We Can’t Win a Green New Deal Without Fossil Fuel Workers’ Support

The threat of climate change has created a cleavage between workers in fossil fuel industries and the green left. To avert environmental catastrophe, socialists need to build a movement for a just and sustainable society that makes room for these workers.

Members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) raise their fists during a strike against Alabama's Warrior Met Coal at the BlackRock offices in New York, 2021. (Angus Mordant / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

April 1 marked the one-year anniversary of the Warrior Met Coal strike in Alabama. It’s now the longest coal strike in US history. Worker militancy has long characterized the industry, in this respect the length of the ongoing industrial action is unsurprising. Between 1881 and 1905, coal miners in the United States went on strike at a rate of three times that of workers in other major industries. The causes of this radicalism lay in a combination of factors, ranging from the strategic importance of energy for the reproduction of industrial capitalism, to the sense of identity this leverage gave to the towns and cities coal had erected.

In other ways the present situation shares little with this militant tradition. Coal, once tied to historic high points of US class struggle like Blair Mountain, has come instead to represent the interests of the most regressive political forces obstructing climate action. This became clear earlier this year when Senator Joe Manchin, himself a Coal Baron, and the leading recipient of fossil fuel money in Congress, blocked passage of Biden’s Build Back Better bill because — even with its minimal climate measures — it would challenge his financial interests and those of his funders.

The sentiment, shared by many on the Left, is not only that coal must go but that its defenders — be they bosses or workers — are on the wrong side of history. Faced with the climate emergency and the likes of Manchin, it’s hard to disagree.

In Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs, however, Jonathan Neale argues that this kind of blanket dismissal of workers in carbon-intensive industries not only displays a “failure of empathy,” it is strategically misguided. If climate activists do not involve themselves in the struggles of workers in high-carbon industries, he argues, then they will not be able to cohere the social force necessary to fight for a Green New Deal (GND). What will happen instead is that the Right, organizing around a fake pro-worker platform, will brand environmentalists’ supporters of green austerity.

Two conflicting imperatives — defend all workers; end all fossil fuels — characterize the contemporary left’s relationship to workers in carbon-intensive industries. Neale sets himself the task of untying this knot and pointing the way to an ecopolitics that puts the interests of all workers to the fore.

Holding the Movement Together

In part, Neale is interested in questions of political strategy. How do we make demands which hold together the environmental and labor movements? In response, he proposes some country-specific slogans around which to organize: “8 million climate jobs NOW!,” “1 million climate jobs NOW!,” and “3 million climate jobs NOW!” These are his recommendations for the United States, the UK, and South Africa, respectively. Not picked out of thin air, these slogans have their origin in an evidence-based approach to political activism which provides Neale with demands which address the specificities of the climate crisis across the globe.

Fight the Fire is organized into three sections: emissions; electrification and decarbonization by sector; and politics, tactics, and cross-border organizing. Guided by the goal of outlining a plan to keep warming limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, Neale argues for cutting overall emissions by 80 percent, and carbon by 90 percent. His book shows why and where this objective is possible, and also details obstacles to achieving it. Made clear in this account are some of the more surprising challenges to reaching the goal. Rice cultivation, for example, is a not an insignificant source of global annual methane emissions. And cement production, even if powered entirely by renewable energy, still releases tremendous amounts of carbon simply by the nature of the manufacturing process.

To get as close to zero emissions as possible, Neale calls for state-led solutions. He proposes, for example, that governments create climate jobs as part of a series of massive public sector programs whose sole task it would be to reduce emissions. In the United States, he shows, this would require hiring workers for grid modernization, solar and wind manufacture and installation, and public transportation.

The state must create these jobs in order to remove profit from the costs of a green transition and to enable undertaking unprofitable but necessary projects like grid modernization. As GND advocates often do, he invokes both FDR’s New Deal and the rapid industrial mobilization leading up to WWII to offer a sense of the scale of the initiatives we require and their possibility.

Just as governments will have to run these public sector jobs programs, they will also have to eventually nationalize fossil fuel sectors and institute a number of sweeping and radical legislative bans. Neale offers the example of the decarbonization of transportation. As vehicle electrification proceeds, and particularly if massive public transport is built, demand for oil will, he claims, weaken to such an extent that the market will collapse. Neale puts it this way: “There [will be] a lot of suppliers . . . with oil they cannot sell at all, and so they [will] compete bitterly with each other to sell the oil to get at least some money [by slashing prices].” In the short term, the state will have to nationalize failing oil producers so that they can be wound down in an orderly fashion, and workers can move from the high carbon to the decarbonization sector. And because the crashing prices of oil must not be allowed to stop the progress of complete electrification, they will need to be banned.

This view that the government will make such a radical intervention to avert a crisis may seem naïve. The left wing of the climate movement might question whether the state would undertake such measures, while the right wing of the movement is likely to prefer market mechanisms: carbon taxes, fee and dividend, and other “realistic” approaches.

The criticism from the Right is easily countered — a disorderly collapse of the fossil fuel sector would leave massive human casualties in its wake. Increased joblessness would spur a move to the Right, encouraged by the Koch propaganda machine, the American Petroleum Institute, or a Trump-like demagogue who would, under these conditions, mobilize people in support of the continuation of the reign of fossil fuels. Attached to this regressive domestic politics will be an equally reactionary border policy, advocating hostility and outright violence toward climate refugees seeking out what remains of the planet’s livable space.

Who Will Build the Ark?

Under current conditions, the level of government intervention for the public good Neale envisions is difficult to imagine. Capitalist states are not inherently adept at coordination and planning, nor are they often willing to allocate resources to protect ordinary people. Generally speaking, they only do so under extreme pressure from below.

That gap — between the magnitude of our task and the weakness of our forces — makes reading Neale’s book a bit of an emotional trial. He lays out exactly what needs to be done and, from the point of view of science, shows what is and isn’t possible. Throughout he is careful not to base any of his decarbonization targets and methods on unproven or as yet unavailable technology.

One should be encouraged, even cheered, to have the solution laid out in such detail. But all the while, the objective weakness of our side of the fight gnaws at the back of one’s mind, and it’s damned upsetting. Neale acknowledges the magnitude of our task — he calls it “the mother of all struggles” — to win the Green New Deals that we need in the rich and in the poor countries. Part of the reason for Neale’s advocacy of the Green New Deal is that he believes it will create a global working-class constituency for the policies we need.

Models for Success

Near the book’s close, Neale tells the story of the fight for generic AIDS drugs in South Africa. For the first decade of the AIDS crisis, no drugs were available anywhere. Homophobia slowed the progress of the research, development, and approval of the few drugs on which scientists were working. Then gay men and their allies organized ACT-UP to push for research and development funding (and eventually approval) of effective drugs.

By 1994, combination antiretroviral therapies were available and began to save lives. Drug companies continued to price therapies at $10,000 per patient per year. Nowhere was the result of this more decimating than in South Africa, where more than 2 million people were infected with AIDs.

Significant numbers of African National Congress members were gay and lesbian. Drawing on the tradition of struggle which helped to overthrow the apartheid regime, they came together to found the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). TAC demanded that the Nelson Mandela government import generic retrovirals from India and Thailand.

US president Bill Clinton sent his vice president, Al Gore, to warn Mandela to do no such thing, threatening trade sanctions and actions at the World Trade Organization. The Mandela government passed a law allowing the imports anyway, infuriating Clinton and the drug companies. But then TAC reached out to ACT-UP New York, and Al Gore’s 1999 campaign for the Democratic nomination became infinitely more unpleasant for him. At every Gore event, ACT-UP activists disrupted, yelled, and raised the issue of Gore’s role in denying the lifesaving medicines to South Africans and others in the Global South. Gore backed down, and the tide began to turn in favor of generic importation as TAC continued their campaign, including civil disobedience and importation of fluconazole in defiance of Pfizer’s patent.

Stories like this one are useful for us because they provide us with a way of counteracting the human tendency to take the current political situation and treat it as a static snapshot, rather an ongoing and changeable process. That tendency leads us to underestimate ourselves, and to forget what has been accomplished in terms of international solidarity to improve human welfare.

Neale proposes that we imagine African farmers whose crops have failed because of climate change–induced drought storming an American embassy, demanding relief for themselves, and raising the slogan of “8 million climate jobs for US workers.” We might similarly imagine Mexican auto workers shutting down electric vehicle production, refusing to work with Lithium that has been mined at gunpoint by indigenous people in the South American lithium triangle. That’s far from where we are, obviously. But it is where we need to go.