Greening Work in an Age of Uncertainty

Is There Something Worse than Climate Change Denial?

The theme for the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP) in Durban was “Working Together: Saving Tomorrow Today.” Canada’s conservative government, backed by the U.S., is, however, clearly not interested in working with others on addressing global warming. Prior to the conference, Canada’s Environment Minister, Peter Kent, setting a combative tone labelled the multi-billion dollar Green Climate Fund aimed at helping poor countries mitigate and adapt to climate change a “guilt payment.” It was also clear that the Canadian government’s agenda was to derail the Kyoto protocol and any successor agreement, despite the efforts of the EU and developing economies in the Global South. Hannah McKinnon of the Climate Change Action Network reported “the Canadian Government has been the poster child of inaction at these talks….constantly singled out as a laggard and even a pariah in these negotiations.” In early December, when Members of the Opposition raised the point in parliamentary question period that Canada had received numerous ‘fossil of the day’ awards in Durban, Conservative MPs actually cheered the achievement.

Hyper-Capital Accumulation

Canadian youth delegates turn their back on Peter Kent.

The action (or perhaps inaction) of Canada and other industrialized countries in Durban is the product of a diminished political will to address climate change at the expense of economic growth. In a recent article in The Nation, Naomi Klein laments the derailment of the climate change agenda. Klein echoes the long standing eco-socialist calls for less consumption, more economic planning, massive retraining efforts, and restraints on corporations. These policies are all important reforms to hyper-capital accumulation. In the current economic crisis, however, such initiatives are demonized as enemies of recovery. Klein blames well funded climate change denial groups such as the U.S. based right-wing Heartland Institute for changes in popular sentiment. At the same time, however, she credits the actual insight and claims such groups make with respect to the real threat successful climate change mitigation and adaptation poses to free markets. She suggests that climate change deniers may be quite right in labelling climate change activists as the ‘green Trojan horse’ for ‘red Marxists.’

I am sympathetic with much of what Klein argues. Her analysis of how climate change and economic crises are inextricably linked is crucial to rethinking left alternatives, though her prescriptions mild. In the end, the ecological limits of capitalism may very well lead to the collapse of the system despite the wishful thinking of climate change sceptics. Right wing populist climate change deniers are a threat to both the environment and workers and must be confronted. Klein’s implicit assumption is, however, that only socialists can implement economic policies in response to climate change over the short and medium terms. This view is both false and dangerous. What Klein and many other socialists concerned with climate change fail to consider is that, as regressive as right-wing climate change inaction and denial is, a greater danger may lie with a right that takes the threat of climate change seriously.

It is true that climate change activism has largely been linked to various strands of reformist and anti-capitalist politics ranging from advocates of a greener capitalism to deep ecologists calling for a radical reduction in industrial production. Responses can be used to challenge capitalism. But they can also be used to reinforce existing systems of political and economic oppression and inequality. As sea-levels rise and erode beaches, the right will eventually no longer be able to bury their heads in the sand. They will be forced to purge the deniers from their organizations to preserve political legitimacy. When this time comes, socialists must be prepared for concerted attacks on workers and democracy as a more authoritarian capitalism emerges disciplining dissent in the name of climate crisis.

Working Greener, Working Harder or Not Working at All

Much of the current political debate around greening the economy and “working together” has focussed on the ‘creative destruction’ of economic sectors and the development of new ‘green jobs.’ Over the course of the economic crisis, there have been numerous calls for a ‘Green New Deal’ as a means to stimulate economic growth and create jobs. Green investment is seen as a means of restoring the circuit of capital by prodding corporations sitting on hoards of cash to start investing and thus offset the current crisis. This is a vision of a ‘green capitalism’ that is seen as capable of addressing the twin crises of ecology (in particular the climate change crisis that is the focus of Durban) and the economy. But there are a number of contradictions within this vision.

New forms of green capital accumulation are still expansionary and can be resource-using, so it is unclear if emissions can be significantly reduced through renewed rounds of investment. For example, there were many bold claims made that the new computer technologies would ‘dematerialize’ capitalist economy, but the ‘material throughputs’ of capitalist economies continue to grow. Transition to a low-emission economy will involve restructuring the labour process in all workplaces, green and brown. The goal is to decrease the technical composition of capital and shift to more labour intensive forms of production and service provision. But in this case, labour is most often expected to exercise wage restraint as employers still seek to cut costs by constraining necessary labour. Intensifying labour utilization will do less to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if workers still commute long distances to work by car (or increase usage of airplanes for international business travel).

‘Green’ workers will also require significant retraining to enter and re-enter the labour market. Klein argues that the state must provide support for education and training. Neoliberal states, however, have been successful in downloading the responsibility to increase human capital onto individuals in knowledge-based economies.

Deep ecologists have contended for some time that ecological systems can only be sustained by not transforming the environment through social production. Put differently, by not ascribing value to things via commodification. For many, this is utopian in the sense that all nature is now ‘second nature,’ in the sense of being produced and impacted by human intervention. For some it is also undesirable if there are significant changes to material living standards. This is not to make workers exempt from necessary changes to material lives, but it is unfair to expect the working classes to bear the brunt of the responsibility for reduced production/consumption. Job-sharing and reduced work week schemes may partly address high unemployment and lower average rates of production. However, they shift the burden of transforming reproduction solely onto workers. More important, as Ian Gough has recently argued, lower levels of (greener) production threaten the capitalist state’s ability to raise revenue and deliver non-market goods and services (to which people working less will increasingly turn).

Supporting new green investment (e.g., wind turbines), reducing work time and shifting burdens of reproduction via socialization, all in the name of lowering the carbon footprint will require an interventionist state. Eco-socialists reached this conclusion long ago.

But we need to be aware that an interventionist government need not be socialist, particularly in the current political climate. Right-wing governments, neoliberal or populist, are also positioned to address the contradictions climate change poses for accumulation. In fact, climate change adaptation and mitigation may be compatible with several current state and corporate practices that have emerged within an increasingly authoritarian neoliberalism.

The Essential Green Worker

In the conditions of a stagnant capitalism, wage restraint will continue to be a central preoccupation of public and private employers. Neoliberal legislation restricting the collective action of workers continues to be rolled-out through the current crisis. In Canada, postal workers and airline workers have been legislated back to work in order to protect the ‘fragile recovery.’ The designation of public sector workers as essential service providers with no right to strike has also continued to expand in the name of economic necessity. Recently, the Ontario government passed legislation restricting the right of public transit workers in Toronto to strike. In the case of public transit workers, it is not difficult to imagine a right-wing government making the case that all public transportation is ‘essential’ to reduce carbon emissions and justify the coercion of workers. It may even be an easier case to make to the public than so-called economic necessity. Similar arguments could also be used for green energy workers in public utilities, public environmental regulatory workers, conservation workers and any other group the state deems essential to reducing the carbon footprint.

Climate Change and Migration

Climate change will undoubtedly raise further migration challenges for states. On one hand, increases in migration arise from the displacement of workers living in coastal communities facing rising sea levels, drought stricken regions, and areas damaged by extreme weather events. States will be pressured to accommodate climate change refugees. But they are just as likely to ignore, neglect, police and exploit displaced persons as they do presently. On the other hand, new pools of surplus labour can also be drawn upon to intensify the disciplinary features of neoliberal globalization. In particular, it might be easier to target workers who resist changes to the labour process which intensify work to lower emissions.

Recently, hotel workers in North America have resisted Sheraton’s ‘Green Choice’ program which gives guests a $5 rebate if they decline to have their room serviced during a multi-night stay. Hotel workers across North America protested against the program claiming that the employer was merely ‘green-washing’ its services with no real benefit to the environment. Workers argue that rooms not cleaned daily are much more labour and energy intensive to prepare for the next guest. The cleaning process takes more time, yet it resulted in significant costs savings for the employer as room attendants were only paid for cleaning the room once. UNITEHERE, the union representing the largely female, immigrant and racialized hotel workers, have criticized the program. In an increasingly global labour market, however, hotel employers with the assistance of the state can turn to surplus migrant labour (permanent, temporary and undocumented) to limit dissent.


Wide swathes of the left pushing for significant climate change measures put forward various ‘neo-localist’ strategies as an alternative way to build political and economic alternatives. In terms of a Left eco-localism, Greg Albo has criticised these movements and their overestimation of the will to reduce consumption, discounting the efficiencies of existing capital stocks, and most important their inability build a strategic capacity compatible with global capital. More recently, Greg Sharzer has developed an in-depth critique of localism as a petty bourgeois ideology masquerading as progressive.

A right-wing localism launched in the name of reducing emissions could evolve into something much more insidious. Populist movements restricting access to markets would protect local ‘green’ capital and in some cases, workers would lend support to leaders promising to limit the supply of competing workers. The danger is that such restrictions, as we have seen in Europe and the U.S., lead to xenophobic class politics and isolationism.

Right-wing localism also contains elements of neo-Malthusianism ranging from calls for zero growth models despite growing global poverty and the limited redistribution of capital. In Canada, the Harper government’s scepticism over an international Green Climate Fund for poor economies is case in point. Is the Canadian government simply willing to let ‘nature’ take its course in the form of starvation and disease in poor countries most affected by climate change?

Authoritarian Green States

Right-wing governments can also invoke climate change in order to justify anti-democratic policies which limit dissent. For example, many of the major states want to develop nuclear energy as a ‘green’ response to fossil-fuel energy sources. Not only must huge sums of capital be secured via states to finance this ‘transition,’ but regulation and the management of community dissent must also be present. It is not difficult to foresee various security measures being deployed to limit dissent against various forms of non-emitting energy (whether nuclear plants or wind turbines), and these oppositional movements swept-up in domestic terrorism legislation.

The management of dissent extends beyond community protests. If growth is stagnant in a low-emission economy, states that fail to provide the necessary supports for social reproduction despite continued concentration of wealth will increasingly resort to coercive force.

Socialists have no singular claim to policy leadership and alternatives to climate change. Historically, environmental protection has been an aspect of all forms of government, including fascist states, in defence of some absurd sense of pristine purity or the ecological privileges of ruling classes. Germany in the 1930s, for example, created numerous national parks and aggressive environmental programs. Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier, in their book Ecofascism, warned democrats that right-wing extremists can also make effective political use of ecology.

Eco-socialists ignore this fact at their peril. The political right will not be able to avoid the impacts of global warming and will have to engage in real action. The political forms of their action will not be to the benefit of democracy or workers. Klein’s frustration with climate change deniers and their well-funded anti-intellectual ‘sceptic’ tanks (as they are now called) is understandable. But a right that begins to act on climate change, in the midst of a rising neoliberal authoritarianism, can also further suppress workers. At the moment, climate change denial provides socialists with a window of opportunity to prepare for such an offensive. Strategies must be developed to counter a right that appears proactive on climate change. Failure to do so may someday lead socialists to long for the days when the right had their heads in the sand. •


Albo, Greg (2007). “The Limits of Eco-Localism: Scale, Strategy, Socialism” in L. Panitch and C. Leys, eds., Socialist Register: Coming to Terms with Nature (London: Merlin).

Biehl, Janet and Peter Staudenmaier (1995). Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience (Edinburgh: AK Press).

Gough, Ian (2010). “Economic crisis, climate change and the future of welfare states,” 21st Century Society, 5: 1.

Klein, Naomi (2011). “Climate vs Capitalism,” The Nation, November.

MacKinnon, Hanah (2011). “Climate Action Network Canada responds to outcome of UN climate talks in Durban,” Climate Change Action Network, December 11.

McCarthy, Shawn (2011). “Kent rejects climate ‘guilt payment’ to poorer countries,” The Globe and Mail, November 29.

Sharzer, Greg (2011). The Political Economy of Localism. PhD Dissertation, Toronto: York University.

Steven Tufts is an Associate Professor in Geography at York University.