Our climate crisis is worsening, and time is running out. This much, at least, has been broadly accepted. Beyond the obvious dangers of intensified hurricanes and sea-level rise, however, lies a problem that is just as pressing, that is, in fact, the source of the crisis in the first place: human beings and the destructive ways in which our lives are organized.
The problem, in other words, is in our politics. There is growing consensus that major social changes are a necessary part of confronting climate change. Even scientists use rhetoric that could have come from revolutionary political manifestos — e.g., “transformation is required at every level of society” — and yet, the debates swirling around climate change largely presume a continuation of the political status quo. What would a more climate-friendly political structure look like? An energy democracy would be a good place to start.
The phrase “energy democracy” goes down deceptively easily, combining the imperative to transition to renewable energy with a political system that is synonymous with freedom and individual rights. But the United States is nowhere close to anything like a true energy democracy. Nearly three-quarters of Americans get energy from utilities owned by investors and run for profit. That leaves little room for either safety or justice. Investor-owned utilities, for example, helped cause wildfires in California through negligent maintenance of their power lines. They were also responsible for energy shutoffs for millions of people in Texas. Behind these dramatic episodes is the more chronic, mundane reality that these utilities regularly hike rates and exclude renewable and less dirty energy options — the costs of which are disproportionately borne by Black, brown, and Indigenous communities.
An energy democracy would wrest control of the campaign against climate change by blunt means: empowering workers.
The private sector’s control over energy is part and parcel of the control that companies exert over social life in general. In her book Private Government, the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson provocatively asked, “Why are workers subject to dictatorship?” Workplaces in much of the world are de facto “small tyrannies.” If you’re tempted to write this off as dramatic overstatement, consider that many employees are subject to warrantless drug testing and searches of their belongings. Under particularly strict tyrannies, any stray second not spent producing value is considered theft from the company. Workers in meatpacking, warehouse, and delivery services face such draconian oversight of their time and effort that some have resorted to urinating in bottles to keep up with employer demands. Walmart has spent years fighting and appealing litigation allowing workers as much as a lunch break.
The broad social control we’ve extended to corporations has infected our political institutions and their ability to regulate. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would stop enforcing environmental regulations, in what experts said was a sop to polluters. The laws on the books are not exempt, either: Corporate interests have worked to pass legislation criminalizing protest against climate injustice, preventing cities and counties from excluding fossil fuels from their energy consumption, and making corporations more difficult to sue. Corporations and moneyed interests also have their thumb on the scale of the judiciary: Organizations including the Business and Industry Political Education Committee have funneled big money into judicial elections to elect “pro-business” judges, especially in the South.
It all adds up to a grim picture: Corporate America both controls the workplace and wields enormous influence over the legal-political infrastructure that surrounds it. In 2014, the scholars Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page put it starkly: While “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy … average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” This is a political landscape dominated by a few powerful entities that stand in the way of progress on the climate crisis.
An energy democracy would require massive shifts in how we organize work and politics more generally. A “just transition” for energy workers would be a first step: providing people currently employed in polluting parts of the energy sector with comprehensive social support while the energy system phases out fossil fuels, including jobs in renewable energy where available. This idea was pioneered by workers like Tony Mazzochi of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union, who proposed a “superfund for workers.”
Workers unions are often framed as opponents of climate action and green policies. But the United Mine Workers of America, which includes thousands of members in West Virginia — a state Donald Trump won by 40 points in 2016 — publicly broke with West Virginia’s Joe Manchin over the senator’s opposition to climate legislation that would provide a path for coal workers into the renewable sector. Indeed, trade unions across the world support the transition away from fossil fuels.
As researchers at the Just Transition Listening Project note, a better, more democratic transition would “attend to local conditions” and “be rooted in the needs and aspirations of workers, unions, and disproportionately impacted communities.” The easiest way to make sure those needs are met is to put workers in charge — the essence of an energy democracy. As Shalanda Baker’s book Revolutionary Power details, an energy transition rooted in energy democracy would mean taking on the energy corporations on a large scale: replacing investor-owned utilities with publicly owned, democratically run alternatives.
Publicly owned programs can also be captured by business elites, as evidenced by the failure of the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority to break from coal. A genuine energy democracy would go further than mere public ownership. Communities must be in control, empowered financially and politically to make decisions about what kind of energy they will use. We have reason to be optimistic that many communities will vote for their children’s futures if given the opportunity. Nebraska, which is solidly Republican, is one of the few states that has genuine democratic control over its electricity, electing the leaders of the Nebraska Public Power District, the state’s largest electricity utility. This past December, that elected body voted to fully decarbonize by 2050.
The climate crisis is already here, and its impacts are accelerating. Our choice is in how to confront it, and whom to put in the driver’s seat. As the United Mine Workers of America put it: “Change is coming, whether we seek it or not.” The smart money is on people, not portfolios.