October 18, 2021

Climate Change, Work and the Economy

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

One of the outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic is that more people are now working from home, some permanently. While the initial purpose of working from home was to avoid the spread of infection, it also may have some environmental benefits too.

At my university, there is a big push towards sustainability and there is now even a Chief Sustainability Officer working with the president. In addition to liquidating fossil fuel investments, the university has been encouraging alternative means of transportation and telecommuting when possible. So far this semester, aside from in-person classes, all of my meetings have been video conferences, and the decision of several people in leadership positions has been to keep this going even after the threat of COVID-19 ends. This has saved me hours of Los Angeles’s infamous traffic.

A recent Pew Research Center report found that 80 percent of those surveyed in economically advanced countries indicated that they were willing to change the way they live and work to help reduce climate change. In the U.S., 74 percent said they were willing to make some or a lot of changes; more than four of the seventeen countries polled, but less than twelve other nation’s survey respondents.

Whether people are willing to make changes or not, work is likely to change. The International Labour Organization (ILO) predicts that labor markets will be impacted by extreme weather events, particularly in agriculture.

Urban areas are at risk too. The ILO notes that transportation can be affected by weather events as well, and critical infrastructure could be damaged that will prevent the delivery of goods and services. A recent NPR story discussed a report which concluded that more than 2 million miles of roads are at risk for floods, and that “floods could shut down a quarter of critical buildings and facilities, including airports, hospitals, government buildings, houses of worship, museums and schools.”

The ILO mentions extreme heat as a factor likely to hit the working poor especially hard. The Los Angeles Times recently ran a series of stories about heat-related illnesses and deaths in the state, noting that they are likely seriously undercounted. One article notes that, “each year, extreme heat kills more Americans than any other climate-fueled hazard, including hurricanes, floods and wildfires, but it gets far less attention because it kills so quietly.”

This is especially challenging for people whose jobs expose them to extreme heat. The Los Angeles Times story notes that:

Seventy-three-year-old Jorge Valerio-Santiago went to work on Aug. 20 digging cable trenches at a mobile home park outside Desert Hot Springs [where August average highs are 104 degrees] in Riverside County. After several hours, he began to feel ill and returned home to a trailer that lacked air conditioning. His nephew found him that evening, lying still in the dirt driveway where he had gone into cardiac arrest. The paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene.

The newspaper also investigated high temperatures in warehouses and fulfillment centers, a growing industry also typically located within southern California’s lower-cost deserts, where average temperatures in the summer hover near 100 degrees. The story focuses mainly on a Rite-Aid warehouse:

When Rite Aid Corp. decided to build a giant warehouse to serve its Southern California stores in 1999, it chose an isolated stretch of the Mojave Desert where the air vibrates with heat in the summer.

The land was cheap. The freeway was nearby. But during summers, the workers are boiling inside the mostly non-air-conditioned warehouse.

They say their leg muscles cramp and their hearts race. They sweat through their clothes. Made sluggish by the heat, they struggle to pull products at the pace the company sets, incurring demerits that threaten their jobs. In interviews with the Los Angeles Times, Rite Aid workers said at least three employees fell ill with heat exhaustion in June, when an unusually severe heat wave descended on Southern California. Two became so dehydrated that they needed IV bags of saline solution to replenish lost fluids….

According to data provided by the research firm CoStar Group, since 2010 more than 400 new warehouses, each over 100,000 square feet, have been built in the Inland Empire, where triple-digit summertime temperatures are normal. Today, about 10% of all warehouses in the United States are located in this part of Southern California.

Concerns about rising temperatures are not new; one report from 2010 stresses the importance of protecting the health of workers. For those without paid time off or affordable health care, going to work on a hot day is a gamble they often can’t afford not to take.

It’s not just heat that can impact the economy; supply chains may be affected too, as we are seeing now. While much of the supply chain problems are related to the increase in demand for goods and the shortage of labor following the pandemic, energy issues are part of the problem. As Bloomberg News reported:

Global energy networks seemed to be working OK a year ago, but as recovery has proceeded the supply of natural gas has not been sufficient to meet the new demand. Gas production and exploration were turned down in the earlier stages of the pandemic, and the recovery has been stronger and more rapid than the energy sector had anticipated. In the U.K., natural gas prices have surged 700% over the last year, while Europe faces the risk of not having enough energy supplies for the coming winter.

I can actually see the backlog of goods from my neighborhood; if you glimpse at the coast of southern California from just about any angle, you see idle cargo ships in the distance, waiting for room to dock and unload their containers, which then are transported to fulfillment centers like the ones noted above before being taken to various points in the country by big rigs. Limited supplies of goods can mean rising prices as well as raw material shortages that make it difficult for businesses to manufacture and sell their products. Factor in rising sea levels and the ongoing potential disruptions to shipping in the future, and these kinds of shortages might become common.

While respondents in the Pew study noted above often reported feeling powerless to effect real change, change may happen whether we are willing to do something or not. Unfortunately, the impact is likely to hit those with the least control over their jobs the most. While people like me might enjoy more days of telecommuting, this is not an option for people for whom climate change presents the biggest risks, like workers who are exposed to extreme heat on a regular basis.

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