change is a class issue. First, for Marxists, class is foremost about winning social power over material production. Under capitalism, that power is wielded by private owners seeking profit. Most emissions can be traced back to production for profit, whether it’s the fossil-fuel industry that still legally digs up fossil fuels and sells them for profit or the wider set of capitalists that burns those fossil fuels (investor-owned electric utilities, chemicals, cement, steel). Even the emissions attached to our consumption are provisioned by for-profit producers who wield far more power over these supply chains than us.

Put simply, class struggle means forcing these producers to stop what they’re doing — and subject the production of energy to more democratic and public criteria in the face of a planetary emergency.

Second, climate change is a class struggle because it centers on the material conditions that working-class people face in their daily lives. It is about how we move, eat, power, and heat our homes. The lie of mainstream climate policy is not only that solutions mean worse lives, but also that the crisis as it is often expressed, in “parts per million” or degrees of warming, is difficult to understand. The GND rightly centers on sectors like housing, energy, food, and transport, and claims we can both decarbonize and decommodify these sectors to create better lives for the vast majority of people.

As Klein puts it, the GND is about building “an irresistible story of the future, connecting the dots among the many parts of daily life that stand to be transformed, from health care to employment, day care to jail cell, clean air to leisure time.” These demands for health care as a human right, a job guarantee, and more free time are the basics of any traditional working-class political program. Klein argues this program will naturally “raise an army of supporters” — even among those who might think climate change is a “hoax”: “If it’s a hoax that creates good jobs . . . who really cares?” 

So why did it take the climate movement and the Left so long to figure this out? Two reasons. First, we need to be honest about the narrow class basis of climate politics over the last several decades. Again, Klein points out that the GND simply restates what climate justice advocates have long called for.

But she admits this movement was hindered by its size: “Only the relatively small ‘climate justice’ wing of the movement focused its attention on the kind of economy and society we wanted instead.” This wing focuses attention on two poles of the climate crisis: the wealthy populations most responsible for emissions and the poor, marginalized “frontline” communities forced to bear the brunt of the consequences.

Why is the climate justice wing of the movement “relatively small”? Overall, this wing formed a relatively narrow class base within what we could call the climate justice coalition. On the one hand, this coalition was largely made up of the highly educated professional class climate activists who still dominate the movement: academics, scientists, journalists, nonprofit and government workers.

As I recently argued in Catalyst, professional-class environmental politics not only represents a relatively affluent minority of society, but also tends to center the importance of knowledge (or belief versus denial) of the science at the core of the climate struggle. Professional-class climate advocates at best avoid the working-class, material concerns at the core of the crisis reviewed above; at worst, they actively argue for austerity through carbon taxes, caps, and a politics of less.

On the other hand, the climate justice coalition is made up of what Klein and others refer to as “frontline communities” — small farmers, indigenous communities, and small island communities among many others. Yet these communities are defined by their marginalized status and do not constitute what we could call a “mass base” for climate struggle.

To be clear: we must center frontline communities in a twenty-first-century movement against climate change. But they must be part of a broader mass movement that also includes the segment of society with the social power to prevent the disasters they face.

The GND coalition includes these frontline communities and the climate justice coalition, but it also aims to expand its popular base in the working class. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez herself claims to be building “a mass movement of working-class people.” The working-class GND coalition doesn’t just focus on believing the science — it also offers a program meant to appeal to the vast majority of society dealing with debt, stagnating wages, and job insecurity.

AOC and Markey’s resolution guarantees “all people of the United States . . . a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security.” Frontline communities face direct threats to their livelihood through climate disasters, but the GND program addresses the daily working-class disasters of market constraints over access to basic necessities like food, transport, housing, and energy — again, the very sectors at the core of the crisis.

Klein cites a slogan of the Yellow Vest movement in France: “The government cares about the end of the world . . . we care about the end of the month.” She argues that GND politics means we don’t have to choose. Appealing to these “end of the month” struggles can help build the mass base we need to stop the end of the world.

The GND program aims to mobilize a core reason the working class is itself a source of power against the capitalist class: although divided in myriad ways, it represents the majority of society. The GND aims to organize the working class into a popular mass to take state power and embark on the kind of revolutionary changes the science says are necessary.

The second explanation for why it took so long to build a working-class climate politics is a problem Klein confronts head on: “We’ve been trained to only see our issues in silos.” Since the 1970s, the very moment when capital began to win back power, the Left — including ecosocialists — argued it would win by abandoning traditional class-based strategies in favor of a “movement of movements” into a radical diverse whole.

It is a strange phenomenon where the Left insists environmental politics is a non-class “new social movement” while the Right mobilizes naked class-based arguments against all forms of environmental policy, in the name of economic competitiveness and the American standard of living. Who is currently winning this struggle?

The “movement of movements” approach is surely the impulse Klein and others had when writing the “Leap Manifesto” by including a “cross section of movements: labor, climate, faith, Indigenous, migrant, women, antipoverty, anti-incarceration, food justice, housing rights, transit and green tech.” This is precisely the right basis of a mass working-class coalition. But just because the organizing model aims to build working-class power does not guarantee this coalition will actually do so. The GND has the potential to bring that coalition together.

Since the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, the Left has always struggled with how to translate these diverse movements into real power. Klein is aware of this throughout the book. She argues that to build “counterpower sufficiently robust to win” requires “strengthening the threads tying together our various issues and movements”; she argues repeatedly that we need to “connect the dots.”

We should not see “class” as simply one of the many strands in our “movement of movements”; rather, class politics is a powerful dot connector. It aims to tie the threads together to make clear our movements face a common enemy, the capitalist class, and struggle for goals based on our common humanity: desires for dignity, freedom, and a livable planet.

This is not to say that building working-class power requires papering over the very real differences that divide many movements and the working class itself – or simply that universal social programs like “Medicare for All” are all we need to win. But it does mean that building solidarity is a process of unifying the working class around a common political project of fighting capitalism. We will not build power by simply morally validating individual movements, or assuming single-issue movements will add up to a unified force on their own that is powerful enough to take on climate change and capitalism as a whole.

Klein’s book is a valuable history of a ten-year journey to a potentially transformative climate politics. If we spend the next ten years strategically focused on winning the climate struggle through the organization of working-class power, we might have a chance. Klein’s final sentences of the book beautifully convey a message of working-class solidarity through a movement for a GND: “It’s a vision that says that all of us, combined, make up the fabric of society. And, when the future of life is at stake, there’s nothing we can’t achieve.”