Next year’s climate summit still lacks a host
washingtonpost.com, 7th of December 2023
We are looking back on one of the hottest summers on record. What stands out are not only the increase in global weather extremes, but also images of tourists fleeing flames in holiday destinations “on our doorstep” – with drastic consequences for tourism in southern Europe. While holidaymakers were able to be evacuated or choose alternative travel destinations, locals have to live with the heat and continue to cope with their everyday lives – and with temperatures around 40 degrees, this can be life-threatening.
Working in the heat in the Mediterranean region is rarely a question of life and death. This summer, however, several workers died as a result of high temperatures, including a northern Italian baker in his 60s, a 44-year-old road worker in Milan and two volunteers in Greece. The victims of the latest heat records have caught the attention of Italian and Greek unions, who are calling on employers to take immediate action to protect workers in vulnerable sectors. This includes not only tourism and construction, but also industries like forestry, agriculture, care work, health and education. Now the unions are threatening a strike and work stoppage and have achieved some limited success – several cultural institutions closed down in especially hot weather and working hours in agricultural sector were adjusted.
The conditions in southern Europe paint a realistic scenario for the future of work in this country, as a Mediterranean climate is forecast for large parts of Germany by 2050. Many professional groups are already under enormous strain during periods of extreme heat: Recommendations to wear light clothing and stay in the shade are of little use to roofers, outpatient care services or other professionals that are essential for public services and social-ecological transformation. Sensible as the advice might be, in some industries it feels a little cynical. What is needed are ambitious, courageous ideas for transformative climate adaptation, i.e. measures that trigger not only individual, but structural and systemic changes and increase societal resilience to the effects of the climate crisis.
The Federal Association of Doctors in the Public Health Service (BVÖGD) started an interesting initiative this summer. The idea: To follow the lead of southern countries and adapt working hours to rising temperatures, i.e. work early and rest at midday. A public debate followed about the feasibility and usefulness of such a “heat siesta”. While employer representatives, such as the Association of Family Businesses, saw no need for such proposals and cited existing occupational safety regulations, the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) signalled its approval. And Federal Health Minister Lauterbach also described the heat siesta as “certainly no bad proposal”. The crux of the matter: Employers and employees must negotiate amongst themselves. In Lauterbach’s view, politics bears no responsibility here. The debate about the heat siesta has revealed that, while almost no one doubts its relevance, nobody feels responsible for implementing the appropriate measures.
When politicians and employers do not guarantee fair working conditions, it makes sense to turn towards worker advocavcy organisations, i.e. unions such as IGMetall, Marburger Bund or ver.di. These organisations however, have been suspiciously quiet when it comes to climate adaptation. Although there are a few pieces of advice for employees on how to deal with heat, the unions focus on the worker’s individual responsibility to protect themselves (i.e. make sure they keep cool). One-size-fits-all solutions like this do not do justice to the heterogeneity of the sectors affected and the challenges of climate change. Put another way, they do not achieve an appropriate level of ambition given the pressures that a changing climate place on labour. There is little evidence of a concrete connection to the climate crisis, let alone clear (political) positioning, broad information campaigns or industry-specific publications. Why trade unions are so hesitant in the face of the increasing labour crisis is hard to understand. Instead of reacting to individual extreme events, it is long past time to put the issue of climate adaptation on the agenda on a permanent, interdisciplinary basis.
In order to develop a powerful agenda, we must consider all relevant climate change impacts, not just heat. The Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) identifies five central risk factors for working people: heat; solar UV radiation; infectious diseases; plant and animal allergens and toxins; and extreme weather events. The health effects of prolonged heat exposure in particular have been scientifically proven in detail. Heat can cause serious damage to organs, which can lead to chronic illnesses and, in the worst case scenarios, acute heat stroke, which can result in death. Also relevant to labour are the effects of extreme weather and heat on the mental health of employees – these include increased absences from work, difficulty concentrating and the risk of accidents.
If we take a broader view of the social environment of employees, the overall social dimension of an “unadapted” working world becomes apparent. If extreme exposure to heat reduces general performance, work ability and mobility, this also indirectly influences people who do not or cannot do wage work, e.g. sick people, pensioners, children, people with disabilities, asylum seekers or homeless people. Anyone who takes longer at work and is also overloaded has less capacity to care for and therefore support these groups – be it in a professional context, such as in nursing or social work, or in domestic care work.
Not recognising and naming the connections across society potentially reinforces the trend that vulnerable population groups suffer the most from the consequences of the climate crisis. In this way, protecting workers from the consequences of climate change is a question of social justice.
Politically motivated labour disputes, such as those possible in Greece, Italy or France, would not be permitted in Germany. Nevertheless, unions have many opportunities to take action. Political demands for changes to existing rules in the Occupational Safety and Health Act (ArbSchG), the Workplace Ordinance (ArbStättV) and various technical and occupational health standards would be obvious. At the same time, the pressure on employers, who are already obliged to take protective measures at certain temperature levels, would have to increase. In addition to a lack of information and government controls, employees are often unaware of their rights and, as a result, unable to demand them. Here, unions could support works councils and carry out targeted educational work related to climate.
This is also what the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) recommends in its guide for trade unions, “Adaptation to Climate Change and the World of Work”. The guide includes concrete recommendations for trade unions at national and local levels. According to the ETUC, employers should be required to provide protection against the negative effects of climate change on the regional economic environment and employees. Developing adaptation strategies with trade unions could be an effective tool. In addition, long-term economic diversification strategies and appropriate social and occupational safety measures must be pursued. Trade unions should participate in taking on adaptation strategies and demand changes to existing laws and regulations to reduce the risks for employees. In addition, they should campaign for secure public financing for adaptation measures and the strengthening of social security systems.
As of yet, the political agenda has neglected the issue of “work and climate change”. The first German climate adaptation law, passed by the federal government in July, was an opportunity to do this. The law intends to create a “binding framework for a precautionary climate adaptation strategy (…) in all necessary fields of action”. However, the world of work does not appear as an independent field of action and is considered only indirectly under “economy”. The German Federation of Trade Unions (DGB) has criticised the neglect of the “world of work and public services” in a statement on the draft bill of the adaptation law. This grievance could have come earlier – the fields of action were already defined in Germany’s first adaptation strategy in 2008 and continue to provide structure for climate adaptation policy.
In addition, the new climate adaptation law does not take the protection of employees into account. The implementation of the law relies on areas of activity that are intensely affected by a changing climate: Trees must be planted and managed, roofs and façades must be greened, and vulnerable groups of people must be protected and cared for.
The foundation of effective climate adaptation is a safe and healthy working environment. The advance from the public service sector, such as the BVÖGD, could open the door to a discussion about innovative and creative ideas from all sectors. In addition to the ETUC recommendations mentioned above, trade unions should take the following first steps to ensure future-proof, socially just working conditions:
The German Adaptation Strategy will be updated next year. The timing would be perfect for unions and associations to position themselves for a transformative adaptation of the world of work.
About the author: Vivianne Rau works as an Analyst at adelphi on the topic of climate adaptation.