A sign of things to come? Examining how workers are affected by coronavirus and climate change
Updated: Mar 9
Statement of Positionality: This blog post was written on the traditional territory of the Attawandaron/Attawandaronk/Chonnonton and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. I acknowledge that my position on environmental and political issues has been, and is continuously, shaped by my privileges and personal lived experiences. I do not intend to speak on behalf of communities of colour or Indigenous peoples, but rather I strive to use writing as a tool to amplify awareness of important topics. I am always open to learning and hope to be corrected if my writing contains errors or misrepresents issues that do not affect me directly. My background in health sciences has solidified my belief in a universal right to a healthy environment, and I am proud to work with SUTE to push for meaningful actions to oppose systemic environmental racism.
There’s a good chance that your employment has been affected in one way or another by COVID-19. Even if you were underemployed prior to the pandemic you may be finding it more difficult to find work during these (insert buzz word: strange/unprecedented/uncertain) times. Many of us are also wondering when (and if) our jobs will go back to ‘normal’ in a post-COVID, or at least a sufficiently vaccinated, world. With that in mind, the purpose of this blog post is to draw attention to a different force that poses substantial, and surprisingly similar, implications for labour issues around the world: climate change. Much like COVID-19, climate change is a complex topic that affects job availability as well as the quality and safety of working conditions. This blog will highlight a few of these connections before examining how the current pandemic can help us better prepare for the growing impacts of climate change on workers.
Understandably, many of the conversations around labour and COVID-19 have focused on frontline workers, from grocery store employees to the doctors and nurses dealing directly with contagious patients. A large-scale observational study published in The Lancet Public Health journal confirmed that frontline workers, even when supplied with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), are more likely to become infected with COVID-19 than the general public (although PPE is still important in decreasing the overall risk) (1).
When examining climate change, it is exposure to climatic conditions and associated weather events (instead of exposure to patients and the public) that pose health risks to employees. ‘On the Frontlines: Climate Change Threatens the Health of America’s Workers’, a report published by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), provides a solid overview of this issue in an American context (with relevance for Canada and the rest of the world). Among other factors, this report discusses the potential for extreme heat, droughts, wildfires, and rising sea levels to negatively impact the health and safety of workers (2). Extreme heat may be one of the most intuitive examples of this climate-work-health relationship, affecting primarily physical workers in outdoor settings but also those in buildings without air conditioning. While the discomfort and health risks of working in sweltering conditions should be sufficient cause for concern on the part of employers and government decision makers, researchers have also pointed to the economic consequences of temperature-related decreases in productivity. One study estimated that by 2030 the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will lose $2 trillion US dollars per year as a result of higher daytime temperatures affecting worker productivity (3).
It is also clear that the burdens of climate change and COVID-19 are not evenly distributed among all workers and communities. The previously mentioned Lancet article on frontline workers concluded that the risk of contracting COVID-19 “was especially high among Black, Asian, and minority ethnic health-care workers” (1), and many employees working on the frontlines continue, despite corporate platitudes of gratitude, to be paid minimum wage. Similarly, the NRDC report specified that “the occupations most highly exposed to the types of weather extremes fueled by climate change...tend to be overrepresented by Blacks or African Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, and low-wage workers” (2).
Unfortunately, some of the potential solutions to these crises can further exacerbate labour and human rights issues. For example, there are well documented atrocities (including violence, child labour, and hazardous working conditions) associated with the extraction of metals and minerals for green technologies (4). As for COVID-19, following the exponential surge in demand for PPE, concerns have been raised about PPE being produced in sweatshop conditions around the world (5). Moving forward, it’s worth noting that climate change will increase the likelihood of new pandemics arising from zoonotic origins (6), underscoring the interconnectedness of these issues and highlighting the need for ethical and transparent practices across supply chains as we implement solutions and adaptive measures.
Another important topic, and one that is top of mind for a lot of Canadians, is job insecurity. COVID-19 has led to massive job losses and reductions in working hours, although some frontline employees are working far more than usual amidst stressful conditions. To quantify the severity of this situation, Statistics Canada reported nearly two million job losses during April 2020 alone (shortly after the country first went into lockdown) (7). Moreover, women were disproportionately affected by COVID-related job losses "as they made up a majority of the work force in hard-hit sectors like hospitality, retail and food" (8). While some of these workers may have eventually been re-hired, persisting financial consequences and psychological trauma can be devastating (9).
Climate change and jobs (or more specifically, the influence of climate change mitigation policies on jobs) is a very complex and politically charged issue. In the public discourse, a lot of attention is devoted to potential job losses as societies decrease their dependence on fossil fuels. Quotes such as “scrap your job-killing carbon tax plan”, said by Ontario Premier Doug Ford towards Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (10), can feed into a narrative of environmentalism vs. the economy that often doesn’t align with the available evidence. A report from Clean Energy Canada suggests that “while 50,000 jobs may be lost in fossil fuels, just over 160,000 will be created in clean energy” through a transition to a low-carbon economy (11). An important part of this process, and one that is almost entirely absent in academic research on this issue, involves engaging directly with fossil fuel workers to better understand their perspectives and priorities regarding a just transition (12).
So what are some takeaways from all this information, or how/what can we learn from COVID-19 to improve the lives of workers under worsening climate change scenarios? There are so many different ways to approach this question with varying levels of depth, ranging from niche industry-specific challenges to sweeping economic reforms. However, here are three themes worth considering.
1) Changing how we work:
Despite the prevalence of Zoom fatigue, many people who are privileged to be able to work from home are no doubt questioning aspects of the traditional workplace. From “Why did we ever need to meet in person to discuss this trivial matter”, to “Why did I spend so much time driving/flying”, a major outcome of the pandemic might be a reduced emphasis on the demand for in-person work. While less commuting won’t solve issues of air pollution or make a sizable dent in global carbon emissions, it can certainly help (on top of other perks such as more time spent at home and less rush hour-induced fits of rage). Prior to the pandemic, a group of academics committed to flying less (to conferences etc.) due to concerns over the environmental impact of air travel (13) - this is just one example of changing practices that may become more common even after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
2) Listening to experts in the field:
Over the last year, epidemiologists/health officials and climate scientists appear to have formed a bond (14,15) of mutual understanding and frustration over 'just trying to get people to do the right thing and follow the damn science'. Public health messaging, from humorous to depressing to pleading, has attempted to encourage positive practices during this time of crisis, something that will be of continued relevance as we face more extreme heat days, natural disasters, and illnesses exacerbated by climate change. A recently published case study from Northern Canada clearly connects these issues: during the summer of 2014, health officials near Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories were asking people to stay inside, not because of a respiratory virus, but due to the smoke from nearby wildfires (16). This article looked at the health implications of the Summer of Smoke, or SOS, and recommended future research into “public health messaging which addresses mental health and supports physical activity” during times where leaving the house is not advised (16).
3) Examining why we work:
It can be argued that the impacts of climate change and COVID-19 on workers are partially attributable to a common root cause: capitalist ideology and the pursuit of constant growth/productivity. Overexploitation of resources and putting profits over social and environmental wellbeing have led to a planet facing runaway climate change and workers/communities suffering under the burdens of pollution and poverty (17). Approaches to managing the pandemic that have prioritized a rapid return to ‘business as usual’ have disproportionately harmed certain workers and risked those who can’t afford to refuse unsafe work (18). True paid sick days would help, as would support systems that enable people to live well without putting themselves and their families at risk during a global pandemic (18). While we’re on this topic, how about considering a shorter work week (19)? Further, free and accessible physical and mental health resources are key components of weathering the storms of COVID-19 and climate change (20,21). However, until we reframe our priorities and start to question the need for constant growth and productivity, carbon and coronavirus will continue to spread through the air at levels beyond what scientists would consider to be ‘safe’.
1. Nguyen LH, Drew DA, Graham MS, Joshi AD, Guo CG, Ma W, Mehta RS, Warner ET, Sikavi DR, Lo CH, Kwon S. Risk of COVID-19 among front-line health-care workers and the general community: a prospective cohort study. The Lancet Public Health. 2020 Sep 1;5(9):e475-83.
3. Kjellstrom T, Briggs D, Freyberg C, Lemke B, Otto M, Hyatt O. Heat, human performance, and occupational health: a key issue for the assessment of global climate change impacts. Annual review of public health. 2016 Mar 18;37:97-112.
9. Crayne MP. The traumatic impact of job loss and job search in the aftermath of COVID-19. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. 2020 Aug;12(S1):S180.
16. Howard C, Rose C, Dodd W, Kohle K, Scott C, Scott P, Cunsolo A, Orbinski J. SOS! Summer of Smoke: a retrospective cohort study examining the cardiorespiratory impacts of a severe and prolonged wildfire season in Canada’s high subarctic. BMJ open. 2021 Feb 1;11(2):e037029.
17. Klein N. This changes everything: capitalism vs. the climate. Knopf Canada. 2014.
20. Galvani AP, Parpia AS, Pandey A, Zimmer C, Kahn JG, Fitzpatrick MC. The imperative for universal healthcare to curtail the COVID-19 outbreak in the USA. EClinicalMedicine. 2020 Jun 1;23.
21. World Health Organization. Strengthening health resilience to climate change. World Health Organization, Geneva. 2014:24-8.