20 April 2023

The Professional Class Vanguard of Climate Justice: A Response to Michael Levien’s Review of Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet

The Professional Class Vanguard of Climate Justice: A Response to Michael Levien’s Review of Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet

Matthew T. Huber

When you write a book you can only hope it generates debate. Of course, I’m thankful for all the engagement. However, Michael Levien’s review exhibits all the worst tendencies of quasi-radical professional class climate politics, and I felt it necessary to respond.1 The core contention of my book is this: the climate movement, as it is currently constituted, is clearly no match for the forces of capital aligned against it. I could have been clearer that this struggle is not only a sectoral battle against “fossil capital”, but, rather, a much wider struggle against the capitalist class as a whole – steadfast in its adherence to austerity economics – who will resist at every turn the considerable investments in public infrastructure and socialised planning required to actually solve the crisis.

Given that the book came out in a year of record profits for the fossil fuel industry and continued upward growth of global emissions, it is quite surprising so many have responded by implying the current movement is doing fine. For Levien, this entails a strategy he contrasts with the “bold and controversial” attempt to win over the vast majority of society (workers) toward his preferred strategy rooted in groups he claims have already shown the “empirical tendency to fight”: “…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.” In contrast to Levien’s typical moralism elevating marginalised groups, my goal is not to, as he says, “dismiss” these movements – or claim they have “no place in [my] theory” – but simply point out that, clearly, they are not enough. That should be self-evident.

If we acknowledge that the climate movement lacks power, the question is who or what is missing. I argue for a strategy grounded in building working-class power (indeed it’s very strange this strategy is called “bold and controversial” in a Marxist publication). One can contest my strategy, but many responses, including Levien’s, seem to want to double down on what the movement is already doing. Given the apparent disinterest in changing the balance of power in climate politics, one wonders if this kind of argument is even politics at all? As I will suggest below, I think there’s a different set of material interests who stand to gain from this view (and it has nothing to do with solving climate change).

In this response, I’d like to isolate two explicit and implicit claims in Levien’s review. First, he argues against the idea that energy workers have an interest or inclination to organize around climate change. And, second, despite all the evidence of movement failure, Levien still thinks the marginalised “vanguard of the climate justice movement” is the path forward for climate politics. I’ll address both claims in the next two sections.

Yes, industrial and energy workers have an obvious interest in climate action

The core of Levien’s objection is his contention that industrial electricity and energy workers are too white and too comfortable with the fossil fuel status quo to play much of a role in the climate class war. On the question of race, his claim that electrical workers are 83 percent white seems like the grounds for their dismissal (and the basis for his frankly inflammatory and clickbaity title). Yet, the data he marshals shows 77 percent of all workers are white.2 This includes many sectors no leftist would refuse a role in fighting for progressive change like 81.3 percent working in elementary and secondary schools and 82 percent of librarians. It is hard to believe how any Marxist strategy that aims to organize the multiracial working class or build any kind of mass politics can simply set aside “white workers.” And, for what it’s worth, a more energy-specific dataset actually shows electricity workers are more likely disproportionately nonwhite.3 I would wager your average IBEW local is far more diverse along multiple dimensions than many DSA chapters or academic departments.

Regardless of their racial or ethnic identity, Levien contends energy workers will more likely oppose decarbonisation and argues there’s no evidence they have “any interest in, or even a latent tendency to organise around, decarbonisation.” I’ve heard this kind of response many times already, but it’s most strange to read in a Marxist publication that the very workers at the heart of the transition are actually enemies of any attempt to solve it.

A core contention of my book is that the struggle over climate change is a struggle over industrial production. But it is instructive that Levien doesn’t seem to recognise the massive industrialisation required – not just to decarbonise electricity, but also the entire economy. He mainly views the green energy transition as one marked by “deindustrialisation” for many workers and regions and unemployment for the fossil fuel workforce (he sounds similar to Hillary Clinton lecturing to deplorable coal miners “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”4)

The fact Levien can’t even contemplate why industrial workers would have an “interest” in decarbonisation displays an all-too-typical detachment from the engineering and industrial challenges of decarbonisation in general, and a profound misunderstanding of what it would entail: loads of industrial workers with the skills, knowledge, and indeed interest to build an entirely new industrial energy system.5 In fact, early hopes of a wave of investment spurred by the Inflation Reduction Act are already coming up against shortages of these very skilled workers.6

Serious analysts of decarbonisation point out the many viable ways to transition fossil fuel workers into jobs that draw exactly on their skillset. Many coal power plant workers could shift into newly constructed small modular nuclear plants in the same location – providing continuity for localities dependent on these sites of mass, unionised employment.7 Oil and gas workers could shift to advanced geothermal production which requires technology similar to hydraulic fracturing. Holly Buck also proposes oil and gas workers could use their precise skills to “reverse engineer” the carbon problem: a public program to take carbon from the air (instead of underground) and inject it into geological depositories (instead of emitting into the atmosphere).8

Levien seems to think the climate transition is a narrow one to “renewable energy” (citing the 100% renewable zealot Mark Z. Jacobson who notoriously sued his academic critics), but it is a much wider industrial transition entailing multiple kinds of work and workers beyond the electricity sector. Princeton University’sNet Zero America report – the state of the art projection of what actually would be required to decarbonise our economy – suggests an almost unimaginable reindustrialisation of the economy.9 The report calls for (among many other things) 210-330 million electric vehicles, 80-120 million heat pumps, up to a 5 times increase in transmission capacity, and up to 250 new large-scale nuclear reactors (or 3,800 small modular ones!).10 All this infrastructure would also balance solar and wind farms that will cover between 90,000 and 400,000 square miles of land.11

What kinds of workers stand to benefit from such a transition if not industrial and energy workers? If anything, my book too narrowly focuses on electricity workers, but if we actually embarked on the required energy transition it would benefit a broad swathe of construction workers, pipefitters, industrial painters, welders, carpenters, and countless other manual workers. Addressing climate change is obviously in these workers’ naked self-interest (and we do not need complex cultural theories of subjectivity or hegemony to understand this). Of course, the real problem is that capital and the market block this scale of industrialisation from occurring (which is why the book argues we cannot trust private capital to lead this transition and focus instead on direct public investment and planning).

Levien is confused how this strategy – rooted in jobs and industrial unions – could connect to my other “Green New Deal” strategy that aims to deliver broader material benefits to the entire working class under the banner of climate action. But, if we actually embarked on something like a Green New Deal, the connection would be obvious: massive expansion of industrial jobs would facilitate income growth and unionisation for abandoned communities. And, if these workers built things like public housing, transit, and cheaper electricity – financed by taxing the rich and not through utility bills – the broader working class would recognise climate action as materially beneficial.

The above aims to show that it’s obvious industrial energy workers have an interest in decarbonisation, but there’s also ample evidence if you’re willing to look that they have a far more than “latent tendency to organise” around decarbonisation. In California, the IBEW in general has seen huge gains from solar development, and IBEW local #569 saw its membership increase by over 1,000 members working in green energy.12 In Maine, industrial unions aligned with climate activists to pass a state-level Green New Deal that ensured specific apprenticeship programs for industrial unions.13 In Illinois, spurred by the ground-breaking “climate jobs” model, unions helped pass the “Climate and Equitable Jobs Act” which contains “…stringent requirements to make sure that the new jobs are union” and “a displaced energy worker bill of rights with $40 million to help those workers find other training and job opportunities.”14 This is exactly the kind of “just transition” that industrial union leader Tony Mazzocchi argued was possible: cleaning up the economy need not sacrifice the workers who do the work.15 But, like many a MSNBC-brained liberal, Levien seems more concerned about coming right-wing “extreme political backlash” that will emerge from the deindustrialised heartlands if climate action happens. I would suggest that if we actually went about solving climate change, the industrialisation required would be a needed antidote to the ongoing shift of the working class to the Trumpist right.

What explains Levien’s reluctance to acknowledge the centrality of industrial workers to an industrial crisis of climate change? I can only speculate that it remains unfashionable in his academic and professional class domains. If there is one thing that defines the last several decades of the academic faux-Marxism Levien represents, it is an insistence at directing attentionaway from industrial workers and industrial production. This kind of focus is seen as the epitome of what Levien denigrates as “orthodoxy” or “the most crass and teleological versions of Marxism.”

The larger “retreat from class,” as Ellen Meiksins Wood presciently defined it in the 1980s, turns away from what used to be basic to Marxism – that the working class was a “special class,” as Hal Draper called it, with the majoritarian numbers, material interests and strategic capacities to change the world.16 As New Left activists retreated to academia, it soon became the fashion to question these basic tenets of Marxism. As I cover in the book, the idea that workers and capitalists have objective interests, that workers have strategic power at the “point of production”, or that industrial workers in particular represent a paradigmatic example of working class power – all these principles were tossed aside in favour of what seemed like a fresher and cutting-edge project Levien defines as “reconstructions of Marxism … [like] Third World and Black Marxism, the vast literature on the agrarian question, neo-Gramscianism and the vital Marxist-feminist work on social reproduction [that] have expanded our conception of class struggle and taken seriously the interactions of racism and gender domination with capitalism.”17

It seems fitting that, as Western societies launched an all-out assault on the industrial working class – defined by factory closures and mass deindustrialisation – academic (post)-Marxism also turned up its nose at such workers and devoted the bulk of its attention to everything but: ecology, culture, race, gender, agrarian struggles, and heavy doses of misreading Gramsci. For all the smart reconstructions of Marxism from the 1980s to the present, it bears repeating this period can also be defined by an overwhelming shift in political power to the capitalist class (as I quote Warren Buffet in the book, “There’s class warfare, all right … but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”18) Despite these decades of utter defeat and demoralisation for the left, the labour movement, and indeed what Levien celebrates as the “climate justice” movement, you would think some in this field would start to question the strategic value of such reconstructions. But the academic radicals seem quite comfortable to continue this project, and as I suggest below, much to their own personal material benefit.

Who Gains in the “Climate Justice” Coalition?

This brings me to the second core contention of Levien’s review: despite its failures, he is more optimistic about the chances of the “vanguard of the climate justice movement” representing the political path forward. In the book, I make a claim that I haven’t seen anyone try to refute: “A sober class analysis of the climate justice movement reveals a class coalition between the professional class-based NGOs/academics and the marginalized not classically defined as the working class under capitalism”19 (e.g. peasants, indigenous peoples and other “frontline” groups most affected by climate change and fossil fuel infrastructure). But we might actually ponder who exactly is gaining materially from this coalition? It seems to me, despite some notable victories, it is largely not poor and marginalised groups themselves.

I’ve already established that climate change itself is getting worse (and thus those who gain their livelihood directly from the land are being subjected to increases droughts, heat, and stronger storms). Yet, we can also seriously ask how much success marginalised groups have seen in local struggles against toxic fossil fuel infrastructure. In 2016, one of the foremost scholars of environmental justice (EJ), Laura Pulido and her co-authors point out that EJ scholars and activists are “reticent to discuss [movement] failure” and state bluntly, “…poor communities and communities of color are still overexposed to environmental harms.”20 Perhaps the most inspiring of these struggles was the occupation among indigenous and other groups at Standing Rock – a rare example of when a local struggle catapulted to a form of mass politics – and yet, today, the Dakota Access pipeline flows with (and indeed spills) oil.

On the other hand, in just the last couple years the ruling class has fully embraced (or co-opted?) EJ, and it appears uniquely unthreatening to their interests.21 Jeff Bezos’s Earth Fund recently granted over $300 million in 43 grants toward EJ (and the Bezos fortune didn’t stop there: his divorcee MacKenzie Scott has given $384 million to environmental groups including $7 million to something called “the climate justice resilience fund”).22 Goldman Sachs-funded BlocPower has capitalised on leasing heat pumps and other “green” infrastructure to poor working class residents (with dubious cost savings) and marketing the gains as something called “environmental justice carbon offset tokens” to rich people seeking to offset their carbon guilt.23

The Biden administration has also established the White House Environmental Justice Council and the Inflation Reduction Act is showering some $60 billion in investments in “environmental justice communities.” Yet will this money flow directly to poor and oppressed people? So far not exactly. A recently announced EPA programme for environmental justice pledged $100 million to EJ; $30 billion of which will exclusively be grants for non-profits and $70 billion for “state, local and tribal governments that work with nonprofits.”24

The real “vanguard” of the climate and EJ movements are not the marginalised themselves, but the lawyers and other non-profit staff, and their wealthy foundation funders, running environmental justice organizations (often with good intentions it must be said). As Marx would say of these marginalised groups, “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented” … by professional NGO staffers.25 If we want to improve the lives of poor and working-class communities of colour the boilerplate Bernie Sanders programme would do much more good than the panoply of EJ programmes aimed toward non-profits and means-tested “disadvantaged communities.” 26

The environmental and climate justice money train does not stop there, but also infiltrates Levien’s domain of critical academic research. As someone in the field that might broadly be called “critical environmental studies”, I’ve been struck that virtually every tenure track job I see contains “climate justice” or “environmental justice” in its description.27 Indeed, these kinds of jobs “centering the marginalized” are easily approved by Deans and other administrators fresh off their latest Robin DiAngelo-inspired DEI training sessions.

On the academic front, “marginalised groups” are not the targets of NGO advocacy, but the objects of study where ambitious tenured and tenure-track academics jet in to extract data from the often heroic struggles of these oppressed groups. This data then becomes the basis to securing publications, tenure, and material security. It is not that this kind of work on pollution or agrarian land dispossession isn’t important or often contains brilliant insight, but we also need to recognise the disproportionate attention to such kinds of struggles in environmental scholarship. My book aims to show that if we are to win the climate struggle it is not just about land, pollution, and harm, but also seizing industrial systems of production.

In closing, my book is a polemical critique of the existing climate movement housed mainly in academia and NGOs. I’m not surprised it’s generated fervent responses from exactly those quarters. Dylan Riley and Robert Brenner’s latest essay in the New Left Review makes a helpful distinction between class and material politics – the former obviously aiming to struggle for power against capital and the latter simply seeking to improve one’s individual or occupational material position.28 What Levien celebrates as climate justice is mostly a case of the latter. But, if we actually want to solve climate change, we need to challenge the self-satisfied moralism of “climate justice” that only resonates with a minority of highly educated professionals – and start building a climate politics that appeals to the vast majority of workers in general and especially the industrial workers at the heart of the transition. Such a politics actually has the capacity to deliver for many of the poor and marginalised struggles Levien wants to elevate who, after all, also face off against the power of capital. It is clear to me Levien has little interest in such a political project, but I’m sure he will continue to gain accolades among his colleagues.


  1. Michael Levien, “White energy workers of the North unite?” Historical Materialism (online):↩︎
  3. The Department of Energy’s Energy and Employment Report for 2022 shows that workers in electricity generation are 70 percent white compared to a 78 percent workforce average. Workers in the transmission, distribution and storage part of the electrical system is even less at 68 percent. One of my favoured sectors for large scale decarbonisation is nuclear power which is even lower: 66 percent. But citing these numbers as if they should lead to automatic political conclusion is a fool’s errand. See the report here:↩︎
  4. Daniel Strauss, “Clinton Haunted by Coal Country Comment”, Politico, 10 May 2016.↩︎
  5. Leigh Phillips, “Blue Collars, Green Jobs?” The Breakthrough Institute, 30 November 2021.↩︎
  6. Zach Colman, “‘We can’t find people to work’: The Newest Threat to Biden’s Climate Policies”, Politico 27 February 2023.↩︎
  7. Office of Nuclear Energy, “DOE Report Finds Hundreds of Retiring Coal Plant Sites Could Convert to Nuclear,” 13 September 2022.↩︎
  8. Holly Jean Buck, Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero is Not Enough. London: Verso, 2021, 176-179.↩︎
  9. Eric Larson et al., “Net Zero America: Potential Pathways, Infrastructure, and Impacts,” Princeton University Press, 2020.↩︎
  10. Eric Larson et al, 17. Thanks to my collaborator Fred Stafford for pointing me to this data.↩︎
  11. “Assessing Pathways to a Net-Zero Energy System, with Erin Mayfield,” Resources Radio, 16 March 2021.↩︎
  12. “California’s Solar Gold Rush” The Electrical Worker, Vol. 8, no. 12 (December 2014). IBEW Local #569 Business Manager Johnny Simpson makes the claim about membership gains above 1,000 workers here at 4:20:↩︎
  13. Kyla Mandel “Maine’s Green New Deal Bill First in Country to Be Backed by Labor Unions”, Think Progress, 16 April 2019.↩︎
  14. Robert Kuttner, “Combining Decarbonization, Good Jobs, and Climate Justice”, The American Prospect, 28 February 2023.↩︎
  15. Tony Mazzocchi, “A Superfund for Workers?”, Earth Island Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1: 40–1.↩︎
  16. Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class. London: Verso, 1986 and Hal Draper,Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Vol. 2:The Politics of Social Classes. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978, 33-48.↩︎
  17. To be blunt, it’s insulting to Marxism itself – and the worst kind of essentialism – to act as if categories like “Black Marxism” represent monolithic bodies of thought. I recently taught a graduate seminar on “race and capitalism,” and the massive analytical and political differences among scholars like Cedric Robinson and Barbara and Karen Fields couldn’t be starker.↩︎
  18. Ben Stein, “In Class Warfare, Guess Which Class Is Winning,” New York Times, 26 November 2006.↩︎
  19. Matt Huber, Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet. London: Verso, 2022, 35. As I clarify later, many of these groups can actually be seen as part of the working class.↩︎
  20. Laura Pulido, Ellen Kohl, and Nicole-Marie Cotton, “State Regulation and Environmental Justice: The Need for Strategy Reassessment,” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 27, no. 2 (2016): 12–31; 12. Of course, the entire left – including the labour movement – has not seen much success in the last several decades. But this is why my book argues for a return to working-class and labour politics which at least demonstrate the historical capacity for confronting capital like no other force.↩︎
  21. Cara Buckley, “At 75, the Father of Environmental Justice Meets the Moment” New York Times, 12 September 2022.↩︎
  22.; Lisa Stiffler, “‘The Billionaires Are in Charge’ – Here’s Who Is Spending the Most on Climate Change Efforts”, Geekwire, 4 January 2023.↩︎
  23. Lee Harris, “Wall Street’s Big Bet on Rewiring America”, The American Prospect, 23 January 2023.↩︎
  24. Kelsey Brugger, “EPA Unveils $100M for Environmental Justice”, E&E News: Greenwire, 10 January 2023.↩︎
  25. Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” 1852:↩︎
  26. This general argument for broad economic redistribution as the best means for racial justice is often made by Adolph Reed Jr. See, “The Myth of Class Reductionism”, The New Republic, 25 September 2019.↩︎
  27. A quick search on the Chronicle of Higher Education website revealed 111 jobs with the term “environmental justice” (including such elite institutions like Stanford, Oberlin, and Bates) and 22 jobs with the term “climate justice.” These job listings include many non-tenure track and indeed non-academic postings, but illustrate the point.↩︎
  28. Dylan Riley and Robert Brenner, “Seven Theses on American Politics”, New Left Review 138 (2022): 5-27.↩︎