Climate Change as a Class Issue

On a Monday morning a month ago I was sitting on the marble floor of the Squirrel Hill branch of PNC Bank in Pittsburgh, with a circle of activists protesting PNC’s financing of mountain-top removal (MTR) coal mining across Appalachia.  MTR causes increased cancer rates and birth defects, as well as massive environmental degradation — not to mention the carbon dioxide emissions and global warming generated by burning the mined coal.  This was one of a sixteen bank occupations organized by the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) to coincide with the Power Shift gathering that drew thousands of climate activists to the city for a weekend of trainings and actions. 

Our small group included a young family, Nick and Rustina and their two children, who spoke tearfully of how their home-place in Clintwood, Virginia, had been ruined by MTR.  The mountain where generations of their coal-mining family had hiked and hunted was razed, the stream where the kids had fished and played now ran orange, and drinking water to their home and the municipal supply was contaminated.  They had moved to Berea, Kentucky, to go back to school and try for a fresh start.  Their story was just one small instance of how the business of what Bill McKibbon refers to as “rogue” energy corporations disproportionately affects working-class and poor people in the US.  Other examples would include urban children’s asthma rates, chemical dumping in poor neighborhoods, nuclear waste on native lands – and the list goes on.


The extremity of the mess we’re in with climate change has become a focus of urgent concern for me — later than it should have, no doubt.  And my recent activist experience and the reading I’ve been doing lead me to see this as a class issue, requiring a class-conscious response.

Let’s look at the scope of what Stephen Emmott, in his clarifying but terrifying book 10 Billion, calls “the unprecedented planetary emergency we have created.”  (I’ll question this culpable “we” below.)   A recent New York Times article on rising sea levels, concludes that “babies being born now could live to see the early stages of a global calamity.”  We don’t need to wait for the newborns; adults are witnessing this already in many parts of the world.  Over the last decade we have seen a series of climate crises – floods, droughts, fires, tsunamis, hurricanes, lethal heat waves, ice-melts, species extinctions – attributable to global warming.  Typhoon Haiyan is the latest example, as Yeb Sano, Philippine delegate to the current UN climate convention in Poland made clear, imploring the group to “stop this climate madness.” 

These climate events may be exacerbating the social and political crises we also see: famine, migrations, epidemics, civil wars, land-grabs, and the ratcheting up of security apparatus to protect those whose economic activity is doing the damage.  Combine these climate crises with a burgeoning global population – 10 billion by mid-century, according to Emmott – and we seem to be moving towards a full-blown climate collapse, which will, of course, bring with it economic and political catastrophes of unseen magnitude.

If that is the case – that is, if the calamity we face is global, affecting all of humanity and all other species – what does class have to do with it?  We’re all in the same boat, aren’t we, on a rapidly rising ocean?  Well, put simply, it has to do with who’s steering the boat we’re all in and who’s in line to be thrown overboard.  A class perspective highlights how the consequences of global warming, like everything else under capitalism, are unequally distributed, with poorer populations around the world hit first and hardest.

According to Maplecroft’s 2014 Climate Change Vulnerability Index, the countries most likely to suffer the devastating effects of a overheating earth and rising seas by 2025 include Bangladesh, Guinea-Bassau, Sierra Leone, and Haiti — countries which have little or no responsibility for creating the crisis.  Meanwhile, in the Amazon basin, rain forests are being razed and indigenous people removed to create the arable land to grow the soybeans to feed the cattle to produce the beef to satisfy the now-globalized appetite for hamburgers and thereby enrich the holding companies that own Burger King and other chains.

As reported on page one of yesterday’s New York Times, Typhoon Haiyan has made “climate injustice” a major focus of the UN Climate Framework Convention in Warsaw.   But of course, the effects of climate crises also spread to the developed world and wealthier populations.  This summer’s fires in California burned national parkland and high-end mountain homes.  Superstorm Sandy shocked the affluent out of the illusion of safety.  The most opulent real estate in Miami Beach will be claimed by seawater by mid-century if trends continue.

A class perspective, however, allows us to question the “we” Emmott blames for our planetary emergency.  If by “we” he means his readers — economically secure people in the developed world — then we are indeed implicated by our inequitable and unsustainable level of consumption and pollution, and we have a collective responsibility to take action.  But even “we” relatively affluent Westerners are not the designers of this crisis, and we’re not the ones profiteering on it.  A class perspective recognizes that there are real enemies in this fight, and they are in many ways the old class enemies: the operators of global capitalism.

So this is an issue of the interests of the 99% versus the 1% — our new class vocabulary, which implies an alliance of poor, working, and middle classes against that enemy — if ever there was one.  It’s a struggle for fundamental justice – economic, social, environmental — and as such it needs to be fought with all the weapons of organized resistance we’ve brought to such struggles in the past, and more: legal action, political pressure, marches, occupations, media campaigns, direct action, financial divestment, blockades – the works.  And it is indeed being fought with increasing intensity by activists of all stripes, from pacifist Quakers in the US to those on the front lines of environmental destruction around the world.


In the weeks before the EQAT bank actions I had an email conversation with a senior vice-president at PNC who happened to be a former student of mine (so depending on your perspective, I either taught him very well or poorly).  He defended the bank’s financing of MTR coal companies on the grounds that such extractive practices (he avoids the words “mountain-top removal”) are legal, and regulated, and contribute to our necessary energy supply.   You can imagine my reply: “legal” – yes, but so was slavery, once upon a time, and so were most of the actions of the banks that brought about the economic collapse of 2008; “regulated” – yes, by agencies gutted of staff and clout by austerity measures and right-wing hostility; “necessary” – hardly, coal being exactly the wrong source of energy, if we care about global warming.

He also reminded me that PNC is “everyone’s bank” – operating, I suppose, for polluters and the polluted alike, in egalitarian fashion.  Suffice it to say that PNC is not my bank, and I’m pleased to report that so far $3.3 million has been withdrawn as a part of EQAT’s “Move Your Money” campaign.  A drop in the bucket, perhaps, but I hope a noticeable one.  At any rate, the police who escorted us from the bank after our vigil seemed to understand why we were there.  They took our fliers and shook hands.  Other EQAT activists who had prepared for civil disobedience were arrested and the branch they occupied was closed for business.   They succeeded in disrupting PNC’s business-as-usual and witnessing to the devastation it conceals.  It remains to be seen if PNC will change course or continue financing MTR and other extreme modes of energy extraction.

Whatever the outcome, I came away from the bank convinced that actions for environmental justice can and should be occasions for class solidarity.  That possibility, however, is neither obvious nor easy to act on.  There’s a history of classism within the Green movement, for instance, discussed by our allies at Class Action.  And there has been a conflict between the perceived interests of labor and environmentalists, as Lou Martin explained here in 2011. Such sources of class conflict are now being addressed by groups like the Sierra Club and the BlueGreen Alliance.  And we have many other examples of cross-class organizing and histories of international solidarity to draw upon.  Naomi Klein, whose forthcoming book will address climate change and the growing grassroots resistance, cites Canada’s Idle No More and other indigenous peoples’ movements as sources of hope, inspiring global support.

Emmott concludes his book: “We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe.  But I don’t think we will.  I think we’re fucked.” Let’s do that radical thing and prove him wrong.

Nick Coles

This entry was posted in Contributors, Issues, Nick Coles, Working-class politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Climate Change as a Class Issue

  1. Pingback: Let my people speak…

  2. Pingback: Jimmy’s “Den of Iniquity” | Nelson Civic Theatre

  3. Pingback: Climate Change as a Class Issue | Climate Chang...

  4. Pingback: Fighting 'Climate Injustice' | Washington Spectator

  5. George Lakey says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful post, Nick. Good news from my recent trip to Denmark on the question of GDP growth and jobs — a really important question for the working class. My big problem about GDP growth (presently every nation’s objective despite the work of “steady-state” economists) has been that it has required more energy use, which likely means more injury to the climate. Denmark began in the ’90s to separate the two curves (GDP growth and energy-use growth) so they don’t move together — and Denmark does that by huge attention to conservation strategies that generate green jobs and green technology. Just one of many policies is to tax Danes so they pay the highest electricity costs in Europe, in turn forcing businesses to save money by conserving energy use, in turn creating a larger market for conservation tools, in turn creating green jobs and keeping employment very high. (Denmark’s political party spectrum is skewed to the left and a joke there is that all the parties, from left to “right,” are social democratic at least.)

    As someone brought up working class who has often worked with unions, I’m grateful that my present activism with Earth Quaker Action Team puts me (objectively) in alliance with the interests of the U.S.’ job-hungry working class. Right now that’s most of all with Appalachian folks who’ve been living in an internal colony of the U.S. and need all of our support to break out!

    George Lakey,


  6. Linda says:

    You said: “So this is an issue of the interests of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent—our new class vocabulary, which implies an alliance of poor, working, and middle classes against that enemy—if ever there was one.” But a class analysis must take each one of those groups separately and see what the actual situation is. As an early and continuing member of Occupy Boston, for me the 1%-99% meme is only the beginning of any analysis deeper than a protest placard. There NEEDS to be an alliance of the sectors of the poor, working and the remnant of the working classes but that does not exist now. The environmental justice movement is, for example, largely devoid of people of color. The classes of people most impacted by climate change need to find our way to each other because we have been and continue to be successfully divided by the 1%.


    • Nick Coles says:

      Linda, I agree with you on all points. The 99% covers over real differences in people’s actual situations — though I like that it suggests commonalities of interests across those differences, especially on the huge issues of climate and economic justice. The Occupy vocabulary — which is powerful in part because it has circulated everywhere — works much better in targeting the 1%. That does happen to be about the size of the capitalist class, as Michael Zweig identifies it in his book The Working Class Majority, which I see as the smartest current analysis of the US class structure.

      And yes, the traditional Green movement has traditionally been largely white and middle class, in the US and Europe, and overly focused on conservation. The folks at Class Action have been working on this (see link above), and I hear the Sierra Club is partnering with the NAACP (I need to find out around what projects exactly). In the rest of the world, it’s looking like people of color may be in the vanguard, as Klein makes clear. Witness the current actions by small island nations at the Warsaw UN climate talks.

      Thanks for your comment.

      — Nick


  7. Nick Coles says:

    Thanks, Don and Chris. Naomi Klein’s analysis makes good sense to me: there’s a fundamental conflict between capitalist development and a livable planet. And a lot of folks addressing the climate issue would rather not look at that. To me it implies that a rising GDP is not good news, and full employment is not a reasonable goal (without, say, a 30 hour week). I’m looking forward to her next book.

    Emmott’s 10 Billion has been critiqued, in the Guardian, as “unscientific and misanthropic.”
    And he is a bit loose with some facts, and shy about his sources. But even his critics don’t disagree with his sense of the scope and urgency of the problem. They don’t want to hear that it’s hopeless. Emmott does not take account (as the scientists Klein cites do) of the potential of popular resistance.

    But he does three things really well: 1. he links the climate problem to population growth — which is critical, since climate change is reducing food production. 2. he understands and explains all the feedback loops — e.g. between energy, oceans, atmosphere, species, food production, etc. — that intensify and speed up the damage. 3. he’s very clear that there is no technological fix. It’s a short book, a one-hour read, and for my money, worth it.

    — Nick


  8. MCkali says:

    Thank you for this wonderful Earth Quaker perspective on class, much needed. And we are grateful for you EQAT.

    I have found Deep Green Resistance, the book and the movement, to analyze and strategize these matters quite well, including the spiritual & ethical dimensions of a culture of resistance:

    In the Light.


  9. Don Weightman says:

    Thanks for a strong essay.

    You can find more on political action and climate by Naomi Klein here:

    Science Says Revolt

    and here:

    Capitalism vs. the Climate:

    Don Weightman
    (supporting EQAT, but not speaking for them here)


  10. Chris Baker Evens says:

    Thanks Nick for a passionate reflection on the EQAT ShiftPNC action on October 21. I appreciate you holding up class awareness in this struggle. I haven’t read the book by Emmott, that you reference. The loose “we” used is troubling and ultimately passifying. The end note of “we need to do something radical, but we won’t so we’re fucked” is in stark contrast of the action you and well over 100 people took part in on October 21st. Earth Quaker Action Team and many other groups, will continue to do the radical work necessary to end specific forms of global ecocide. Emmott makes it sound like there is a huge vacuum to fill when in reality there are many opportuntities to join the global environmental and economic justice fight. I’m so glad you joined with us. Keep up the great work!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s