North America’s heatwave hell

10 July 2021
Dave Bishop

More than a thousand people died and thousands were rushed to hospital during an unprecedented heatwave in the western US and Canada, a region already experiencing severe drought. As temperature records were smashed all up and down the Pacific coast in the last week of June, reports emerged of rolling blackouts, buckling roads, damaged wires and newly sparked wildfires.

In the city of Portland, Oregon, the high temperature on 28 June—the third straight day of all-time record breaking heat—was 46.7 degrees Celsius, blowing away the longstanding record of 41.7 set in 1965. Similar gaps between new and previous all-time record highs were seen in hundreds of towns and cities from Oregon up to the Northwest Territories of Canada.

The highest temperature of all was recorded in Lytton, British Columbia, where the heat rose to 49.4 degrees Celsius—far above the previous Canadian national record of 45. Less than a week later the entire town was burnt to the ground in a wildfire fuelled by the heat and tinder-dry conditions, a fire which generated pyrocumulonimbus clouds like those seen during the “black summer” of 2019-20 in Australia. The firestorm clouds generated dry lightning strikes that sparked new wildfires across the province.

In an article published in Yale Climate Connections on 1 July, climate scientists Bob Henson and Jeff Masters wrote, “[N]ever in the century-plus history of world weather observation have so many all-time heat records fallen by such a large margin”. “It’s not hype or exaggeration”, they argue, “to call the past week’s heatwave the most extreme in world weather records”.

As with other climate-related disasters like Australia’s bushfires, perhaps the most striking thing about this heatwave is how much the death and destruction were concentrated among workers and the poor. Shamefully, it was those without air conditioning or running water, and those who—amid an ongoing homelessness crisis—had no shelter at all, who suffered most.

Those who died or risked death were those—like the region’s army of largely migrant farm workers—forced to work through the sweltering heat, the elderly trapped at home or those living in a tent under a freeway overpass, while the rich were able to escape to the comfort of their climate-controlled mansions and office buildings.

The death of a farm worker in Oregon on the first weekend of the heatwave highlighted the dangerous conditions for workers, who were already hit hard by the pandemic and smoke from wildfires in 2020. Heat stress is a known risk for farm workers, especially on the west coast, more than 800 dying on the job since 1992.

Edgar Franks, political director of Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), a farm workers’ union in Washington state, spoke to Red Flag about the current situation, the politics involved and the demands that farm workers are making to win new protections. According to Franks, emergency reforms from Washington state Governor Jay Inslee’s office “can help, but they aren’t permanent, and he can do away with them as soon as this event is over”.

Franks and the FUJ aren’t waiting for laws negotiated between politicians and business owners to protect workers. The union, led by Indigenous Mixteco and Triqui workers, is making new demands for “water, shade, limited hours on hot days, supervisors trained to recognise heat stress, access to medical care in rural locations, and other changes that can prevent tragedies in our workplace”.

Like the FUJ in Washington, recent work by the farm workers’ union in Oregon, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), reflects the impact of compounding crises on a particularly vulnerable workforce. An existing emergency fund run by the union to support farm workers who lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic and last year’s wildfires has now been opened to those losing income due to extreme heat and drought. They have also, like the FUJ, been pushing for the state to deliver new safety rules related to heat.

The farm workers’ demands won’t be won without a fight. They directly conflict with the desire of agricultural business owners to limit damage to their profits. Instead of seeking to protect lives, the owners have pressured farm workers to speed up and harvest crops like cherries before they are spoiled in the heat. And, due to the frequently highly precarious nature of their employment—at least half of US farm workers are estimated to be undocumented immigrants—they are more likely than other workers to face intimidation and retaliation when they resist.

The heatwave has subsided for now, but the danger is far from over. Franks is concerned that fire, and the hazardous air pollution associated with it, will be next. Last year, megafires up and down the West Coast caused unprecedented levels of air pollution. Already this year, the area burnt by fires in California is greater than at the same time in 2020. Exposure to smoke from fires can be just as dangerous for workers as the extreme heat.

The increasing scarcity of water is another ongoing issue. The current drought across the west is a continuation of one that has lasted nearly two decades with varying degrees of severity and regional coverage. The decades-long rainfall deficit was a factor in the extremity of the heatwave. If there were more moisture in the soil, evaporation could have provided a cooling effect to counteract the heat. Instead, dry soil simply baked under the sun.

The impact of the drought has been made worse by the long-term misuse of the region’s water resources. For over a century, groundwater on the US west coast has been pumped out relentlessly by thirsty businesses in farming and heavy industry. Groundwater pumping was entirely unregulated in California until 2014. While there is a permit system in Oregon, it has long been abused by farm owners growing cash crops in the state’s eastern deserts, with the open complicity of political leaders.

In the battle for increasingly scarce water, business profits have trumped community needs at every point. Rights to water are bought and sold between businesses while at the same time there are entire towns where residents have been forced to rely on bottled water alone. Families of farm workers in California’s Central Valley, where more than two-thirds of America’s fruit and nuts are grown, have had to turn to community activists to provide jugs of water as their taps at home spew toxic filth. “Clean water flows toward power and money”, as water rights activist Susana De Anda told the New York Times in 2019.

Farm workers are among those most impacted by extreme weather associated with climate change. But urban workers and the poor have also been hit hard. And unsurprisingly, given the US’s racist history, it’s Black and Latino people who are on the front line.

Redlining (discriminatory policy in city planning, real estate and financial services) and other racist policies segregated neighbourhoods and limited the services available in those that were predominantly Black or Latino. Even where Black communities had become integrated in places like San Francisco’s Fillmore—once renowned as the Harlem of the west—urban development projects smashed up homes and forced many Black families across the Bay to the more industrial city of Oakland.

Freeways continue to be built through neighbourhoods in a manner that clearly targets populations with less political and economic power. According to a 2019 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Black and Latino people in America are, on average, exposed to significantly higher levels of air pollution than whites.

Certain neighbourhoods are hotter, too. The lack of public investment in historically working-class, Black and Latino neighbourhoods has led to an uneven distribution of tree cover in cities across the country. The lack of shade, along with wide expanses of exposed cement, makes these neighbourhoods significantly warmer—increasing the risk of deaths in heatwaves like the one we’ve just seen. The same issue effects working class neighbourhoods around the world, including in Australian cities like Melbourne.

It’s notable that this kind of disparity in the impacts of climate change is just as clear along the US Pacific coast—where supposedly progressive parties have a tight grip on political power—as anywhere else. Despite the lip service paid to climate and social justice by these parties, action remains limited, and inequality in the region has not only persisted but deepened over recent decades.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, recently signed a cap-and-trade climate policy into law in his state, but community activists including Franks say it will do little to stop carbon emissions or curb air pollution in their neighbourhoods. Just before the heatwave, the Biden administration announced the removal of a number of much-hyped climate measures from its proposed infrastructure spending bill.

Whether at a state or federal level, the Democrats have shown time and again they’re not interested in driving real change. Rather, just as with last year’s massive Black Lives Matter protests, their role has been to divert and coopt any movements building power from below that could pose a challenge to the pro-business (and pro-fossil fuels) status quo of US politics.

The actions being taken by organisations like the FUJ point the way forward. While Franks says he supports new government policies for climate action, he wants workers at the table when these decisions are made, and he wants them to walk in with the backing of a strong workers’ movement. Too many labour organisers, he says, are focussed on lobbying politicians instead of building class power: “We need to get back to being in contact, and that means organisers have to be on the ground”.

This approach is working. Since it formed in 2013, the FUJ has made significant gains for its members. In 2016, it won a US$15 an hour minimum wage, improved employer-provided housing and a grievance process after years of abuse from bosses. In the years since, a health plan and child care have been added to the list. Franks says the FUJ will pursue climate change-related demands in the same way it has pursued all its others: through industrial action.

The FUJ also has strong ties with groups like the Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project and Frente Indígena Oaxaqueño Binacional that organise and advocate for Indigenous communities across the western US and northern Mexico. Organisations like these support many farm workers, but also people living in cities and towns on either side of the US-Mexico border. The connections being forged here—between urban and rural labour and migrant and Indigenous workers, and in working class communities along the US Pacific coast and into Mexico—will be crucial to future struggles, whether around climate change or the many other challenges facing the region.

Like Australia’s “black summer” of 2019-20, North America’s hell under the heat dome provides a glimpse of what we’ll face if we fail to rapidly reduce emissions in the coming years. And it’s perhaps appropriate (though also tragic for those who are suffering from it) that some of the worst current impacts of climate change should be felt in a region long held up as realising the dream of a progressive capitalist utopia.

Along with the melting asphalt and power blackouts, we can see the crumbling of an image of the future—one held dear and messianically propagated by Silicon Valley billionaires and Democratic Party politicians alike, in which the magic of technology and “entrepreneurial spirit” will save the world from climate disaster. The more events like this heatwave we see, the clearer it becomes that the only people the rich and their political servants are planning to save are themselves.

The Pacific coast has, historically, also been a major site of resistance—from the Modoc War, to the 1934 waterfront strike, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the Black Panthers, the Chicano movement and more. It’s to this history of struggle, and to the organisations like the FUJ that are writing the next chapter, that our side should look for inspiration. Even in the most extreme conditions, the rich can use their resources and wealth to protect themselves. For workers and the poor, there’s no option but to resist: no-one is coming to save us except ourselves.

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