Heat waves bake the world: Workers don’t have to bear the brunt

Tina Landis is the author of the book Climate Solutions Beyond Capitalism.

Over the last two weeks, the majority of the world has been under excessive heat warnings, with over one third of the entire U.S. population — or 124 million people — being subjected to dangerously high levels of heat. As temperatures soar as high as 115ºF, breaking local records across the southern United States, government inaction means that the working class bears the brunt.

This heat wave comes after a heat dome sat over Texas and northern Mexico for weeks, trapping hot ocean air in a high pressure zone of the atmosphere — now moving north and east into more than 12 states over this past week. Simultaneously, more than 120 million people were affected by the smoke impacts from Canadian wildfires.

Some states across the South have had heat indexes over 90º F for over a week, even during the night, while Florida reached 110º F on the heat index with coastal water temperatures reaching 90º F, creating deadly conditions for humans and marine life.

Most severely impacting states along the Gulf Coast, this uncommonly high heat is paired with high humidity, making this especially dangerous. In high humidity, it is harder for sweat to evaporate, which is how sweating cools you off — meaning that people are much more likely to suffer heat-related illness during extreme heat.. 

This vicious heat is already having deadly consequences, with 13 people confirmed dead  from the heat in Texas and two in Louisiana, but these confirmed numbers are likely drastically lower than the truth, according to the CDC, due to regular misdiagnosis of heat-related illness and lack of reporting. Prisoners in facilities without air conditioning have no escape from the deadly conditions, with nine prisoners dying in Texas during the recent heat wave. 

Nearly 1,500 people are killed each year from extreme heat in the United States, and homeless people make up nearly half of those deaths. 

More than 356,000 people died from extreme heat in 2019 in just nine countries with many more cases unreported. Heat waves are now impacting areas of the globe that previously had not experienced dangerously high temperatures and are unequipped to cope, such as the 2003 heat wave in Europe that resulted in the death of 70,000 people. 

Climate change should be seen as class war. The working class and poor of the world are impacted to a far greater degree than the wealthy, who can afford to escape its impacts. Many workers have no choice but to go to work outdoors or have no access to air conditioned spaces during these dangerous conditions, which drives the death toll despite that society — particularly in the Global North — has the resources to protect everyone. 

Extreme weather events unfold around the globe

It’s not only the southern United States that is experiencing extreme heat; the climate is unraveling globally. Heat waves are rocking India, China and Italy, and Spain is experiencing its second ever named heat wave. July 3 was the hottest day ever recorded on Earth, until July 4 broke the record again. June was the hottest June on record and July is expected to be the hottest July globally. The last eight years have been the hottest years on record with 2016 being the hottest, which was a powerful El Niño year. 

The current El Niño cycle, which is just beginning, brings warmer ocean surface temperatures and is being supercharged by the already-heightened temperatures caused by climate change. The extra energy absorbed by the oceans is fueling the ramp up of more extreme weather events. As the atmosphere warms, the jet stream is also becoming destabilized, causing high and low pressure to stall out for extended periods over regions — meaning prolonged heat waves and drought in some areas and heavy rains and flooding in others. . 

None of this is a surprise. Scientists have been warning the world for decades of the impacts that would come from climate change, yet little action has been taken, particularly by the wealthiest countries with the most resources. 

What can be done

During high heat conditions, where even night or shade does not bring relief, access to air conditioning can mean the difference between life or death. Immediate measures could be taken to minimize the impact of heat waves, such as having 24-hour cooling centers in every neighborhood and providing assistance to get to these centers. Utility companies could be prevented from shutting off people’s utilities during extreme weather events. All buildings could be retrofitted with cool roofs or green roofs and urban areas “greened” with trees and other native vegetation to reduce the urban heat island effect. 

Guaranteed wages could be provided for outdoor workers, who currently are forced out of economic hardship and by their bosses to work despite extreme weather. 

Globally, reforestation and ecological restoration programs could be implemented, which would capture carbon, cool air temperatures and improve biodiversity and climate resilience. Industrial agriculture could shift to regenerative organic methods which would greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from this sector. 

And a rapid shift to wind and solar energy production — now the lowest cost form of energy and most rapid to deploy —  would end fossil fuel emissions that contribute significantly to global heating. 

Time and again we see the inability of capitalism — which requires endless growth and maximization of profits — to address climate change and care for the wellbeing of the people. Only a socialist system that puts people and the planet before anything can save us from an existential threat.  Without a socialist planned economy that puts the resources of society into the hands of the worker-led government, we will continue on this trajectory toward increasing suffering and hardship for our class. Which is why it is crucial that we continue to organize and build the movement for socialism so we can transform how humanity lives on this planet. It is our only hope and a future worth fighting for. 

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