Has the working class been excluded from the climate change debate?


The debate around climate change is limited to certain sectors of society. We can only claim true progress when the conversation becomes more inclusive, argues Dr Chris Shaw.

The working class has been written out of the climate change debate in the UK. For all the talk of social justice and a fairer world, decisions over what to do about climate change remain firmly the preserve of the best educated and most privileged sectors of society. But without a more inclusive debate our chances of building an effective response to climate change remain slim.

Let me give you an example of this class divide. I remember joining the climate camp protest at Heathrow in 2007. It was an inspiring event, organised along truly anarchist principles. The protest was organised, run and attended by the kind of anarchists who had the sort of comfortable lifestyles worth rebelling against. Consequently, the undercover police who infiltrated the protest struggled to stay undercover because they were virtually the only working class people in attendance. And there were a lot of police there, both inside and outside the camp – a police cordon, a phalange of floodlights surrounding the camp and police helicopters flying overhead night and day. There were also large numbers of journalists present, and the protest was headline news across the UK media for the whole week.

Now, in case you aren’t aware, Heathrow is surrounded by the kinds of housing estates the anarchists in the camp would not find familiar. Anyway, I was sat by the entrance to the site being occupied when I noticed a young man who stood out by virtue of his dress, accent and demeanour – he has obviously wandered into the camp from one of the surrounding housing estates. He was on the phone to someone, telling them to come over. Around 15 minutes later his shell-suited friend came onto the site, walks up to his friend while looking around in wonder and says, “what is this, a fucking circus?”

I mean, this is a huge media event, right on this guy’s doorstep. It’s been there for days and he is completely oblivious to what it is about. There is an obvious chasm of understanding and engagement between the classes. If we can explain it, perhaps we can bridge the divide.

Cultural apocalypse?

The philosopher Groys reflects that fear of nuclear war is not simply fear of death – we, as individuals, are going to die anyway, nuclear war or not. Rather what is feared is the destruction of ‘museums, libraries, and all depositories of created works,

everything written, painted and so on, in which the intellectuals of today, not believing in any transcendence, seek social and historical immortalitywithintheworld.’Itisthelossofallthiswhichthreatens the secular intellectual’s immortality, the end of a society that can sustain a process of cultural production which embodies middle class conceptions of what we mean when we talk about civilisation.

The middle class are the ones who, by going to the museums, reading the books and visiting the theatres, give legitimacy to these works, and who are the carriers of the creator’s immortality. Their own identity as middle class is inextricably tied up with their cultural choices. It does not take a great leap of the imagination to substitute fear of the nuclear apocalypse with fear of catastrophic climate change. Our ability to produce and sustain a middle class culture might well be at stake if some of the climate change projections were to come true. But what have the working class got to fear from such a calamity? They have no presence in the cultural mausoleums of our age; there is no immortality for them, and no apocalypse. The most they can hope for is to have their name on a small brass plaque fixed to a bench in a park. So it is this very construction of what is at stake from an issue such as climate change, what it is deemed worth preserving, that excludes the working class.

Therefore, if we want to build broad and inclusive support for climate policy then that policy has got to be something more than simply the promise of a continuance of the status quo. Goebbels thought propaganda important at a time of war because, after all, what has the working class got to fight for? The very best outcome on offer is that they won’t die, and will be able to return at the war’s end to the same life of drudgery and poverty uninjured.

And so it is for climate change – what has the worker got to gain from giving up their holiday’s abroad, or taking the bus to work instead of driving? A future of low pay and boring work? No, that simply won’t do.

We have to find a vision all of us feel is worth fighting for. I am not going to suggest what that vision should be. What I am going to suggest is that we need to build a national conversation about our future under climate change, what it is we feel worth preserving and fighting for. And when I say ‘we’, I don’t just mean members of the Green Party. If we can at least accept that everyone should have a say in this debate, then maybe then, and only then, can we start moving in the right direction.

More from Chris Shaw:



Photo Credit: ~lzee~bleu~not~really~all~here~ from Flickr



  1. Chris, very interesting as ever. Reflections from the Heathrow protest are fascinating! I broadly agree with the piece, but two small observations.

    1. Re the comparison of climate change to nuclear war. Without wanting to get into a discussion re science, it seems to me that a catastrophic ‘tipping point’ (flipping point?) in nuclear war is probably more likely than it is in climate change. I’m not saying it won’t happen in climate change, but it might well be a steady (but no less significant) change. The point here is that I think part of the fear of nuclear war is the tipping point factor. One day all is normal, the next total destruction. (I’d note that part of the assumption that this would be the case is based on humans’ presumed/assumed idiocy around MAD!)

    2. I’m presuming you were not intentional in channeling Tony Blair in your call for a ‘national conversation’ 😉 Seriously, this is the point at which so many analyses of the democracy and politics of climate change fall a little short (myself included). What would such a conversation look like? Do you mean something structured and large-scale which would probably have some heavyweight institutional support around it? I attended a DECC My2050 roadshow event where the audience discussed pathways to 80% emissions reductions. Great, well attended event but I know a fair few of the people there were local wonks. Will a conversation inevitably have to be channeled through the big political parties? In which case perhaps Corbyn can put lever open the X-party climate consensus… Any wisdom welcome!

    • I agree about the nuclear war comparison. It is more a question of what it is climate policy is trying to preserve, who has a stake in the future being imagined? Go without holidays abroad to keep the world safe so I can carry on working in menial, poorly paid work?

      And 2. yes agreed again. I would love to catch up with you on some work I just completed and which we are launching here http://climateoutreach.org/events/public-engagement-on-the-road-to-paris-and-beyond/ We launch the report on 12th November, but some fascinating stuff.

      Thing is with blog posts etc there is a need to build a narrative arc which is very different from the question posing work of academic research.