With temperatures breaking records every summer, we’re already living through climate change’s fallout. But some communities are experiencing more effects than others, especially when it comes to working conditions: Dirty air strafes our lungs on our daily commutes, power plants pump smog into downwind neighborhoods, and farm laborers are getting roasted alive.
In the United States, heat-related death and illness poses one of the most immediate and widespread risks linked to global-warming trends. In July alone last year, according to Public Citizen, “An average of 1.1 million agriculture and construction workers labored in extreme conditions each day.” A study on hospitalizations in Los Angeles from 2005 to 2010 found that heat-related emergency-room visits grew by about 8 percent with each percentage increase in residents working in construction, and by 11 percent for every comparable rise in the farming, forestry, and related outdoor sectors.
In a new study on occupational health in an era of climate change, researchers warn of a rising surge of work-related hazards directly tied to extreme weather events and intensifying carbon emissions.
A warming atmosphere also elevates the risk of heart, lung, and renal problems, ranging from asthma attacks to chronic heart disease. And beyond the temperature itself, workers will be more exposed to allergens like pollen, waterborne pathogens, and cancer-causing UV rays. Some populations, such as pregnant women, will be especially sensitive to hot environments. And communities must prepare for huge demographic shifts due to climate volatility, including population displacement and migration related to catastrophic weather and “climate refugees.”
Around the world, volatile weather and climate-driven environmental disaster are also potentially fueling mass psychological crisis: Devastating droughts in rural India, which plunge poor farmers into catastrophic debt, are linked to seasons of suicide epidemics. First-responders and outdoor workers faced with environmental catastrophes are also vulnerable to post-traumatic stress. Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast sparked waves of depression, anxiety, and even suicide, for residents as well as emergency responders. Today, Hurricane Maria has been anecdotally described as a regional mental-health trauma for Puerto Rico, destabilizing families and communities through mass displacement, deepening isolation of rural regions, and destroying the already threadbare social-service infrastructure.