“What do you mean, why am I working in this heat?” If I don’t work, we’ll die of starvation.”
This is how Shiv Kumar Mandal, a rickshaw driver in Delhi, explained why he continues to carry passengers during the horrific and prolonged temperature rise that experts attribute to global warming.
One supposes that Mandal does not regard planetary warming as a topic relevant only to the wealthy.
However, in the wake of the Australian federal election, we hear versions of this claim over and over again.
Think of how liberal Senator Holly Hughes—one of the coalition’s senior spokespersons, no less—recently described warming as “almost a welfare issue.”
Likewise, Kellett editor Claire Lehman says those who advocate renewable energy do so primarily to signal their own wealth, while Spectator’s Rebecca Weiser judges the poll as a victory for “green, quiet, rent-seeking elites” (whom she described that they “were immeasurably aided by an educational system indoctrinating children and youth, from kindergarten to university, in the cult of climate catastrophe, and legitimizing “climate strikes” during school hours, which are openly attended by the Green Party and the Socialist Alliance.”).
Meanwhile, Lillian Andrews goes so far as to claim that the election reveals that the Liberals have “become the new party of the common people”, with their climactic stance renewing “what were once core values of the Labor Party to protect the working class and stand up for their rights”.
Well, it’s good to have an imagination.
In the real world, anyone interested in the actual working class understands that global warming, always and everywhere, hurts the downtrodden and the poor.
The horrific Indian heat wave means that temperatures in Delhi have exceeded 42 degrees Celsius for 25 days since the start of summer. Yet millions of workers still toil outside, simply because, like Mandal, they can’t stay out of the sun.
Under the unbearable circumstances, they all suffer – and some die.
“It’s not just fatigue or discomfort,” says Avikal Somvanshi of the Urban Laboratory at the Center for Science and Environment. “It’s actually killing people.”
The same distinction is made between the rich, who can protect themselves from global warming, and the poor, who cannot, in the developed world.
With a heat wave sweeping the United States, authorities have urged one hundred million Americans to stay indoors.
Alexia Gonzalez works for Instacart. Her employers may sit in air-conditioned comfort but she certainly can’t.
“It’s very hot at work, but this is the time when people want deliveries,” she told the Guardian.
Across the planet, rising temperatures mean densely populated areas are becoming “urban heat islands,” as concrete landscapes populated by working-class families absorb the sun and then heat the air.
By combining satellite measurements with census data, University of North Carolina researcher Angel Hsu has shown how heat correlates with poverty and race. Shockingly, almost everywhere in America, communities of color tolerate temperatures a degree higher on average than those faced by non-Hispanic white people.
Similar factors control the population’s vulnerability to the climate crisis in Australia, where, for example, western Sydney warms an astonishing 8-10 degrees during heat waves compared to eastern parts of the city.
It’s not just a matter of temperatures either.
We know that pumping carbon into the atmosphere means more fires and more floods – and we know who will bear the brunt of the well-predicted disasters that will follow.
“The most socially and economically disadvantaged communities took a disproportionate risk in the black summer compared to the relatively advantaged,” say researchers looking at wildfires in 2019-2020.
Likewise, the floods of 2022 hardest hit by poor households, who were more likely to live in more dangerous areas and less likely to be covered by insurance.
In other words, if you’re not battling global warming, you don’t care about the working class, no matter how many times you go to Sky News to make rhetorical outrage against “awakened elites.”
Given what’s at stake for ordinary people, we might wonder why environmental protection has not been so unequivocally linked to combatants that green can be declared the new red.
Part of the answer lies in how many of the climate “solutions” espoused by mainstream politicians come directly from the neoliberal toolkit. Decades of philosophical dominance by right-wing economists has meant that, since the 1990s, the hypothetical response to global warming has centered on market mechanisms similar to those that have turned “reform” into a dirty word for everyone outside the political class. When policy makers are excited about emissions trading and other free market systems, they are to many ordinary people like the minds who have “fixed” public utilities, industrial relations, social welfare and education on the ground.
Labor’s long association with neoliberalism equally helps explain the continued drift of rusty voters away from both major parties.
But acknowledging this disappointment does not mean espousing illusions about liberals in some way to establish themselves as a proletarian choice.
It is wrong, for example, to see the election result as showing progressivism as “politics of the rich” and conservatism as “politics of militants”. Conversely, in his careful analysis of voting trends, data scientist Sean Ratcliffe demonstrates that despite tournament success, Liberals remain largely the party of privilege. He says: “[Mostly correct, affluent and established voters are more likely to vote for the coalition, and Australians with generally low incomes continued to vote for the left in 2022][I[tisstillmostlytrue”hesays”thatwell-offandestablishedvotersaremorelikelyto-incomeedgeneralto-voteforthe]2022][مازلتصحيحًافيالغالب،إنالناخبينالأثرياءوالراسخينهمأكثرعرضةللتصويتللتحالف،واستمرالأستراليونفيسنالعملمنذويالدخلالمنخفضبشكلعامفيالتصويتلصالحاليسارفيعام2022″[I[tisstillmostlytrue”hesays“thatwell-offandestablishedvotersaremorelikelytovotefortheCoalitionandlower-incomeworking-ageAustraliansgenerallycontinuedtovotefortheleftin2022”
This should come as no surprise.
Working-class voters – in Australia and around the world – are increasingly distrustful of all established parties. But that does not make them inherently conservative. The cow tends not to vote for the butcher.
Understandably, workers want reassurances that, in a low-carbon future, they will not lose out on the social gains they earned in traditional polluting industries.
But generations of unionists who earned relatively high wages in the mines will roll in their graves proposing that coal—a substance stained for a century and a half in the blood of those who mined it—was instinctively beneficial to the working class.
And they’ll roll further into the idea that the mega-corporations that profit from planetary destruction care minimally about the consequences for ordinary people.