Climate crisis in Europe: here we walk on a spark
Temperatures in Paris hit over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) on Tuesday in the second heatwave in a month, rivaling historic highs from the 2003 French heat wave, in another sign of worsening climate catastrophe.
Temperatures are rising everywhere, and this recent heat wave is not specific to France, with record high temperatures elsewhere in Western Europe, such as the Netherlands, Ireland, UK, Belgium, Germany , Portugal and Spain, which paid the price. of this most recent hotspell. Records have already been broken this year: Dublin reached its highest temperature since 1887, The world declared last May the hottest month in French history, with several French cities having since recorded record high temperatures, and now the UK has exceeded 40 degrees Celsius for the first time, beating its previous record of 2019 of at least 1.5 degrees, with temperatures expected to rise. Yet there are more things in the sky and on the earth than mere meteorology dreams of.
A shocking though unsurprising consequence of the heat wave is the proliferation of fires. Several intense fires have sprung up in Greece, Portugal and Spain, destroying a total of 200,000 hectares (nearly 500,000 acres) in their wake. Yet while these regions are used to regular fires (but not to this extent), the fires in France over the past weekend have been unprecedented, forcing more than 30,000 people to flee their homes and consuming nearly 20 000 hectares (49,000 acres) of forest and land. , with the worst of the blazes centered in the Gironde region, home to the city of Bordeaux, which was blanketed in a thick blanket of smoke on Tuesday morning. The burning smell and the haze made their way to Paris by evening. These fires, of course, have devastating effects on local ecosystems, worsening drought conditions that were already on the rise, and the heatwave may even reduce agribusiness profits, as temperatures become too hot for production. constant corn production, as well as the production of other basic necessities, a worrying sign in the context of already high inflation of basic products.
If previous heat waves of similar proportions are any indicator of what lies ahead as new reports come in, we can expect grim results: 70,000 people died across Europe in the 2003 heatwave , including 19,000 in France alone. Spain has already reported more than 1,000 deaths in recent days due to excessive heat. Many European cities are ill-prepared for such temperatures, leading to a higher risk indoors, certainly for senior citizens, but especially for people of lower socio-economic status. In a city like Paris, where housing and public transport rarely have air conditioning, most of those who died in 2003 lived alone, often in one-room apartments, and a third lived on the top floor. Those who work are also disproportionately affected: accidents at work increase by a percentage for each additional degree Celsius above average temperatures as a general rule, with a 17% increase during heat waves. And bosses have no incentive to stop the workflow.
Clément, a railroad worker at the SNCF, recently told Révolution Permanente about the “extreme temperatures during the summer in the TGV trains with the sun beating down on the framework; when you walk in it can be up to 70-80 degrees Celsius (158-176 degrees Fahrenheit). If this has always been the case, it is also true that with these heat waves, it is getting worse and worse. There are, in fact, no legal limits on the ability of bosses to force their employees to work in extreme temperatures, only recommendations. Gaëtan Gracia, aeronautical worker and CGT trade unionist in Toulouse, even describes the management forbidding its workers to roll up their work pants. In short, workers and the most precarious are on the front line when the externalities of big business ravage our planet.
It is not just the weather that is to blame for the unnecessary deaths, but also the inability of the capitalist system to build the infrastructure to deal with its own consequences. French hospitals were ill-prepared for the influx of patients in 2003, and subsequent budget cuts in the health sector after successive neoliberal governments only caused more pressure among health workers, already exhausted by the global pandemic and crushed by stagnating wages and unprecedented inflation. But, surely, there were robust measures put in place after 2003? Emergency room visits increase 2.5 times during heat waves, so have hospitals been beefed up to meet the needs of the most vulnerable by hiring more staff and providing more resources? Nope! Instead, the protocols included more water bottles, ventilation, and modified schedules. Oh, and they closed 120 emergency rooms and got rid of over 60,000 hospital beds.
While the Minister of Health, François Braun, maintains that “we must learn to live with it” (“these” are extreme heat waves that are more and more severe and frequent), this is exactly the kind of inaction climate change and pro-business policies favored by Macron. which worsened global temperatures and then failed to create the conditions for the mass of the population to reasonably “live with”. A study by Greenpeace and Oxfam recently revealed that 63 French billionaires have an annual carbon footprint of 152 million tons of CO2, equivalent to the carbon footprint of almost half of the French population. Yet, as we have seen with the Yellow Vest movement, the only policies to tackle carbon emissions are routinely done on the backs of working people. How did the French government choose to help us “live with”? Underfunded public health care, indecent and unlivable housing, and continued productivity regardless of mortal danger remain the order of the day. Braun’s message is clear: do it yourself.
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That message from Braun is why our message needs to be just as clear: it’s up to us. The recent heat wave comes after increased militancy by the international working class, particularly in Europe where workers are reacting to the inflation crisis. A week earlier, Germany had seen dockworkers in Hamburg stage a massive, unprecedented and illegal 48-hour strike over wages, violently attacked by the police. Slogans and interviews during the action went beyond demanding a simple pay rise, suggesting actions to stop arms shipments to Ukraine. This not only signals a rise in militancy, but also a shift in consciousness beyond bread-and-butter demands. France is also witnessing a “workers’ awakening” with small-scale strikes in sectors which have never or rarely experienced this level of activism, from cosmetics to education, but in particular in sectors intimately affected by the heat wave. . This includes strikes by hospital workers last month demanding more resources and hiring, as well as in aerospace, where after workers discovered the boss’s horses had better air conditioning than workers, they been able to press for better terms.
Yet more is needed, as Spanish workers proved this week. Much like Greece, which experiences fires every year and yet cut its fire prevention budget in 2011, the Spanish state has proven woefully incompetent in the face of recurrent and growing fires. Community members therefore decided to collectively organize to protest the weak response and blame it on the policies that allowed this to happen, including the proliferation of monocultures. They were supported by the UGT union which denounced the short-term solutions proposed by the local government. The level of organization was impressive despite the fact that they were mainly connected through ad hoc WhatsApp groups, where they were able to “create structures, elect representatives and align on topics”. If this form of participatory democracy touched the heart of the workers’ movement, we could see the demands become widespread and the power multiply in such a way that a radical movement could conceivably win their demands and go all the way.
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It was foreseeable that the temperatures would rise to such heights, and preparations could have been made, yet the state continues to refuse to compromise on its priorities with the bosses who largely profit from this state of affairs. This is why we need a worker-led climate strategy. French firefighters, 85% of whom went on strike two years ago, had already called on presidential candidates to support modernization of equipment and increased staff, but their calls fell on the ears of a deaf (the Macron government spent 57 million euros on 90 military-grade armored vehicles for police use this week as firefighters struggled to contain the blazes with their 21 Canadair fire planes, which did not have not been modernized for 24 years). Other workers also know what it takes to deal with the growing crises that capital has wrought on the earth and its inhabitants. Only a revolutionary workers’ strategy will allow us to carry out a significant, global and radical ecological transition out of this catastrophe.