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Is climate action on extreme heat a human right? » Yale Climate Connections


Is climate action on extreme heat a human right?

It was a provocative opening question that I posed to the science education graduate students in my climate justice course at San José State University. Put another way: Is a government’s failure to take action on the climate crisis a violation of human rights?

The question of human rights, climate justice, and vulnerable groups recently emerged in the news in two different cases an ocean apart, with drastically different outcomes. However, they were connected by an ever-pressing issue: extreme heat and human health.

In one case, a group of women known as the Swiss Senior Women for Climate Protection argued before the European Court of Human Rights that by failing to meet climate sustainability goals and create accountability measures, the Swiss government had violated their human rights. To make their case, the women argued that older adults, like them, were particularly vulnerable to extreme heat, a present and future climate justice issue. Rightfully so: Older adults are more likely than younger people to have chronic health conditions that put them at risk of illness or death in heat waves.

The case provoked a riveting discussion in my class: What is a human right? What are the benefits if climate change action is considered a human right? How could a ruling like this be misused by bad actors? The answer the class settled on, after much discussion, was the same as the one reached by the court in the landmark climate ruling. Yes: climate action should be considered a human right.

Just days later, as Miami-Dade County in Florida was about to pass basic safety measures for outdoor laborers working in increasingly hot and dangerous summer temperatures, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill prohibiting local governments from creating heat protection rules. The reason given for failing to ensure workers’ most basic needs are met, including access to water, shade, and breaks was that such rules would “create a lot of problems.”

Problems for whom?

As a result, Miami-Dade County officials halted their effort to protect heat-vulnerable groups. If local protections would be overridden by the state, what was the point?

Florida’s denial of heat protections for vulnerable workers reflects a problematic trend. In summer 2023, Texas passed a law that ended minimum safety measures including water breaks for construction workers, disregarding human health in favor of industry concerns and profit.

Would federal protections help?

After two years in the making, the Biden administration is months away from proposing the first major federal government regulation to provide lifesaving protections for workers from extreme heat. Yet significant concerns exist about industry pushback and enforcement in the case of conflicting state laws. Further, in an election year, the sustainability of climate and environmental justice-related laws that can be easily eliminated with a change in presidency offer only tenuous protection from a life-threatening danger.

Together these disparate cases raise pressing questions as the planet breaks heat records and the climate crisis intensifies: What is the responsibility of governments to protect people, especially demographic groups made most vulnerable to excessive heat? If climate action is a human right, which humans have rights? Shouldn’t everyone qualify? Regardless of who is president?

A silent killer

To address those questions in my class, we begin by exploring who lives and works where and why in the U.S., with a focus on the impacts of extreme and urban heat on human health.

Heat is far more dangerous than people often realize. Heat kills more people every year than other climate-related disasters but it appears less frequently in the news because it is not as dramatic as extreme events like hurricanes. And not everyone is harmed equally. Two million workers in construction and agriculture in Florida and millions more across the U.S. are highly vulnerable to heat exposure; they are often immigrants, many undocumented and without U.S. citizenship, yet they provide essential services and comprise the backbone for critical industries across the nation.

Further, Native Americans and other people of color disproportionately live in the areas most vulnerable to climate change impacts, including the hottest and driest places. This includes areas formerly redlined, through discriminatory federal housing policies, that are present-day urban heat islands, where temperatures can be five to 10 degrees hotter than suburban areas due to the widespread presence of heat-absorbing materials like concrete and lack of trees and green space.

Read: The link between racist housing policies of the past and the climate risks of today

Making matters worse, these communities are often composed of people of low socioeconomic status who may not have access to cooling mechanisms like air conditioning and/or may not have the financial means to pay high electricity bills.

The transformative solutions students create in my class, most recently heat equity plans for vulnerable communities, often require the government to take responsibility for past racist policies and practices, decisions that have serious implications for heat exposure, human health, and climate justice in the present. In other words, the federal government created the problems and now must be part of the solutions.

Heat protections help workers

In 2005, California became the first U.S. state to pass a heat protection law for outdoor workers, requiring access to shade and clean drinking water when temperatures reached 80 degrees and additional breaks if temperatures hit 95 degrees. The standards were prompted by the deaths of four outdoor workers.

A 2021 study showed that heat protections are effective. The problem is that few states have them: California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Minnesota. Notice that many of the states with the hottest summers are not listed, and some in fact now have laws banning worker protections.

Governments must be held accountable to the climate goals they have set and put heat protections in place that apply to a range of vulnerable groups. Following the example of the Swiss case, climate action must be added as a human right because soon, as temperatures continue to rise, violations of basic human health due to exposure to excessive heat on the job or simply living in formerly redlined areas will intersect with worker, physical, and other human rights that have long been established. Heat-related illnesses and deaths occur regardless of state boundaries and regardless of who is leading the country. So it’s time for human rights-focused policies that ensure durable protection for those now jeopardized by the government’s own historical practices to do the same.

The passage of the Florida law should sound an alarm about the drastic implications for human health, safety, and dignity. The only equitable solution is to pass heat protection laws enforceable across time for vulnerable groups so that states and presidential administrations are required to protect all lives, instead of deciding which lives they are willing to risk.

Tammie Visintainer is an assistant professor of science education at San José State University who explores intersections of race, place, and climate justice and prepares future justice-centered secondary science teachers as transformative designers and change agents for racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse classrooms. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.


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