Climate Doom Won’t Save the Planet

This summer has been a cascade of climate disaster. But we shouldn’t assume that ever-worsening floods and heat waves will spur political change — we need a working-class strategy that can excite and win over people to save the planet.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks about the Green New Deal on April 20 in Washington DC. (Caroline Brehman / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

It’s another summer of climate dread. Earlier this month, Lytton, British Columbia hit 121 degrees Fahrenheit — the hottest temperature ever recorded in Canada. In Oregon, the Bootleg “megafire” — one of eighty fires currently raging in the West — is still only 30 percent contained after two weeks. The size of Los Angeles, it is “hot enough to create [its] own weather, [including] tornado-like winds that can tear trees apart and dismantle power lines.” Those in the Eastern US are experiencing the effects: hazy skies, air quality warnings, and unnerving red sunsets (more akin to a galaxy far, far away). Outside North America, unprecedented floods have killed hundreds in Europe and thirty-three in China.

Climate dread isn’t just a cascade of bad weather — it’s the familiar feeling of seeing droughts, fires, heatwaves, and storms grow worse year after year as the political class sits on its hands. While Joe Biden talks the talk on climate, his aspirational infrastructure “American jobs plan” falls far short of the investment needed to meet his ambitious targets. Administration officials John Kerry and Janet Yellen act as if it’s the 1990s by claiming “markets not government” and “private capital” are the keys to addressing the crisis.

For many, the answer to this cognitive dissonance — escalating crisis amid obstinate inaction — is to assert that climate change is not a future problem, but here, in the dystopic present. Surely, as the floods and droughts grow more severe, action will follow.

But what is the theory of change behind this common idea, and how realistic is it if we want to attack the climate crisis?

Theories of Climate Mobilization

Climate advocates tend to imagine two paths to mass climate mobilization. First, they hope that increasing education or awareness of the scientific problem of climate change will inspire more to join the movement and political leaders to respond. For the “believe science” advocates, the main problem is the “denial” of climate science — whether perpetrated by your racist uncle or the fossil fuel industry. If more truly understood the problem, we would surely solve it.

Yet to read any headlines today is to realize that no amount of knowledge of the reality of climate change has spurred the necessary action. The climate struggle remains mostly not about knowledge, but about who controls production and energy investment. Even while oil and gas companies finally claim to “believe science” and announce targets to reach “net zero” emission by 2050, the Biden administration has quietly approved existing oil and gas drilling leases at a pace comparable with Trump.

Beyond US public lands, the financial sector has invested trillions in fossil fuel projects across the world, banking on returns for decades to come. Oil and gas firms have seen their stock prices surge amid (perhaps premature) euphoria about the “end” of the pandemic. It will take the exertion of mass social power to halt these investments, not simply awareness of climate science.

The second theory of climate mobilization suggests the experience of climate disasters will increasingly spur movements to tackle the crisis. This is why many activists advocate centering “frontline communities” in the climate struggle like coastal communities, indigenous groups, and peasant farmers suffering the direct consequences of climate change on their livelihoods.

It’s clear this is not confined to those communities whose subsistence production is threatened. Currently, millions in the US West are dealing with the effects of smoke, heatwaves, and drought — and add to that the millions affected by the winter superstorms in Texas and the increasingly violent hurricanes and floods.

Nevertheless, those experiencing acute climate disasters still form a minority — and thus experience of climate disaster is not yet a basis for mass action. In fact, if this group did form a majority, we would arguably be too late to stop climate breakdown.

As Ezra Klein recently noted, “there is a discordance between the pitch of the rhetoric on climate and the normalcy of the lives many of us live.” Recent polling suggests a stark 57 percent of Americans do not think climate change will harm them personally.

Furthermore, it is quite a lot to expect from “frontline communities” to lead the struggle to save the planet. As some of the most marginalized and oppressed groups in society, their struggles for immediate survival will only fleetingly overlap with the planetary politics of climate change. And while their struggles are often waged directly against the same fossil capitalists that climate activists target, defeating these incredibly powerful corporations will take a much broader, mass movement.

A Working-Class Strategy

There is an alternative. Instead of expecting climate mobilization to emerge from knowledge or experience of climate change, we should seek to orient climate action around the everyday material realities of the working class — the vast majority of society. Such an approach could build something the climate movement still lacks: a majoritarian political coalition with the power to confront fossil capital.

While more and more surely are experiencing climate disasters, for most working people the primary obstacle to survival is the daily struggle to afford the basics of life like food, electricity, rent, and health care. Capitalism is a daily disaster of lacking the most rudimentary needs for material security and human dignity.

Education and experience-based theories of climate mobilization also hinge on rather negative visions of either dire climate futures or disastrous presents. A working-class strategy would mobilize climate action on a decidedly positive platform of improving most people’s lives.

And it is not as if these material needs are “distractions” from the climate crisis. Food, housing, energy, and transport are the key sectors we need to decarbonize. The problem is most climate policy technocrats tend to assume restructuring these sectors will increase (or “internalize”) costs through carbon taxes or fees. A working-class strategy would do the opposite by guaranteeing access to de-commodified goods.

The Green New Deal represents a breakthrough in this respect — offering a climate program around public housing, a job guarantee, and, most recently, public power to, “establish electricity as a basic human right and public good.” Still, for this strategy to work, you have to deliver these material gains in the name of climate action.

Whatever comes of Biden’s infrastructure bills, there will likely be investments that bring material improvements for workers across the country. Climate activists will have to organize around those investments and make clear that this is what climate action means.

Even if a slight majority is confident climate change will not affect them, a larger majority (72 percent) understand it is happening. The more we can tie this hunch to a political project promising material gains, the more we can build popular, mass support for the large-scale transformations needed. That — not simply posting, “See: climate change is here!” — will deliver us from climate dread.