Workers’ Power vs. Climate Destroyers: What It Will Take to Save the Planet

Humanity faces a multi-faceted crisis. Endless wars of imperial aggression, both overt and covert– from Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan to Yemen, Palestine and Central and South America. These conflagrations compel those at the bottom of the economic pyramid to fight and die to protect the wealth and privileges of those at the top. These wars destroy human beings and our natural environment, but also opportunities and resources that could be allocated to human betterment. Nuclear arsenals remain on hair trigger alert, with fearsome destructive potential, one accident or a single myopic policy decision away from wiping out the entire human race. Economic inequality, having already reached obscene proportions, is showing no sign of slowing down or reversing course. Racism, xenophobia, sexism and other forms of hate-filled discrimination are used to distract and divide those victimized by the current state of affairs and to hinder a united fight by all of the oppressed against our common oppressors.

And then there’s the matter of climate Armageddon. The world is heating up as a result of economic and energy policy choices. These choices have maximized profits for the 1% while threatening the very biosphere we all depend on for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We know that the burning of fossil fuels and the resulting additional carbon in our atmosphere are driving rapid planetary warming. We know this, not because a majority of climate scientists believe it to be true – that’s not how science works; after all, majorities of scientists have been wrong on occasion. We know this crisis is real because a substantial amount of data has been collected that corroborates the climate change hypothesis, and because key scientific predictions based on the theory of human-accelerated climate change have been born out by evidence and experience. Climate change has been directly implicated in:

+ Melting arctic ice and resulting sea level rise.

+ Record-breaking heat waves the world over.

+ Hellish forest fires, from Europe and Scandinavia, to the western U.S.

+ Drought conditions in the U.S. and Europe.

+ Flooding in the Midwest and Southern Asia.

+ The most powerful hurricane ever to threaten Hawaii.

Without a doubt, the detectable impacts of climate change today are serious and ubiquitous.

Donald Trump’s rejection of the Paris Climate Accord (anemic though that agreement was), his weakening of already inadequate auto fuel efficiency standards, his approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, his plan to open an additional 77 million acres of the Golf of Mexico to oil drilling, the EPA’s rollback of coal pollution standards and its plan to allow additional greenhouse gas emission from existing power plants – all of these policies move us in the wrong direction.

But when it comes to climate action, the Democrats are no better than the Republicans. We were headed in the wrong direction before Trump was elected. The Obama administration financed three times as much overseas fossil fuel development as the Bush administration that preceded it. Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy reversed a decline in U.S. petroleum output and vastly expanded fracking for natural gas. In 2012, Obama bragged about opening millions of acres to oil exploration and vastly increasing offshore drilling. “We’ve added enough oil and gas pipelines to encircle the earth and then some.”

Follow the Money

It’s important to note that global warming and all of the other above-mentioned calamities have a common beneficiary: the 1%. And in every case, it’s the 99%, at home and abroad, who are expected to bear the greatest burden and pay the highest cost. Think about that. When you follow the money, it’s clear that those with the most wealth and power have the least to gain and the most to lose by fixing any of the problems we face. Indeed, from the perspective of those at the top, nothing is broken; the world is funneling wealth upwards, just as it should.

This tells us a great deal about what it will take to fix climate change and the many other serious problems we face. Understanding that a few benefit from the status quo, it’s clear that we have to gather together and organize the many who are harmed by the political/economic order that has led to this problem, and fight against those whom have profited from the madness. This means two things:

(1) There is no “we”; there is only “us and them.” There are two opposing sides in this struggle.

(2) Asking those few with wealth and power to please do the right thing is not a very effective strategy and it hasn’t gotten us very far up to now. A much better approach would be to take the power and wealth into our own hands – into the hands of the majority – and use that power to directly address the problems we face. This would shift us away from the defensive posture of beseeching those in power to kindly consider the greater good, even if it meant acting against their own interests. Instead, we must adopt the much stronger, more democratic position of giving the orders rather than continuing to accept the crumbs offered from the unelected minority that has been running the show for generations.

Which Side Are You On?

How does all of this apply to the climate change movement today? What does this tell us about our allies and our opponents? What demands should we be organizing around right now to move us in the needed direction?

Above all else, we have to be able to identify who’s on our side and whom we’re up against. In the days of kings, the imperial court was comprised of more than just the royal family; it included advisors, senators, officers, functionaries and courtiers of all sorts. Today too, the “court of the 1%” has many plenipotentiaries and hangers-on. It’s easy to identify energy magnates and other corporate overlords as part of the oligarchy. But all too often, people fail to recognize the oligarchs’ loyal lieutenants in the Democratic and Republican parties. Both are key political instruments of the 1%. More than two independent organizations made up of better and worse individuals, the Democratic and Republican parties are institutionally owned by corporate America. If the two parties compete with one another at all, it is only in seeking greater favor from their common master. So, it should be clear that any climate strategy aimed at playing one corporate party off against another is doomed from the start.

And who are our allies in this fight? Broadly speaking, it is all working people, the entire 99%. Every person who lives from paycheck to paycheck suffers more harm from climate calamity and other systemic problems than any small advantage that one profession, one geographic location, one race or sex might appear to provide over others. This is true not only for teachers, nurses, factory workers, garbage collectors and the like, but also for coal miners, pipeline workers, oil and chemical workers.

“But wait,” you say. “Don’t workers in the energy industry have a vested interest in the status quo?” No they don’t, not when you look at the big picture. However, unless the climate movement is proactive and strategic, workers in those key industries can be manipulated into believingthat their interests lie with the climate destroyers, and that they would have to pay a heavy personal price if fossil fuel production were halted as a part of a comprehensive climate change solution. To counteract this fallacy and to promote class-wide solidarity, several demands must be put front and center. These demands should appear prominently on lead banners at climate marches, on leaflets and positions papers:

Guaranteed jobs for all, at union-scale wages!

Full salaries and retraining, at union wages, for all workers displaced by climate mitigation, for the entire time they are out of work!

These should not be thought of as pie-in-the-sky, propagandistic slogans. Rather, these are life or death demands for the climate movement. Without them, natural allies in the fight to address runaway climate catastrophe would be divided against themselves. But with these demands at the forefront, the movement promotes unity and deals a blow to the very heart of those who have been profiting from the world’s demise. In this way, the climate movement can take the lead, demolishing the argument that fixing the climate can only come at the expense of jobs. At the same time, this approach brings into clear focus exactly who we can count as our friends and our enemies.

Taking the Offensive

There is another key demand that the climate movement must champion in order to move from perpetually playing defense to finally taking the offensive. At present, the energy industry is owned by private corporations and run solely for profit. This blocks progress on climate change in multiple ways:

+ With the present setup, it’s highly profitable for monopolies to ignore greenhouse gases and other pollution produced in the generation of energy. So, the current for-profit corporations have every incentive to continue business as usual.

+ Because the energy monopolies are awash in wealth, they have an abundance of funds available for buying politicians, hiring lobbyists, paying for ads and other propaganda, and using their wealth in multiple ways to tip the political scales in their favor.

+ Even though energy is critical to our economy, and responsible management of energy policy is vital for the environment, the major shareholders and boards of directors of the current energy behemoths are completely unaccountable to the 99%. We didn’t elect them and we have no say inwhoruns those essential industries or howthey’re run.

To get beyond these scandalous impediments, the climate movement must demandNationalize the energy industry under workers’ and community control!

In contrast to nationalization under corporatecontrol or under the control of some new government bureaucracy beholden to the 1%, nationalization under workers’ and community control means:

+ Workers in the industry would elect their own supervisors and have final say over safety and working conditions.

+ Policy, priorities and directions for the new energy sector should be set by a national board comprised of delegates from regional energy committees as well as elected representatives of the workers within the energy industry, workers in other industries affected by energy policy, scientists and engineers.

+ All energy policy representatives should be elected and subject to immediate recall. For compensation, they should receive no more than the average pay of those they were elected to represent.

To break the logjam and implement a rational energy policy, the energy industry must be converted to public ownership. As with the other demands described above, taking the energy industry out of private hands is not a luxury we might shoot for in the expectation of settling for less. On the contrary, we will either nationalize the energy industry under workers and community control or we will not be able to stop runaway climate change. This is a battle we cannot lose if we hope to win the overall climate war.

We know that to truly address global warming will take a huge shift in priorities. We need a massive public works program to transition to a green, sustainable economy – building clean mass transit, retrofitting existing buildings and transitioning to 100% sustainable energy. Farmers will need assistance transitioning away from fossil fuel-intensive practices to sustainable, organic agriculture. The waste endemic in the capitalist system will have to be addressed – from its hugely destructive, carbon-intensive war machine, to its promotion of senseless consumption and endless commodity expansion based, not on human needs, but on the push for ever increasing profits.

But to accomplish these tasks requires a mighty force that can challenge the powerful actors having a vested interest in business as usual. In this respect, we have to recognize that the climate movement has gotten stuck in a cul-de-sac of unclarity. It’s imperative that the movement fully recognize whom we’re up against and what it will take to win this fight.  So, we have three demands to get us moving, three organizing principles to put the climate movement on a winning track. We can abbreviate them as:

+ Guaranteed jobs for all!

+ Full wages for displaced workers!

+ Nationalize the energy industry!

While there are additional slogans and principles worth promoting, we’ll remain stuck, rudderless, disunited and powerless until we get serious about these three. Embodied within the three demands are the notions that there are two sides in this fight, that those who profit from climate devastation are our enemies, and that average working people who produce all the world’s wealth – an aggregate treasure stolen by the 1% and used to power their reign – are the only ones with everything to gain and nothing to lose in the fight to rescue the train of civilization that’s gone so completely off the rails.

Bruce Lesnick is a long-time political activist who lives and writes in Washington State.  He blogs at He can be reached at