Spreading knowledge and awareness of the climate crisis isn’t enough. There’s no hope for the planet without climate policies that address the material interests of workers.
Excerpted from Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet (Verso Books, May 2022)
In the mid-2000s, there was a real sense of momentum in climate politics. In 2006, Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth was heralded as the Silent Spring of our generation; sure to mobilize millions to the climate fight. In the same year, economist Nicholas Stern alarmed the policy world with his Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, a seven-hundred-page report predicting that the costs of climate change could amount to between 5 and 20 percent of GDP. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its fourth assessment report, laying out the dire science and the rapid changes needed.
All of this seemed to be building toward the 2009 international meeting in Copenhagen where many expected the world — and, hopefully, the United States — would finally come together to solve the problem.
The earth itself was also calling for action. In the summer of 2007, the areal extent of Arctic sea ice reached a record low of 4.13 million square miles, 38 percent below the average and shattering the previous record, set in 2005, by 24 percent. The following spring, James Hansen and a team of scientists submitted a paper — “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” — that declared, “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm.”
Given all the momentum and sense of urgency, climate activist Bill McKibben and “a group of university friends” founded the activist organization 350.org, which took Hansen’s target of 350 parts per million of CO2 as a rallying cry for change. McKibben wrote several pieces claiming it was “the most important number on the planet” and organized a massive worldwide day of action for October 24, 2009, to force states to abide by this objective, scientific target.
In 2012, his viral article in Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” focused again on a set of numbers (2° Celsius, 565 gigatons) and set the stage for his “Do the Math Tour,” which “sold out shows in every corner of the country.” McKibben used these numbers to lay out the necessary political prescription: the fossil fuel industry will burn every last gigaton of carbon it can access — and it must be stopped.
Yet the reliance on numbers and appeals to scientific objectivity means McKibben and others are always trying to stake out what is not political in the climate struggle.
In an appearance on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, McKibben repeated one of his major talking points: “Science isn’t like politics. Chemistry and physics don’t bargain that way.” Several years later, he described the climate struggle as a battle against physics. “This negotiation is between people and physics. And therefore it’s not really a negotiation. Because physics doesn’t negotiate. Physics just does.”
McKibben’s 350.org and others chose to strategically focus on climate politics as a struggle over questions of science and knowledge; for them, it was about what scientists assert are the causes of and solutions to climate change. But in the end, it seems that the critical question at the heart of climate politics is always one of belief or denial in the science.
There are obvious and good reasons for this. We only understand climate change through scientific measurements of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and increasingly sophisticated models predicting our climate future. That the science has discovered the problem of climate change means it will always be at the heart of climate politics.
Yet after the seeming momentum of 2007–8, it all went sideways. The global capitalist economy collapsed, the United States reassumed its role as delayer in Copenhagen — and to this day, the climate movement still has not ignited the kind of transformative change needed. In fact, McKibben consistently and correctly points out that we are losing the climate fight, and badly.
What are the limits of making climate politics about knowledge? This kind of politics of knowledge appeals to a specific class position: the professional class. I define the professional class broadly as those who marshal degrees, licenses, and other credentials in the market for labor power. Like McKibben and his “group of university friends,” the professional class still remains at the core of the climate movement — scientists, journalists, and college students.
The professional class is a product of the historically shifting geographies of capital accumulation where knowledge became an entryway to a secure livelihood amid deindustrialization and declining working-class power. Underpinning the knowledge economy is the centrality of education and credentials in defining one’s qualifications for particular kinds of occupations. Yet beyond the labor market, the professional class is also reproduced through a sociocultural milieu that valorizes knowledge in general — keeping up with news, doing your research, and getting the facts straight.
Climate politics is also shaped by a professional world of “policy.” As Naomi Klein points out, it was a case of “bad timing” when scientists came to a consensus about the severity of climate change at precisely the same moment when political power shifted toward a free market ideology of deregulation and austerity in the 1980s. Still, for much of this period, professionals in the nonprofit and policy worlds clung to a belief that climate change could be solved through a series of technocratic and market-based solutions. Centrist economist Brad DeLong describes this as a project that aims “to use market means to social democratic ends.”
For this brand of policy technocrat, the climate struggle is not a power struggle over material production, but a struggle over ideas and logical policy designs. Those in the climate policy community understood that the Right had won power and thought they could outsmart them with elegant market-based policies inciting large-scale climate mitigation. They were very wrong.
The Politics of the Professional Class
Much of the discussion of the professional class today is indebted to the concept of the “professional-managerial class” (PMC) coined by Barbara and John Ehrenreich. The Ehrenreichs’ impetus for theorizing the PMC came from its centrality in shaping the New Left movements of the 1960s and ’70s. As they put it: “The rebirth of PMC radicalism in the sixties came at a time when the material position of the class was advancing rapidly. Employment in PMC occupations soared, and salaries rose with them.”
They describe how the best parts of the New Left certainly contested capitalist control of the economy but combined this with “moralistic contempt of the working class.” The Ehrenreichs cite the famous Port Huron Statement issued by Students for a Democratic Society: “Any new left in America must be, in large measure, a left with real intellectual skills, committed to deliberativeness, honesty, reflection as working tools.”
Politics, from a professional-class perspective, is a largely cultural terrain over knowledge and a coming-to-consensus on ideas. The professional class elevates “intellectual autonomy and public service” alongside credentials and expertise above all else.
Moreover, if the university is, in the Ehrenreichs’ words, “the historical reproductive apparatus of the PMC,” it also became an epicenter of two kinds of engagement with politics. First, there was an explosion of academic technocrats and other highly educated policy experts who espoused the professional-class commitment to expertise in solving social and environmental problems. Second, the university became a bastion of a new mode of radical political theory, which centered culture over old class lines of struggle.
Yet, as the Ehrenreichs explain, the class antagonisms between the PMC and the working class were never resolved, and by the end of the ’70s, the New Left collapsed into “more [of] a subculture than a ‘movement.’” As Jean-Christophe Agnew suggests, the professional class’s abandonment of old class questions seems even starker as political power continued to shift rightward to capital: “Considering its relative inattention to issues of production, equity, exploitation, cultural politics may seem a singularly inappropriate politics for a time marked by the blatant transfer of wealth between classes.”
In other words, the capitalist class organized to amass wealth and political power on class terms. Meanwhile, the Left, imbued by professional-class values, became convinced that class politics were outmoded, orthodox, and ill-equipped for a new “postindustrial” knowledge economy.
There is perhaps no better example of the ways in which the professional class shaped new forms of politics than the environmental movement.
A Typology of Professional Class Climate Politics
From its beginnings, science was central in shaping environmental movement consciousness and demands. Indeed, it was Rachel Carson, a professional marine biologist, who sparked the movement with her book Silent Spring in 1962. The ecology movement placed scientific credentials at the center of ecological politics. In 1972, the Ecologist ran a cover story called “A Blueprint for Survival,” which claimed a specific politics of authority: “This document has been drawn up by a small team of people, all of whom, in different capacities, are professionally involved in the study of global environmental problems.” The Club of Rome’s more famous 1972 report on overpopulation, “The Limits to Growth,” enacted the same vision of politics — a struggle over a future adjudicated through scientific models and expertise.
It is not only “intellectual autonomy” but also commitment to “public service” that often characterizes professional-class values. This commitment is rooted in the idea that professionals can deploy knowledge toward making the world better.
I offer a very schematic sketch of different types of professionals in the climate political scene who seek to combine expertise and environmental “public service.”
First, there are the science communicators who are either natural scientists themselves like Rachel Carson or James Hansen, or otherwise deeply invested in knowing what the science has discovered, such as science or environmental journalists. These types of people believe that the primary problem in environmental politics is a lack of awareness or an outright denial of scientific knowledge. It argues that if the masses truly understood the science, action would follow.
Second, there are the policy technocrats whose professional expertise is more likely to be based in law or policy studies and work in think tanks, academia, or professionalized nonprofits. Alongside universities, it is worth highlighting the rise of NGOs — as opposed to unions and parties — as critical centers of activism and politics in the same era where environmental politics arose. These types seek to design “smart” policy solutions to environmental problems. They believe they can use logic and rational policy design to sway politicians and the public toward these policies.
Finally, there are the anti-system radicals, whose own exposure to the science of ecological collapse leads to a kind of political radicalization. A lot of this radicalization is rooted in guilt over their own complicity in practices of consumption central to professional class norms. This kind of climate activist is more likely to understand that the cause of environmental problems is systemically rooted in capitalism, but their political response is to look inward through moralistic invocations to consume less, reject industrial society, and advocate micro-alternatives at the local scale. This kind of person might find the only outlet for such radical ideas in academia, or they might eschew a profession entirely in favor of more niche knowledge systems like DIY off-the-grid living or studying “permaculture” agricultural techniques.
What connects these three highly schematic “types” is the centrality of knowledge systems in shaping their political engagements with environmental problems. My aim is not to discount the importance of knowledge and science in informing politics, but rather to point out the ways this politics both evades material conflict and class struggle, and appeals only to the minority of society that possesses these educational credentials.
Above all, professional class climate politics mostly appeals to professionals themselves. But they are a minority of the population. If we want to build a democratic majoritarian climate coalition, we need a politics that appeals beyond the credentialed classes. In other words, we need a working-class climate politics centered not on knowledge and smart policy, but rather more everyday materials struggle over access to energy, food, housing, and transportation — the very sectors we need to decarbonize.
While professional class sensibilities tend to assume solving climate change requires making these things cost more to “internalize” the costs of emissions, socialists can counter with a decarbonization program that guarantees access to these basic needs of working-class life. The 2018–20 explosion of Green New Deal proposals espousing this vision have sputtered lately, but we cannot lose sight of this basic insight that we should reorient climate policies toward direct improvements to workers’ lives who have suffered decades of neoliberal austerity and assault from the capitalist class war.
This work has been made possible by the support of the Puffin Foundation.