Two very different developments in the last year, each affecting the lives of workers in the United States, bring home the degree to which the impacts of climate change are redefining the nature of the class struggle. The implications that flow from this development are well worth considering.
Last August, an article in the New York Times took up the question of how intensifying heat waves were leading to deteriorating working conditions and increased health and safety risks for UPS drivers and other workers. It pointed out that since 2015 hundreds of UPS and US Postal Service, FedEx, and other delivery company drivers had suffered the ill effects of heat exposure, and several drivers had died.
A little less than a year after this article appeared, while Texas was in the midst of a terrible heat wave, the state’s Governor Greg Abbott introduced a measure eliminating regulations in effect in Austin and Dallas requiring that construction workers be given 10-minute water breaks every four hours. The measure also prevented other municipalities from adopting such regulations. These are just two examples of how the impacts of climate change are shaping the lives of working class people to an increasing degree. They suggest that surviving the disastrous effects of climate change will generate entirely unanticipated challenges and call for new strategies in the struggles that lie ahead.
There is no doubt that the climate disaster will only grow more severe with time. The evidence for this dominates the headlines and, increasingly, forces itself upon our day to day lives. This year in Canada, a decades-long process of intensifying wildfires has accelerated dramatically. “Officials say Canada is experiencing an ‘unprecedented’ fire season, charring 134,000 square kilometres to date, more than six times the 10-year average.”
As great as the immediate impact of the wildfires has been on those in their immediate vicinity, the smoke they have emitted has spread across large parts of North America, imposing unhealthy conditions on tens of millions of people hundreds of miles from any fire activity.
Climate-induced extreme weather is now pervasive: we are hearing reports of monsoonal floods and severely high temperatures in China and several other Asia Pacific countries as well as of a heat wave in parts of India so severe that questions are being raised about the possibility that future episodes could “cross the survivability limit for a healthy human resting in the shade by 2050,” making it increasingly difficult to work outdoors during the day.
Scientists warn that the world is approaching several irreversible climate tipping points, which “can happen suddenly, like an on-off switch, pushing climate systems into a completely new state.”
Of course, in that case the social and economic consequences of the massive disruption will play out along deeply entrenched fault lines of inequality within and between nations.
This forces us to consider what forms of social resistance and organization will have to be taken up. There are two main fronts on which we will have to fight back. Firstly and critically, we will have to do all we can to prevent the destructive hand of capitalist interests from compounding the problem.
Carbon emissions must be reduced, harmful fossil fuel projects blocked and every possible gain must be made toward a just transition. At the same time, it is vital that we increase our capacity to respond to the impacts of the climate disaster on working conditions, economic stability and community safety and well being.
Facing climate impacts
If the present round of inflation and the cost of living crisis it has generated can be traced to post-pandemic ‘supply shocks,’ the effects of climate change will usher in considerably greater levels of economic instability. Millions of workers are going to face heat waves with devastating health and safety implications. Storms, floods and fires will create immediate danger but also considerable damage and dislocation.
The degradation of the environment will bring with it slumps and cost of living crises on a scale far greater than resulted from the spread of COVID.
In all of these situations, effective responses will be massively undermined by the weakening of public services and social infrastructure that has occurred during the long neoliberal decades. The deterioration of public health care is of particular significance in this regard. We had a foretaste of this during the pandemic but an inability to meet the health care needs of communities dealing with chronic and acute climate impacts would be even more serious.
The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) has initiated a campaign for effective responses to climate-induced workplace heat. In a very modest way, this points to a need for unions and social movements to refocus in response to the specific challenges posed by the climate crisis. As this increasingly affects workplace conditions, employers and governments must be confronted with demands for measures that offer workers the protections they will need. Just as special programs of income support were reluctantly provided during the pandemic, we must fight for considerably better initiatives to meet the needs of those who face temporary workplace closures or outright job loss due to the impact of climate change.
When BC experienced devastating floods in 2021, there was clearly very little in place to meet the urgent needs of communities that were hit by them. The failings of the BC government were hardly exceptional. Even in wealthy countries, there is scant preparation for climate emergencies.
A report in the Japan Times details how increasingly severe and frequent heat waves are having a lethal effect on older people. During one extreme heat episode in Tokyo, “those 65 or over made up 90% of all such deaths, and 90% of them died indoors.” Effective measures to ensure that tragedies of this kind simply won’t be introduced without social action to compel action on the part of governments.
Tellingly, as the recent wildfire disaster plays out in Hawaii, “[l]ocal and federal authorities are being criticized for failed alarm systems, lacking communication, and lagging relief efforts as the death toll is projected to keep rising.” We must campaign and mobilize to ensure that emergency systems are strengthened and resources are allocated to meet the immediate and long-term needs of communities as they face the fallout of climate change.
It is also vital that we bring to climate related struggles a global perspective and active international solidarity. In the Global South, populations are far more vulnerable due to entrenched inequalities and exploitation. Heat waves and drought generate conditions that leave tens of millions of people at risk of starvation as in the case of the massive floods in Pakistan.
For the impoverished countries of the world, questions of debt cancellation, the allocation of resources to survive and rebuild in the face of climate disasters and the pressing needs of growing numbers of climate refugees will take on ever greater importance. World leaders will gather and issue pious declarations, but only mass action on an international scale will make a difference.
To an ever greater degree and in ways we can’t yet fully appreciate, the unfolding climate disaster is transforming the class struggle and posing massive challenges in the process. In our unions and communities, we need to take stock of these developments, set new goals and develop strategies that reflect the harsh reality that we are now in a struggle for survival.
John Clarke is a writer and retired organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP).