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Countries’ Paltry Climate Pledges Will Let the International Working Class Burn

The elevated risks from delaying structural change could mean no transition at all — and a pathway to catastrophe.

Construction workers are at work as they build the new tramway lane in Barcelona on July 18, 2023. Spain issued hot weather red alerts for three regions due to the "extreme" danger posed by scorching temperatures as firefighters made gains in their battle against a blaze raging in the Canary Islands.

In recent years, several countries have made updates to their nonbinding emission reduction plans as part of the Paris Agreement. These Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) state how each country intends to reach its goals by 2025 and 2030.

This decade is deemed by scientists to be crucial for our plans to halt global warming and stay below a 2.0ºC (2 degrees Celsius) warming increase — or 1.5ºC if you are more optimistic — in order to stave off the worst climate scenarios. The Climate Action Tracker argues that, based on 2030 NDC targets only, we are likely to reach a 2.4ºC or even a 2.9ºC global temperature increase by the year 2100. To make matters worse, NDC adaptation targets are not mandatory, so it is hard to gauge the level of action each country will take. With every delay, mitigation and broader transition projects will become less feasible, transition will get more expensive, and we will come closer to crossing dangerous thresholds that will lead to unimaginable loss and damage in an increasingly unpredictable and risky world.

Despite major world powers acknowledging climate change and the bulk of the science behind it, the pace of mitigation and adaptation action varies widely. Transitioning away from sources of greenhouse gasses in a way that fosters social and economic justice requires a great deal of coordination and planning across ecology, economics and society. It is now clear that the elevated risks from delaying structural change could mean no transition at all — and a pathway to certain catastrophe.

Climate Crisis Is Already Here

Direct effects of climate change are no longer mere predictions. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) recently issued a striking update: There is a 98 percent likelihood that the next five years will be the warmest on record. Among the impacts of rising heat are food insecurity, health hazards, water scarcity and a variety of environmental issues. Although the increase in yearly temperature will be felt globally, it will not be felt equally.

At this point, when most people and even most corporations acknowledge the reality of climate change, one would think that such knowledge could mobilize the kind of radical action necessary to prevent further damage and death. But intense heat is experienced very differently when one has access to air conditioning and can afford marginal increases to one’s power utility bill. Food insecurity is less of a problem for those who are used to purchasing mangoes from a very distant country in the middle of winter than for the workers who are underpaid to grow and harvest fruit for export in the Global South.

Although climate change is a global problem in need of global solutions, change is slow because solutions and mediations are either sold in neoliberal packages — in which individuals must change and adapt of their own accord — or through chauvinistic and nationalist interests that isolate commitments in national boxes, reducing cooperation to funding schemes.

The elevated risks from delaying structural change could mean no transition at all — and a pathway to certain catastrophe.

Adaptation is a crucial part of an internationalist just transition effort. Wealthier countries are better positioned to adapt to the impacts of the climate crisis through their own development policies and more equipped to handle domestic loss and damage through internal finances and relief networks. This is why particular funds were set up through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to ensure better support for vulnerable nations that cannot self-finance their way out of the crisis. The Green Climate Fund (GCF) is the most well-known, due to its pledge to mobilize $100 billion per year — roughly 0.4 percent of U.S. GDP — by 2025. However, not only did wealthy countries fail to reach this amount per year by 2020 (the original deadline), still today, 42 percent of the GCF’s portfolio is comprised of loans, and only 38 percent of the resources are allocated to adaptation projects. The inefficacy of the current global green finance system is such that funding is still underwhelming and, when obtained, may actually add to the indebtedness of the public and private sectors in the 128 countries included in the GCF portfolio. This is especially worrisome for the “Least Developed Countries” in Latin America, Africa and the Asia-Pacific regions, whose capacity to adapt is hurt both by poverty and inequality.

Without investment in cooling centers, climate-efficient housing and adequate shelter, reliable access to water and steady renewable energy infrastructure, the increasing heat waves will hit the poorest the hardest. In fact, even before the current update, the poorest population was already likely to suffer disproportionately by 2030: the lowest-income quarter of the global population will suffer roughly 44 percent of the exposure to heat waves.

A Green Paradigm for Workers’ Rights

Adaptation to record-high temperatures requires more than investment in infrastructure. It also requires workers’ rights. To build transition programs that work worldwide, we must free up capacity. When it comes to funding, the demand to cancel external debt helps poorer and emergent countries to gain autonomy to fight climate change. When it comes to labor, more safeguards and changes in how we work can protect our health and prioritize systems of life and resilience for when disaster approaches.

To adapt to climate change, we also need to adapt the workers’ rights paradigm. The International Labour Organization (ILO) stresses that, for millions of workers, there is such a thing as a day too hot to work. Increasingly hot days threaten workers and cause more losses in productivity in poorer and emergent economies, making just transition initiatives even more difficult to fund. After all, if we are to integrate cities with more trains rather than aviation, this will require workers around the world to be outdoors during construction. Heat affects the quality of many of the green jobs which must be created, but also the viability of other jobs that are important to a more ecological society — yet this factor is currently less visible in green job programs that focus on employment in the renewable energy sector.

The lowest-income quarter of the global population will suffer roughly 44 percent of the exposure to heat waves.

Recycling workers are essential for waste management in all industrial sectors, including food packaging and e-waste. Around 15 to 20 million of these workers belong to the informal economy, as waste pickers who spend their days outdoors, on foot or dependent on animals, and who face growing health risks over the next five years. Their vulnerability — as is the case for so many others in Global South informal sectors — intersects with race and citizenship status, and women, children and the elderly often labor in strenuous and unsafe working conditions. Heat will affect them very differently from office workers in the air-conditioned buildings of the major cities.

News of deteriorating climate conditions must inform a labor politics that connects workers worldwide — beyond the already unionized sectors in the formal economy in wealthier countries — through an internationalist platform that calls for protections for workers with disabilities and chronic illnesses, stronger laws against child labor, the right to retire with dignity, and decent work for migrant workers, including those who arrive fleeing climate collapse in their countries of origin. This includes acknowledging the hyper-exploitation of workers in the Global South in fields such as mining, where labor is being used to electrify the capitalist grid in richer societies rather than transform how we approach energy demand and the global mode of production. If these considerations are in place before conditions worsen, we will be more prepared to handle the risks to come and those not yet estimated.

Adaptation is a crucial part of an internationalist just transition effort.

Experiments in shortening the work week as a way to move toward a low-carbon economy should also be encouraged as a tool for dealing with the heat. A population with more free time is able to enjoy lakes and parks, go to the beach, and cool off collectively without added stress from laboring on especially hot days. Time off when heat strikes should not be a privilege for the few, but a right for the many that pushes us in the direction of a more sustainable and freer society.

Unpredictable climate crisis is already a fact, but the earlier we adapt the more resilient we will be. Transition that only focuses on investments in specific mitigation and adaptation projects rather than systemic transformation is no transition at all. The type of transversal politics needed to do away with the old ways and usher in the conditions for sustainable life, preventing the worst of the climate crisis, requires mass mobilization by workers and the most vulnerable. But one must be alive in order to mobilize and organize. The same way a house’s cooling system can be upgraded to face the hottest days of the decades, as workers our bodies also need rest, health and autonomy to withstand the heat. We must change our paradigm and fight for workers’ rights worldwide, before we are forced into acting when it is already too hot and too late.

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