A Successful Climate Movement Must Be a Working-Class Movement

The only way to stop climate change is to build a mass, working-class movement whose demands both resonate with average people and take on the billionaires who are profiteering from the climate crisis.

Climate protesters take to the streets in New York City, November 13, 2021. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Remember the excitement and energy around the global climate strike of September 2019? More than 6 million workers and students took to the streets demanding urgent action to save the planet. Schools and workplaces were shuttered as hundreds of thousands of people swarmed the streets of major cities around the globe, declaring no more business as usual. Worker walkouts forced politicians and corporations like Amazon to issue loud (if inadequate) pledges to invest billions in mitigating climate change.

While not at critical mass, the climate movement had momentum. And notably, it was beginning to take aim at the commanding heights of capitalism.

And then? Then the movement sputtered.

Two things happened: First, the disruption of COVID and the utterly botched global public health response, which worldwide has cost 15 million people their lives. And second, the vast majority of climate action leaders steered the movement toward the failed strategy of insider politics instead of grassroots power-building.

This is most painfully evident in the United States. In late 2018, hundreds of Sunrise Movement protesters occupied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, demanding action. They were joined by newly elected democratic socialist congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, signaling that she and the Squad were ready to bring the street movement into the halls of power as they introduced transformative Green New Deal legislation.

But four months after the global climate actions, and with the GND bill languishing, AOC had pivoted away from the politics of disruption. She affectionately referred to Pelosi as “mama bear,” and criticized other progressives as being too “conflict-based.”

It wasn’t just AOC. Progressives in Congress rallied base organizations in 2021 to support the GND funding in Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation — only to get rolled by the White House and right-wing Democrats. Today, the legislative pathway to win a Green New Deal is wrecked, destroyed by a Democratic Party establishment that never intended to pass it and by progressive politicians and their community allies who miscalculated what they were up against.

Huge swaths of the movement think that to win in the political arena, we simply have to overwhelm the climate change deniers with data and facts (“Science is real!”), while others demand technocratic solutions like “taxing carbon” or individual action to “reduce our carbon footprints.”

All are futile pathways. They fail to diagnose the climate crisis as fundamentally a struggle over power — not between rich states and poor states, scientists and denialists, Democrats and Republicans, but between the billionaires and corporations that are profiteering from the current climate disaster and the rest of us.

Matthew T. Huber makes this point about as well as anyone when he states, at the outset of his just issued book, Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet, “This particular power struggle is a class struggle over the relations of ownership and control of the material production that underpins our social and ecological relationship with nature and the climate itself.”

Using one industry, fertilizer production, as a case study, Huber demonstrates through a Marxist lens how climate change is a feature, not a bug, of the capitalist system. A professor of geography at Syracuse University and frequent contributor to Jacobin, Huber provides a detailed critique of the climate movement’s failure to look at the problem in class terms and the consequences of that failure.

A successful climate justice movement, he declares, must be based on a mass working-class movement, with material demands that resonate with the everyday needs of a broad and diverse array of workers.

Facts Aren’t Enough

Today’s climate policy debate, Huber asserts, is monopolized by scientists, journalists, lawyers, politicians, think tank researchers, nongovernmental organization leaders, and other credentialed experts whom he classifies as “the professional class.” He describes three types of strategies emerging from this group.

The first strategy comes from the “science communicators,” who place unwarranted faith in the ability of facts and data to shape political debate. Their theory, he writes, “is that the more the public becomes informed the more likely they will support action.”

The problem: “politics in a capitalist society does not work this way.” Chevron won’t stop drilling for oil as long as there’s a profit to be made, and it protects these profits with endless propaganda to sustain the world’s addiction to fossil fuels and limitless campaign donations to grease its symbiotic relationship with the political establishment.

Climate facts aren’t decisive in that political calculus. “As much as we see fossil fuel capitalists are waging a war on science, they are more accurately organizing political power in the broader terrain of federal and state legislatures and cultural institutions,” Huber notes.

The second strategy calls for “smart climate policies” that address “market failures” through taxing carbon, cap-and-trade schemes, or other incentives for industry to wean itself off of fossil fuels. These ideas come straight out of the “Let’s save capitalism” neoliberal playbook.

The fatal flaw with this strategy is that it studiously ignores the fact that the problem is not the cost of carbon, whether visible or externalized, but rather that carbon is profitable in a capitalist economy. If you tax carbon but leave the profit motive intact, then big business, with the complicity of the political establishment, will simply push higher costs onto others — likely working-class consumers, who then predictably rebel against your elegant policy solution. It’s a brilliant way to divide natural allies in the climate fight, as the 2018 “yellow vest” movement in France showed.

The third strategy is to insist that individuals and communities make do with less — what Huber calls the ecology of austerity. Proponents advocate for local environmental solutions, blame consumers in developed economies, and urge people to limit their carbon footprint.

“This austerity politics of less appeals to the professional classes and their carbon guilt,” Huber writes. “They feel excessive. But, make no mistake: a politics of ‘less’ and ‘limits’ has no resonance for the vast majority of people already living precarious and insecure working class lives.”

Not only that: carbon guilt-tripping also lets the bosses off the hook. Shaming your neighbor about his gas-guzzling SUV is exactly what the Big Oil CEOs want you to do.

Because the fundamental driver of climate change is the capitalist system’s profit motive, what’s needed, Huber says, is to decommodify — take the profit out of — energy production, distribution, and usage by placing these industries under public ownership and control. Huber points to the Green New Deal legislation as the start of what will need to be a massive, yearslong jobs program to replace existing energy systems with a renewable grid, along with electrified homes and transportation systems.

Removing profit from the picture and making massive new public investments constitute the foundation of a broad, working-class climate movement, Huber writes,

The working-class strategy would link direct, material improvement to people’s lives to climate action. People would intuitively understand jobs, free electricity, or public housing as beneficial, but it would be up to political organizers to name those improvements as measures to be taken to address the climate crisis. From this basis, masses of working people might begin to see climate change not as a “cost” to bear or adjust to, but as a crisis that requires fundamental social and political transformations improving their lives.

Both the Green New Deal and its progenitors speak about ensuring a “just transition” for workers in fossil fuel and other extractive industries. But Huber notes that most policy advocates don’t bother to ask workers and their communities what they need. At best, they have positioned workers as victims of change who need help to mitigate the harm of climate policies.

This plays right into hands of opponents by falling into the jobs vs. environment trap, and “given the bipartisan evisceration of the welfare state since 1980, can we blame the working class for choosing the only means of survival under neoliberal capitalism (jobs) over abstract notions of ‘the environment’?” Of course not.

Rather, Huber argues, workers have power precisely because they stand at the point of production and can, if organized, “withhold their labor and cut off capital’s source of profits.” Because workers “would be at the core of a wider politics of disruption meant to create a crisis,” they also need to be main drivers of the climate movement and discussions around industry and job transitions.

All of the Above

Where to focus this enormous task of building a working-class-centered climate movement? Here Huber’s bold call gets a bit squishy.

“The electric power sector,” he writes, “is the ‘linchpin’ of any decarbonization strategy. . . . A climate politics that only focuses on the negative program of destroying the fossil fuel industry needs also a positive politics of cleaning up electricity.”

Huber notes that utility industries, even when privatized, already tend to be highly regulated; that electricity industry workers have tremendous structural power because they can literally turn the lights out; and that utility union density is already high compared to other basic industries.

“Since we are not likely to achieve socialism any time soon,” he says, “a more modest goal is the socialization of the electricity sector — taking it under public ownership so that decarbonization can take precedence over private profits. Somewhat cheekily, I suggest we call this socialism in one sector.”

There are a number of problems with this argument, which Huber owns up to. Notwithstanding decent sectoral union density and the public ownership of many utilities around the country, a move to fully socialize the electricity sector would require challenging a deeply entrenched business unionism that trains members to line up with their bosses on basic questions of production and economic conversion.

And while union density is relatively better in more established electricity-generating production modes like hydropower and gas and coal plants, it is extremely low in battery production, solar, and wind sectors — precisely the areas that need to grow exponentially.

Finally, it is foolhardy to think that the capitalist class will abide “socialism in one sector.” Private equity funds and banks hold huge ownership stakes in the utility sector; our opponents will be the entire capitalist class. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and their buddies recognize very acutely when their interests are being challenged, and they are quite disciplined at practicing class solidarity.

Yes, the utility sector must be a more prominent site of struggle in the climate movement. In addition to salting Starbucks stores and Amazon warehouses, young activists should work to build an organized left within the utility sector.

But a working-class-based climate movement doesn’t have the luxury of time to focus in just one place. Given a choice between fighting to socialize utilities, engaging in Standing Rock–like direct actions to stop dangerous fossil fuel projects, building increasingly disruptive school and worker strikes, or sitting in at political offices, the only proper answer is all of the above.

Still, this book represents an important and timely contribution to the climate fight. We will not build a mass movement by scaring people about rising ocean levels, guilt-tripping them about their carbon footprints, or by finessing elegant policy proposals. A working-class climate movement must point the finger directly at the problem of capitalism and build the fight to challenge this foe, the sooner the better.

September 2019 was a hopeful sign that the movement was moving in this direction. Huber’s book provides a vital analysis that demands we get back on course.