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Op-Ed: Workers and Environmentalists Stand in Solidarity on Climate

We stand together for worker protections and strong climate policies because we can’t have one without the other. An injury to the planet is an injury to us all

Dan Fatton
Dan Fatton

The Trump administration has taken significant steps backward on climate policies from abandoning the Paris climate agreement to loosening emissions regulations on vehicles to removing the word “science” from the EPA’s mission statement altogether. But the science of climate change cannot be scrubbed so easily. As the effects of climate change become a reality, we can expect higher local and global temperatures and more coastal flooding, as well as more severe and frequent extreme weather. This is particularly troubling for New Jersey, when more than 7 million people live on the coast.

It’s hard to live when your home or workplace is flooded or damaged from extreme weather; if you are an hourly or low-wage worker, there’s also the very real economic impact of losing a day’s pay. While some workers are likely to feel the impact of climate change before others, we are all at risk.

Whether the Trump administration wants to believe it or not, fighting climate change and improving conditions for workers are intertwined. That’s why this Workers Memorial Day, an annual day to honor those who lost their lives on the job, suffered a workplace injury, or contracted an occupational illness, labor and environmentalists stood in solidarity with a rallying cry of “Climate justice is worker justice!” Our members understand that fighting for safe workplaces for all workers means fighting for action on climate change.

Many in the labor movement have joined the ranks of environmentalists fighting for sensible climate policy; here in New Jersey, more than 20 unions joined Jersey Renews, a coalition calling for state-based action on climate. And for good reason: While it may not seem obvious, climate change is going to have a major impact on numerous professions, and workers will suffer. In fact, the working class and poor have already felt the disastrous impacts of climate change far more aggressively than other groups.

A threat to workers outdoors and indoors

Climate change not only affects workers who spend time outdoors, like agricultural and construction workers, but also those who work in buildings with unregulated temperatures due to overburdened HVAC systems. The increase in global and local heat comes with health complications such as increased risk for heat stroke, exhaustion, muscle tissue breakdown, and even death.

In urban areas and on truck routes, air pollution is already a major issue. As temperatures rise, the impact of air pollution is magnified by even more ground-level ozone, which can increase rates of respiratory illness, heart disease, and allergies. People working on major roadways, like toll-takers, communications workers, taxi and bus drivers, and police officers, are likely to see an uptick in lung-related illnesses. Workers who already struggle with these illnesses will be more at risk of serious complications, and workers for whom this hasn’t been an issue may find themselves struggling to breathe.

Even with these risks, the EPA, under Scott Pruitt’s leadership, is moving to ease fuel efficiency standards, the first step to rolling back carbon emission regulations put in place by Obama. A move like this shows little concern for the everyday worker who is being impacted by climate change.

One of the lesser-known impacts of temperature rise is the increase of vector diseases. As we experience fewer cold winter days, the habitat for ticks and mosquitoes is expanding. Now that ticks are able to survive in areas that were previously inhospitable, illnesses like Lyme’s disease and Zika are likely to become more common. Outdoor workers like those in agriculture, landscaping, and natural resource management will need to take extra precautions.

Cleanup, rescue, and restoration

The global increase in temperature causes more extreme natural disasters like storms, floods, landslides, droughts, and wildfires, creating dangerous conditions for many workers. Those involved in cleanup, rescue, and restoration are at an increased risk. Severe weather can also impact transportation and communications, making it difficult or dangerous for many to get to work.

But even with the increased risk of catastrophic disasters, the Trump administration proposed cuts to climate and-clean energy research, and FEMA has removed climate change from its strategic plan.

New weather conditions, extreme natural disasters, and the daily uncertainty of the state of our planet can have a negative impact on mental and behavioral health. The loss of a home or business, stress from a new or worsened illness, and concern over whether the planet will be habitable for future generations can increase rates of anxiety and depression, both of which can trigger or exacerbate existing or latent mental illness.

The labor movement has stood strong for decades under the banner of “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Our organizations have recognized that it’s time we applied this slogan to the environment. For centuries, we have been injuring the earth, using resources with abandon, and ignoring the science on carbon emissions. Federal administrators are moving in the wrong direction, rolling back environmental protections that can protect workers.

This Workers Memorial Day, we stand together for both worker protections and strong climate policies because we can’t have one without the other. An injury to the planet is an injury to us all.

Dan Fatton is executive director of the NJ Work Environment Council, a coalition dedicated to safe, secure jobs and a healthy, sustainable environment, and a co-founder of Jersey Renews.

Louis Kimmel, a WEC Board member, is executive director of New Labor, a voice for immigrant workers in New Jersey.

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