Books: ‘Climate Change as Class War’


“Climate Change As Class War, Building Socialism on a Warming Planet,” by Matthew T. Huber (Verso 2022).

While making excellent critiques of the current movement against climate disaster, this book does not live up to its promising title. It ends up with a reformist strategy while making several good contributions along the way. Its central point is that production is the source of environmental destruction. This puts workers at the center of the potential solution. This point has been missed by too many in the movement to save the earth.

Huber attributes this failure to the domination of the movement by the “professional managerial class”(PMC), which the author feels is far from the point of production. (p. 115) This class of people focuses on knowledge. It tends to believe that if everyone had the facts they would support the movement for ecological sanity: “Climate policy is not seen as a power struggle , but as a struggle over knowledge” (p. 134).

The PMC tends to focus on individual actions to change the world. The carbon footprint is a good example of this. He asserts that even the more radical wing of this middle-class-dominated movement attacks working-class living standards by supporting “de-growth.” (p. 162) He also criticizes localism and decentralization as a solution. (pp. 249, 287) The author explains that capitalism is the source of climate destruction . Solutions that rely on the capitalist market will therefore be ineffective.

The focus on personal responsibility, which the author calls “carbon guilt” goes along well with neoliberal capitalism: “An ecological politics of less overlapped perfectly with a wider neoliberal focus on austerity that calls on all of us to tighten our belts.” (p. 148)

One aspect of the direct connection of capitalism to the climate crisis is capitalism’s drive for profit. To increase profit, bosses continually try to raise labor productivity by replacing human labor with machinery and energy use. (p. 61) This means capitalism has a built in tendency to use more and more energy.

Huber uses fertilizer production as an example of how capitalism encourages the use of fossil fuels. The cheapest fuel to obtain the hydrogen necessary for production of nitrogen fertilizer is natural gas, which of course is a greenhouse gas. (p. 79) Though electrolosis of water would do the job, this is more expensive and would cut into profits.

The author wants to harness the workers’ class struggle against capitalism to end climate destruction. However, Huber believes that workers will not be motivated by abstract understanding. They will not support calls to lower their living standards to achieve ecological balance. They are already struggling for decent living standards.

The author thinks that the movement has to show that it can raise living standards to attract workers. He rejects the dominant dichotomy of jobs vs. the environment. Environmental sanity could be organized to raise living standards and numbers of good paying jobs. He thinks that the Green New Deal should be presented this way.

His left-wing analysis rightly points out that it is the ruling class that is destroying the planet for its own material gain. It is destroying the lives of poor and working people for its own benefit. It is therefore a classic example of class warfare.

The dominant trends in the climate movement only have sympathy for the poor but not workers in general. This is an echo of the utopians of Marx’s time who only looked to the working class as the “suffering class” rather than the class with the potential power to transform the world.

The author’s criticisms of the current movement are mostly right on point. Focusing on individual action, lowering living standards, counterposing jobs to the environment, and ignoring the potential power of workers is detrimental to building a strong movement. Ecological sanity should be presented as the positive result of class struggle, just as are higher wages, better education, health care, housing, etc. Accepting bourgeois “answers” that demand sacrifice of living standards to achieve ecological balance is counter-productive.

However, in providing a pro-working-class analysis, he mis-frames class. He accepts the “Professional Managerial Class” as a major part of the U.S. population. This designation is by far too broad. It lumps teachers, nurses, doctors and white-collar workers with managers. In fact, managers are a new middle class, whose function is to squeeze more profit out of workers. However, teachers, nurses, etc. provide a basic productive function. They are either directly or indirectly exploited. This means that they share the fundamental class interest in an end to exploitation and creation of socialism with other working-class people.

His narrowing of the working class to those who supposedly have no control over their work eliminates potential allies in transforming society. His analysis also has the whiff of “workerism”(exaggerating the moral virtue and worth of individual “workers,” and stereotyping them on cultural grounds). He doesn’t seem to agree that production can include services as well as goods.

Though his critiques of the movement are excellent, his attribution of these bad ideas to the class position of the participants and leaders is somewhat off. Of course, highly educated workers can put the emphasis on ideas rather than struggle. However, the main source of bad ideas is the dominant ideology of capitalism. Everyone under capitalism is bombarded with appeals to individualism. Even unionized blue-collar workers are subject to these ideas, especially during periods of low collective struggle. Workers are constantly pressed to lower their demands for the good of the company’s survival. They are pushed to accept contracts that favor the sectional interests of one group of workers over another.

The more important problem with the author’s analysis is his unconscious denigration of blue-collar workers. He implies that they can only be motivated by direct immediate material interest, rather than saving humanity: “… positive and easy to understand material gains are the only path to mass, popular support for climate action.” (p. 199)

He says that workers will not be encouraged to struggle by being informed of global climate collapse. This is far too pessimistic. Part of his support for this proposition comes from a mistaken belief: that most workers are not directly affected by climate change and therefore the movement cannot be based primarily on those immediately impacted: “The highly educated and climate disrupted are communities too small to form a mass base.”(p. 198)

In fact, more and more workers are directly affected. Every year climate disasters impact larger and larger numbers in the U.S. and around the world. They impact the poor and working class more than the more affluent. Global warming hits more and more workers on the job. This year, for example, UPS drivers are bargaining over putting air conditioning in their cabs due to steady increases in summer temperatures . Some have already died from heat-related causes. This impacts many industries. The whole Southwest of the U.S. is now facing a severe water crisis, which obviously affects poor and working people the most.

This broader interest by workers in the climate crisis is shown by several labor unions adopting environmentally friendly positions. This includes Amalgamated Transit Union, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, National Nurses Union, etc. It is true that the labor movement in the U.S. is divided on these questions. Especially the construction unions that have a direct interest in obtaining jobs using current dirty technology often take a conservative position. A major reason for this is pessimism. They lack confidence that an equal number of good jobs could be created by a program of ecological sanity.

As always there is an inter-relation of ideas and struggle. Backward ideas hold back struggle and lack of struggle holds back development of positive ideas. This is the main issue — -not the supposed apathy of workers over climate issues.

Unfortunately, Huber takes an accommodationist approach to overcoming differences in the union movement over climate change. He favorably quotes a labor leader Vincent Alvarez: “Rather than focusing on the 10 percent of the issues that are divisive—such as the Keystone pipeline and fracking … it makes more sense to start with the 90 percent of issues that environmentalists and unions can agree on.”(p. 278) A movement against fossil fuels that could not oppose the Keystone pipeline and fracking would not be much of a movement against carbon emissions!

The author’s strategy for addressing the climate crisis is interesting but ultimately flawed. Instead of the class war of his title, he proposes climate reformism. He quotes noted “Democratic Socialist” and ex-revolutionary Eric Blanc that revolution is off the agenda: “democratically elected governments [have] too much legitimacy among working people and too much armed strength for an insurrectionary approach to be realistic.”(p. 200)

The only solution for Huber is winning elections within the current system: “Working-class masses possess potential electoral power as masses of voters”(p. 200) The author does, however, recognize the need for workplace organizing as a basis for electoral power: “The working-class road to electoral power cannot succeed without organized working-class power in the first place… (p. 216)

The electoral form the author suggests is supporting “green” and “socialist” Democrats like Bernie Sanders. This ignores the history of the Democratic Party as a resolutely pro-capitalist party. The DP is dominated by the power and needs of the capitalist class. It cannot be reformed into a pro-working-class party.

This approach also ignores the long established and accurate Marxist analysis of the state in capitalist society: The state is irredeemably capitalist and will therefore pursue the interests of the capitalist class. In relation to ecology, capitalists pursue profit over human need or even preservation of the planet. Reorganizing the economy will require a revolution whereby workers take control of production. As part of this goal, the state is an obstacle that must be dismantled.

Though his ultimate strategy is ineffective, his focus on electricity generation is interesting. (p. 221) Huber says that the transition to clean energy should center on transformation of this industry. A new electricity grid will be needed. The electrification of everything can be a basis of a move away from fossil fuels. If the electricity grid is powered by clean energy, this can rapidly undercut the use of fossil fuels: “A climate politics that only focuses on the negative program of destroying the fossil fuel industry needs a positive politics of cleaning up electricity”(p. 234)

Unfortunately, he comes down on the wrong side of the debate over nuclear power in the climate justice movement. (p. 251) He says that because wind and solar power is sporadic, a baseline source of power is necessary. He looks to nuclear power for that. He ignores many other possible alternatives to support a very dangerous and expensive option.

Overall, this book is very interesting in critiquing weaknesses in the climate justice movement . Some of its suggestions for improvements are useful even if its ultimate strategy does not live up to the book’s title.

Steve Leigh is a member of the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.

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