by Michael Levien

Matthew Huber, (2022) Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet, London: Verso.

Mathew Huber (2022) Climate Change as Class War

The year-long American saga that culminated in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) underscored the difference between two ways of mitigating climate change at the national level. The first is elite climate policy in which wonks and technocrats come up with the smartest policies to incentivise private capital to invest in the right technologies. This is, ultimately, what we got with the IRA, which has been accurately characterised as the triumph of ‘green industrial policy’.1 The second is popular climate politics which seeks to build a broad political coalition for decarbonisation by tying it to social programmes that directly improve people’s lives. This is the idea behind the Green New Deal, which to a surprising extent made its way into the initial Build Back Better bill before Joe Manchin got his hands on it. Matthew Huber’s book Climate Change as Class War provides a powerful critique of the first while advancing a labour-centred version of the second.

Huber lands many good punches against what he calls professional-class climate politics. Building on the Ehrenreichs’ concept of the professional managerial class (PMC),2 Huber argues that PMC climate politics characteristically over-emphasises that class’ stock-in-trade: education and credentials. In their hands, climate politics thus becomes a matter of knowledge (communicating the science) more than one of power (tackling the class power of the fossil-fuel industry). PMC policy technocrats further internalise neoliberal logic with their obsession with pricing carbon – a policy that ultimately balances the carbon budget on the backs of working-class consumers. In its more radical manifestations, PMC environmentalism – degrowth being the main target here – espouses an ascetic ‘politics of less’ that has no resonance with working-class people who already do not have enough. This type of environmental politics, Huber argues, explains why the right has been able to mobilise the working class against the environment.

By way of alternative, Huber advances a theory of working-class climate politics which he dubs ‘proletarian ecology’. The starting point, developed over Chapters 1 and 2, is to recognise that industrial fossil capital is responsible for the vast majority of emissions. As Huber sketches with discussions of the cement and fertiliser industries – for the latter, Huber draws on some interviews with managers of a fertiliser plant in Louisiana – their carbon intensity is not a matter of greed but of the structural imperative to produce surplus value, and therefore will not be halted (as opposed to greenwashed) by any amount of shaming. Thus, ‘Climate change requires an antagonistic approach towards owners of capital in the “hidden abode” of production’ (p. 106). The problem is that ‘the climate movement today – made up of professional class activists and the most marginalized victims of climate change – is too narrowly constructed to constitute a real threat to the power of industrial capital’ (p. 69).

This brings us to the bold and controversial claim of Climate Change as Class War: it is the working class (and organised labour in particular) that must be the main agent of radical climate politics, not the diverse coalitions of ‘marginalised groups’ – which includes Indigenous movements against pipelines and Black-led environmental justice organisations – who are currently the vanguard of the climate justice movement. What Huber calls ‘livelihood environmentalism’ only sees the working class as having environmental interests when their communities’ land, water or health are directly threatened (p. 195). Huber’s theory of proletarian ecology, by contrast, proceeds from the broader recognition that ‘a defining feature of working-class life under capitalism is profound alienation from the ecological conditions of life itself’ (p. 188). Thus ‘a working-class interest in ecology will emerge not from the experience of environmental threats, but from a profound separation from nature and the means of subsistence’ (pp. 181–2). Rather than defending bodies or landscapes, it will focus on the working class’s material interest in decommodifying the means of subsistence (p. 196).

Thus far, Huber appears to have merely redefined the means of subsistence as ecological to establish that there is a working-class interest in ecology. But how could the material interests of the working class concretely lead from class consciousness to climate consciousness? Huber admits that it is not obvious, but that it must come from linking ‘direct material improvements in people’s lives to climate action’ (p. 198). It would ultimately be up to political organisations ‘to name those improvements as measures taken to address the climate crisis’ (p. 198). It must be said that this ‘political education’ is left unelaborated. It is also in tension with Huber’s insistence throughout the book that direct material class interests will drive climate politics. It suggests, instead, the far more convincing argument that a left climate movement necessarily involves what Stuart Hall would call the articulation of climate and class (not to mention other types of struggle, to be discussed shortly). This is the messy work of politics, which is certainly conditioned and constrained by class structures, but cannot be read directly from them.

Huber advances two distinct strategies that he never harmonises. Chapter 5 elaborates the case for a Green New Deal, which follows quite directly from the case made thus far. The basic idea is that ‘positive and easy-to-understand material gains are the only path to mass, popular support for climate action’ (p. 199). In contrast to the politics of less, this agenda provides more to the working class, whether through broad measures like universal healthcare or programmes that clearly combine climate and redistributive goals – such as free public transport or weatherising homes to reduce electricity bills. This ‘politics of life’ focuses, in Marxian terms, on social reproduction (p. 194). Because it requires the state to make the needed investments in social reproduction and green energy while also euthanising the fossil-fuel industry, it must necessarily involve an electoral strategy. Yet the lesson Huber draws from the failure of the Sanders campaign is that to achieve a Green New Deal, like the original New Deal, we need strong organised working-class power.

This leads Huber to conclude that unionised energy workers must be the key agents of climate politics. While the Just Transition discourse posits an alliance of workers and ‘frontline communities’ affected by fossil-fuel industries and climate change, it treats both as victims rather than as sources of power (p. 226). The environmental justice movement, Huber argues, has not succeeded in transforming the geography of environmental harm and does not have a theory of how to build a powerful coalition (p. 207). Indigenous-led direct protests against fossil-fuel infrastructure (for example, the DAPL, Keystone XL and Line 3 struggles) may sometimes stop a new project, ‘but fail to put much of a dent in the mass fossil fuel complex at the center of the reproduction of capitalism’ (p. 231). Student strikes and youth activism also have no leverage. Only the working class organised at the point of production has the disruptive capacity to make real gains: therefore, we need labour strikes, not school strikes.

Given the overall weakness of the American labour movement and the short timeframe we have to work with, Huber proposes that we concentrate efforts in one sector: electrical utilities. This sector is obviously central to the needed energy transition and has several benefits: it is highly unionised for the United States (24%), highly regulated, and strategically crucial to the functioning of capitalism. Huber’s vision is that organised electric-utility workers can use their leverage to force a transition to public power, democratising and socialising utilities, and from there push for a renewable energy transition. Huber cheekily calls this strategy ‘socialism in one sector’. While he recognises that energy workers’ unions in the US are currently far from radical, he spends the better part of his last chapter demonstrating that there once were militant electrical unions and that there still are in other parts of the world. Strangely, however, Huber ends the book without elaborating the connection between the politics of social reproduction advanced in Chapter 5 and the politics at the point of production emphasised in the remainder of the book. The first suggests a broad and indeed multi-class – effectively left-populist – coalition that would have an interest in things like free healthcare and lower electricity bills; the second a narrow workerism. Huber never resolves this ambiguity though ultimately leaves his eggs in the second basket.

The first strength of Huber’s book is its critique of elite environmentalism, which is largely convincing with the caveat that he is arguing against a strawman version of degrowth. While Huber appears correct about the dim political prospects for this position in the United States (and much of the world), I would still point out that he misconstrues degrowthers as advocating green austerity when its most sophisticated advocates are at pains to emphasise the centrality to their political programme of redistribution (within and between countries) to raise the living standard of the majority.3 There is also the problem, as Geoff Mann observes,4 that there is also no evidence for the alternative assumed by Huber: that something like a green (socialist) modernisation can ultimately resolve the climate crisis by decoupling growth and carbon emissions.5 I am convinced by Huber’s argument – a second strength of the book – that a Green New Deal (or something like it) is the most likely-to-win left alternative to elite climate policy in the United States. Nevertheless, this argument requires neither his theory of proletarian ecology nor his argument that energy workers will be the vanguard of an energy transition – which are far less convincing.

The most obvious criticism that may be levelled here is that Huber dismisses the struggles of Indigenous and Black-led movements against fossil-fuel infrastructure and industries. ‘All these struggles are extremely important’, Huber weakly affirms on page 286, after making clear they have no place in his theory. Leaving no doubt that he believes such struggles are stuck in local particularism and therefore not the true agents of history, Huber doubles down on the classical Marxian postulate that only the proletariat – ‘the universal class’ – ‘has the capacity to look beyond the local, the parochial, and the community, to see humanity as a whole’ (p. 43). Huber’s high-modernist – indeed stageist – conception of socialism (buttressed by quotations from Kautsky throughout) leads him to dismiss any alternatives that emerge from such movements: ‘all efforts to recover a rooted and localized relation to nature ignore the very basic definition of working-class proletarian ecology: the lack of direct connection to the ecological means of life’ (p. 286). This is, of course, Huber’s definition and it is strange (PMCish?) to admonish social movements for their lack of adherence to an academic definition. While one can rightly debate the scale at which transformations of both the energy system and capitalism must be orchestrated, Huber’s assertion that the proletariat stands for a universal modern future while struggles emanating from other axes of oppression are essentially backward-looking parochialisms reproduces the most crass and teleological versions of Marxism (and nineteenth-century thought in general), flies against the wind of a century of history – in which most Communist revolutions were driven by peasant wars while Western workers turned reformist –, and ignores corresponding reconstructions of Marxism to account for the failure of the Northern proletariat to fulfil its historical mission. Third World and Black Marxism, the vast literature on the agrarian question, neo-Gramscianism and the vital Marxist-feminist work on social reproduction have expanded our conception of class struggle and taken seriously the interactions of racism and gender domination with capitalism. But Huber engages none of this, falling back into the simplistic position of emphasising class over race while ignoring the empirical reality of their interaction and avoiding the problem of their political articulation.

Given the strong political emphasis on anti-racism and Indigenous critiques of settler colonialism on the climate left – which respond to the very real imbrication of fossil-fuel industries with histories of racism and colonial dispossession – Huber’s emphasis on the agency of the overwhelmingly white6 energy workers of the United States will have no shortage of critics and is more likely to burn than build bridges. What makes this central argument of Climate Change as Class War more perplexing is that Huber provides no evidence that the energy proletariat of the Global North has any interest in, or even a latent tendency to organise around, decarbonisation. Given Huber’s belabouring of the point that material interests drive politics, he nowhere seriously confronts the fact that an energy transition will clearly put many workers – in coal and gas-fired power plants and also in the extractive sector, which Huber ignores entirely – out of work. Most estimates put the number at over a million or several million jobs in the United States.7 While these might be replaced in the aggregate with green jobs, an energy transition is almost certainly going to amount to deindustrialisation for many workers and regions. There is thus far more reason to believe that an energy transition is against many energy workers’ material interests. This is, of course, why ‘just transition’ advocates spend so much time elaborating the measures that would be required – job guarantees, transition assistance, early retirement, etc. – to cushion the blow.8 Their proposals are thus far totally inadequate to this truly daunting task and show no signs of being popular with energy workers. But Huber never even addresses the problem; he simply assumes it away.

Most fossil-fuel workers in the United States are white men without college degrees living in red or purple states. About 90% are non-unionised but nonetheless earn salaries in the upper five digits.9 The largest unions in the fossil-fuel sector (including the major utility workers’ unions) have historically fought environmental and climate regulation10 and, at best, espoused an ‘all of the above’ energy policy with a large focus on carbon capture. Although many energy unions are supportive of renewable energy with union contracts and the more progressive supported versions of Build Back Better (though critically without the binding renewable standards for utilities), they simultaneously support pipeline projects like Keystone and DAPL, warn about premature transition to renewables, and vehemently defend coal, oil and gas. In sum, they are fine with green investments because they bring additional (though often poorer-paying) jobs, but are immediately off board when there is talk of shutting anything down. It is understandable that workers should want to protect their jobs; it is harder to understand how Huber can interpret them as being less parochial than those seeking to stop pipelines from both despoiling their territory and dooming Earth.

The crux is that, while energy workers may possess structural power, Huber offers no reason why they would direct that power towards an energy transition that would put many of them out of work. Huber’s short discussion of the history of energy unions fighting for classic union goals in Chapter 7 does nothing to explain why they would wield their class power to fight climate change. Even if one could build union power in the electrical-utility sector, what is the plan to effectively counter the political backlash from coal, oil and gas workers (only 5.6% of whom are unionised) or those in the carbon-intensive industrial sector? How can the left counter the sway of Trumpism among energy workers when a part of its appeal is that it does address their material interests in prolonging the fossil-fuel industry? Strangely, though Huber ventured into a fertiliser plant in Louisiana to talk with its managers to flesh out his theory of ‘industrial fossil capital’, he did not appear to talk to any workers in the ‘hidden abode of production’ to test out his theory of proletarian ecology.11 The result is that Huber embraces, on purely dogmatic grounds, a political agent that has shown no empirical tendency to fight climate change, while dismissing the groups that have. He never seems to ask himself: who has more interest in shutting down the fossil-fuel industry – workers earning almost $100k in it, or those being literally killed by its pollution?

It is easy to be the critic and very hard to advance a positive theory that can inspire a fight against overwhelming odds. Huber is not wrong in suggesting that strikes give workers a particularly potent form of leverage, but he is wrong that movements without that power have never won anything. More broadly, failure is overdetermined and the failure of one strategy is not evidence for the success of another. It would certainly strengthen the climate movement to have organised labour on board, but it is almost certainly mistaken to assert that energy workers are going to be the vanguard of an energy transition. Huber simply avoids grappling with the far more likely scenario of an extreme political backlash from fossil-fuel workers in parts of the energy system that cannot transition. While the climate left should address itself to such workers (and the many other people living in regions dependent on fossil-fuel industries), this necessarily involves the formidable challenge of figuring out how an energy transition could be in their interest, or at least made palatable enough to avoid the reactionary political dénouement that has so far been the legacy of deindustrialisation in the United States (a task that is far more difficult when it is the central government and environmentalists rather than greedy automobile companies destroying blue-collar jobs). It also involves thinking a lot more than Green New Deal advocates have done so far about how to envision a low-carbon future in such a way that it could feasibly resonate with the rural and small-town working class where Trumpism has found such fertile ground. But there is also the danger of spending precious time organising a group that is likely to be stubbornly recalcitrant while dismissing natural allies. In an advanced capitalist country with a complex class structure that is thoroughly imbricated with racism, reverting to orthodoxy is no substitute for the hard work of mapping the terrain on which a winning political coalition for climate justice could be built.


Aronoff, Kate 2022, ‘The Bitter Triumph of the Inflation Reduction Act’, The New Republic, 8 August, available at: <>.

Aronoff, Kate, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen and Thea Riofrancos 2019, A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, London: Verso.

Bureau of Labor Statistics 2021a, Union Membership (Annual) News Release, available at: <>.

Bureau of Labor Statistics 2021b, May 2021 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, available at: <>. 

Cha, J. Mijin, Vivian Price, Dimitris Stevis and Todd E. Vachon with Maria Brescia-Weiler 2021, Workers and Communities in Transition: Report of the Just Transition Listening Project, Labor Network for Sustainability, available at: <>.

Climate Justice Alliance 2019, Just Transition Principles, available at: <>.

Ehrenreich, Barbara and John Ehrenreich 1977, ‘The Professional-Managerial Class’, Radical America, 11, 2: 7–32.

World, London: Windmill.


Jacobson et al. 2015, ‘100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water, and Sunlight (WWS) All-sector Energy Roadmaps for the 50 United States’, Energy & Environmental Science, 8, 7: 2093–117, available at: <>.

Mann, Geoff 2022, ‘Reversing the Freight Train’, London Review of Books, 44, 16, available at: <>.

Martin, Nick 2021, ‘Decolonize the Lithium Boom’, New Republic, 12 May, available at: <>.

Meyer, Robinson 2022, ‘Biden’s Climate Law is Ending 40 Years of Hands-Off Government’, The Atlantic, 18 August, available at: <>.

Mildenberger, Matto 2020, Carbon Captured: How Business and Labor Control Climate Politics, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Niarchos, Nicolas 2021, ‘The Dark Side of Congo’s Cobalt Rush’, The New Yorker, 31 May, available at: <>.

Pollin, Robert and Brian Callaci 2019, ‘The Economics of a Just Transition: A Framework for Supporting Fossil Fuel-Dependent Workers and Communities in the United States’, Labour Studies Journal, 44, 2: 93–138.

Schmelzer, Matthias, Andrea Vetter and Aaron Vansintjan 2022, The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism, London: Verso.

Sicotte, Diane M., Kelly A. Joyce and Arielle Hesse 2022, ‘Necessary, Welcome or Dreaded? Insights on Low-carbon Transitions from Unionized Energy Workers in the United States’, Energy Research & Social Science, 88 (102651): 1–10.

  • Michael Levien is Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, United States of America. email:
  1. See Meyer 2022 for a celebratory analysis and Aronoff 2022 for a critical one. While Green New Deal advocates also call for a green industrial policy, they argue it must be coupled with a redistributive socioeconomic programme not only because it is desirable but also because it is necessary for building a popular coalition for climate action (see Aronoff, Battistoni, Cohen and Riofrancos 2019).↩︎

  2. Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich 1977.↩︎

  3. See Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan 2022.↩︎

  4. Mann 2022.↩︎

  5. This socialist version of the eco-modernist position also avoids looking deeply into the horrors of green extractivism – whether that be child labour in Congo’s cobalt mines (Niarchos 2021) or the lithium boom’s assault on Indigenous land (Martin 2021) – or the broader ecological crisis (Hickel 2020).↩︎

  6. This includes 84% of utility workers and 87% of workers in fossil-fuel extraction. See <>.↩︎

  7. Jacobson et al. 2015; Sicotte, Joyce and Hesse 2022.↩︎

  8. For example, Pollin and Callaci 2019.↩︎

  9. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2021a; Bureau of Labor Statistics 2021b. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021b), the average mean salary was $86k in fossil-fuel power generation, $79k in fossil-fuel extraction, and $91k for pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters.↩︎

  10. Mildenberger 2020.↩︎

  11. Unfortunately there is very little empirical research on this topic, but the interviews in Sicotte, Joyce and Hesse 2022 with unionised energy workers in the Northeast found pro-environment sentiment coupled with strong concerns about the quality of jobs in the renewable sector. There is little doubt one would find more hostile reactions outside of the Northeast and among workers in the extraction sector. Cha et al.’s Just Transition Listening Project found far less support for an energy transition among fossil-fuel workers and the building trades, with several unionists refusing to talk to them (Cha, Price, Stevis, Vachon and Brescia-Weiler 2021).↩︎

Cover Image
Book cover of Climate Change as Class War