13 June 2023

Climate Politics is Not Fossil Fuels vs. Renewables – a reply to Michael Levien

By Matthew T. Huber.

I’ll try and make this response brief.[1] This exchange is difficult because Levien clearly does not understand what decarbonisation entails (sadly, a common trait among the climate Left). Despite my efforts to explain in the last response, he still sees it as a narrow transition from fossil fuels to “renewable energy.” What I am saying is that it would have to be a much broader transformation – a “green industrial revolution” – that completely restructures broad systems of production (steel, chemicals, cement, etc.) and infrastructure (electricity, transportation, housing, etc.). I have argued elsewhere why renewable energy can by no means do this alone, and why unions support a much broader decarbonisation strategy that includes nuclear, hydrogen, and, yes, carbon capture.[2]

Levien accuses me of offering “pious assurances” to displaced workers of “jobs” awaiting them in the green economy, but the real false assurances come from liberals who claim such jobs would exist in renewable energy – a sector hostile to unions and based in temporary, precarious construction jobs.[3] Levien is right to point to the scepticism and distrust coming from workers about these assurances, but my argument is that, if we actually embarked on the large scale re-industrialisation programme (led by the public sector not capital, as Levien claims) such scepticism would dissipate through actual jobs and development. Despite much Inflation Reduction Act boosterism, the problem remains that capital prevents this from occurring! My argument is that, if we want it to happen, we need a much more powerful movement. 

Because Levien sees climate politics simplistically in terms of a battle between fossil fuels versus renewables, he’s naturally fixated on his own bogeyman of fossil fuel workers. It’s true that I think these workers have very specific skills that could translate to a post-carbon economy, but I’ve never argued that “energy workers in the fossil fuel sector have a direct material interest in leading a transition from fossil fuels.”[4]

More importantly, Levien overstates the importance of these fossil fuel workers (perhaps overgeneralising from his research in West Virginia). Fossil fuel workers make up a miniscule portion of the workforce and by no means constitute the broad set of workers that stand to gain from the massive industrialisation program decarbonisation entails. The only true “fossil fuel workers” are, of course, the ones who dig up the stuff. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are around 41,000 working in the coal mining industry[5] and 118,000 working in oil and gas extraction (this includes supervisory and other professionals).[6] Rounding up, this constitutes 0.1% of the workforce.

My argument in the book is that electricity workers (a much more distinct category than “energy workers”) could lead the transition that, after all, centres on electricity. Of course, many of these workers work in fossil fuel burning power plants. But how many? According to the latest U.S. Energy and Employment report, 193,768 workers.[7] But this constitutes only 22.5% of workers in electricity generation itself, and 9% of workers in the broader electricity sector. In other words, 91% of electricity workers are not fossil fuel workers.

As my thinking has developed since the book came out, I think it is not just electricity workers but a broader category of industrial workers and building trades unions that stand to gain from large scale re-industrialisation (not “organised labour more generally” as Levien claims).[8] This would include many workers imagined as fossil fuel-adjacent like those that construct pipelines or work in a steel plants, but the former could carry carbon destined for underground removal and the latter could work in a plant making “green steel.” If we’re going to win over these workers, we should stop telling them the future is only about “renewable energy.”

Levien is right to emphasise uneven development and that some workers and regions would experience job loss in a decarbonised economy. But he is wrong that I reject the “just transition” framework. I criticise the liberal justice framework that shapes much of it in academic and NGO discourse, but I strongly advocate for union leader Tony Mazzocchi’s original just transition vision he called a “Superfund for Workers.”[9] He proposed modelling it off the GI bill which helped millions of workers “transition” from the war to civilian economy through guaranteed income supports and free education. Thus, a real “just transition” must offer wholescale material support to these workers rather than vague offers of “retraining.” But the main obstacle to such a massive state program is (once again) capital. 

A final note: a commitment to traditional Marxist principles of proletarian agency[10] deemed “reductive” by elite academics, need not be blind to issues of racialisation under capitalism. I am indeed aware of how the chemical industry on the Gulf Coast emerged from the plantation economy. In fact, for another article, I interviewed a family member of the plantation owner who sold his land to chemical capital.[11]

[1] For Michael Levien’s original review, see:; for Huber’s response, see; for Levien’s rebuttal, see

[2] Matt Huber and Fred Stafford, “Socialist Politics and the Electricity Grid” Catalyst Vol. 6, no. 4 (2023): 59-92.

[3] Lee Harris, “Workers on the Solar Front Lines” American Prospect, December 7, 2022.

[4] Michael Levien “Climate Change as Class Compromise? On the Limitations of Huber’s Marxism and Climate Politics”,



[7] U.S. Department of Energy, U.S Energy and Employment Report 2022 Available online:

[8] See also, Leigh Phillips, “Blue Collars, Green Jobs?” The Breakthrough Institute, November 30, 2021.

[9] Tony Mazzocchi, “A Superfund for Workers?” Earth Island Journal Vol. 9, no. 1 (Winter 1993/94): 40–41.

[10] This phrase is from Mike Davis, Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory (London: Verso, 2020).

[11] Matthew T. Huber “Hidden Abodes: Industrializing Political Ecology” Annals of the American Association of Geographers Vol. 107, no. 1 (2017): 151-166; 157.