By CARLOS SAPIR
From Alabama to Tokyo, people have been reeling from the effects of a record-breaking heat wave sweeping across much of the Northern Hemisphere as it enters summer. The records set this June are a worrying precedent for the future as the global capitalist economy continues to accelerate fossil fuel extraction, with no brakes in place to protect us from intolerable heat.
Seemingly no part of the summering world has been spared from extreme heat. In the U.S., a late-spring/early-summer heat wave has brought consecutive days of temperatures over 90 degrees to 70% of the U.S. population, and over 100 degrees for 20%, with the South, Midwest, and Southwest among the most severely affected regions. Even relatively cool regions set records, with Utqiagvik, Alaska’s northernmost city, setting a new record high of 65 degrees, up two degrees from a previous record set in 2020. Records were also set in much of Europe, causing wildfires in Spain and the first tornado fatality in the Netherlands since 1992.
Asia has fared even worse: India and Pakistan have been plagued by record-breaking heat since March, and this June has broken records in Iran, Central Asia, China, and Japan as well. While it will take time for exact death tolls to be calculated, we know from past experience that temperatures above the 90s, and particularly unprecedented high temperatures, can cause thousands of deaths.
Capitalists run up the heat and workers pay the bill
Like all other problems in capitalism, those who suffer the most will be workers, and the most vulnerable among us will suffer the most. Record-breaking heat is an immediate concern for people who perform manual labor outside or in facilities lacking adequate cooling systems, as well as the homeless. It also strains the budgets of workers who cannot easily afford to cool their homes, whether due to high energy prices or due to a lack of an A/C unit or fan set up to begin with. This is a particularly pressing concern in regions that have historically been temperate. In much of California, for example, over the past decade air conditioning has gone from being a luxury to becoming a necessity as temperatures continue to climb.
Beyond the immediate health risks presented by extreme heat directly, as well as those of the fires and storms caused by extreme heat, there is the risk of poor harvests and mass crop failures. On top of the oppressive heat faced by agricultural workers in the field, extreme heat (and the unreliable storms and droughts that accompany it) can kill crops outright, putting the world’s food supply at risk. From Indiana to India, farmers have been reporting poor harvests of staple crops such as wheat, sparking what the UN is already calling a global hunger crisis.
Capitalism will not save us from climate change
With deadly heat already sweeping the globe and putting millions of lives at risk due to exposure or famine, capitalist leaders’ promises to reduce carbon emissions by 2035 or 2050 are far too little, far too late to avoid global catastrophe. From their air-conditioned high rises, the bourgeoisie will be the last people to feel the effects of climate change first-hand, and it is already clear that they intend to prioritize their profits before they consider protecting the lives of workers. Already, the paltry reduction of fossil fuel extraction in the 2010s has been reversed by the new incentives for natural gas exploration created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has produced a new ruling that further stymies efforts by the federal government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The June 30 decision sided with the fossil fuel industry in curtailing the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to order limitations on the emissions of power plants. The ruling addressed the never-implemented Clean Power Plan that had been passed in 2016 under the Obama administration but was blocked by the Supreme Court pending the outcome of suits by the coal industry and reactionary politicians.
For as long as the rate of fossil fuel extraction remains tied to an arbitrary profit calculation performed by capitalists, we will never be safe from the specter of increased environmental destruction: only a rationally-planned, worker-led, socialist economy can pave the way to a sustainable future.
Fighting environmental collapse will require mobilization at all levels: It means fighting for adequate heat-related safety accommodations at work as well as demanding the reorganization of the global economy to prioritize human wellbeing.
Some sectors of capital are using supposedly ”green” initiatives to union-bust and hurt workers in the fossil fuel and fossil-fuel-adjacent industries. However, we need to fight for our unions themselves to take the lead on moving towards a sustainable economy by calling for the nationalization of energy and transportation together with the defense of the livelihoods of workers currently engaged in fossil fuel production, ensuring that workers are not displaced, and are either provided secure, equally-well-paying union jobs in new industries or else are allowed to retire with generous pensions.
In countries like the U.S., Canada, Mexico, or Brazil, where fossil fuel extraction and other environmentally devastating developments also rely on the further theft of lands from Indigenous peoples, the most significant and militant confrontations with capital’s degradation of the environment have been led by these Indigenous peoples standing up for their own rights in addition to the well-being of the whole planet. We must join in with these efforts to both end colonial injustices and protect a livable Earth.
Photo: Staff Sergeant deVera / U.S. Air Force