Recent years have seen a proliferation of climate books written from the socialist left (my own among them), bringing to the fore various proposals including Green New Deals, degrowth and eco-socialism. Matthew Huber’s Climate Change as Class War is a particularly compelling contribution, providing the most decisive break with the liberal environmentalism that has thus far so abjectly failed.

Huber laments the climate movement’s prevailing obsession with knowledge. From climate scientists to Extinction Rebellion to Greta Thunberg, we’ve all heard it before: “Wake up!” “Tell the truth!” “If people only knew…” It’s not that understanding climate change is unimportant, but it is insufficient. Knowledge does not equal power. People now know about climate change more than ever, but emissions are still rising, and we keep losing. Huber locates this issue in the climate movement’s class composition. That the climate movement is ‘middle-class’ is a cliché, but its dominance by professionals from knowledge-based industries like higher education, research or the law explains the preoccupation with knowledge.

The climate movement’s dominance by this ‘professional-managerial class’ also produces a counter-productive focus on consumption. What food do you buy? Have you stopped flying? Do you know your carbon footprint? For those with disposable income but no industrial power, consumption choices feel like the apex of their agency. However, Huber rightly argues that capitalism is fundamentally a system of production. Producers are not captive to the demands of consumers. It’s the other way round. Similar criticisms are levelled at degrowth: an austerian politics concerned with reducing overall consumption. It’s no surprise that degrowthers remain confined to academia with their ‘politics of less’ unlikely to garner popular appeal any time soon.

The concept of ‘justice’ has become common sense not only for liberal environmentalists, but also for the left. Climate justice, global justice and just transition dominate our discourse, emphasising the need to repair the harms of climate change along the lines of race, gender, class and colonialism. Huber contends that in this framework workers are treated as victims instead of agents with social power. It understands the transition as something harmful that is done to workers. Instead, we should see workers as leading it as part of a wider reorganisation of class relations. I am less sceptical of the conceptual utility of ‘just transition’, arguing in my book, Burnt, that we can combine calls for justice with working-class strategies to build socialism focused on building trade union power and organising electorally. Regardless, Huber’s persuasive contribution is to remind the climate movement that “workers possess a unique structural power at the point of production to withhold their labour and cut off capital’s profits at the source.” Workers, then, are the key agents of this transformation.

From this, Huber’s strategic proposition is to focus on building workers’ power in the electricity sector to accelerate decarbonisation. Playfully invoking the Soviet policy ‘socialism in one country’, he calls for ‘socialism in one sector’. This is a challenge to eco-socialist assumptions that everything about society must change all at once. The impulse to change the whole rotten system is understandably compelling, but the temporal dimensions of climate change and the relative weakness of socialist movements in the US and the UK demand some pragmatism. For Huber, a focus on organising the strategically crucial electricity sector could achieve a significant portion of decarbonisation while opening up further opportunities.

Dispatching the core tenets of liberal environmentalism – eco-consumerism, knowledge and justice – Huber reminds us that just as we need not accept climate collapse as inevitable, we need not accept a strategically and ideologically stunted climate movement. In the UK, we are starting to see the beginnings of a renewed industrial militancy, with strikes on the railways and in the postal service, and now the threat of nurses taking action too. To succeed, we must put everything into further strengthening and radicalising our labour movement.

Chris Saltmarsh is co-founder of Labour for a Green New Deal.