While doing all it can to arrest climate change, the EU must place workers and their concerns at the heart of its adaptation strategy.
Parts of Europe have recently undergone an extreme cold snap. When temperatures plummet, European Union legislation requires employers to protect workers. In some countries, this may mean providing appropriate clothing, warm premises or longer breaks, a plan of action for severe cold or stopping work without loss of earnings when conditions become intolerable.
But as climate change strengthens its grip, bringing exceptional weather events of all sorts, Europe will face a different challenge—extreme heat. The evidence is incontrovertible. The past decade was the warmest on record and the impact on human health and society is clear. A ten-year World Health Organization study found heatwaves in nine European cities increased the death rate by up to 33 per cent and, according to the European Environment Agency, extreme weather events across Europe between 1980 and 2019 (see chart) inflicted economic losses amounting to almost €446 billion.
Even if all greenhouse-gas emissions ceased tomorrow, this would not halt the impact on the climate, likely to continue for decades. Mitigation is vital but, in the meantime, ensuring that society can anticipate change and adapt to it is just as important.
Last year, the European Commission published its blueprint strategy for adaptation to climate change but trade unions were disappointed by its content. It focuses mainly on technical requirements: early warning, infrastructure, water resources, coastal erosion, crop management …. All vital questions, but the blueprint says little about the harmful social impact of climate change and there is no specific reference to workers or workplaces.
On Wednesday, the commission is due to adopt a new climate-change adaptation strategy as part of the European Green Deal. The European Trade Union Confederation insists that it must include concrete policy proposals to ensure society and the world of work adapt in a way that is fair to all sections of the workforce.
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Climate change will have serious implications for vulnerable workers in many sectors. For example, the health and safety of outdoor workers in construction or agriculture could be severely affected by the rise in temperature. Heat stroke, skin cancer, fatigue and dehydration, as well as the spread of diseases carried by agents such as mosquitos and ticks, are among the increased risks.
Civil-protection workers, such as firefighters and nurses, will see their workloads and stress increase significantly, as wildfires and other extreme weather events become more severe and frequent. There will be serious implications for employment, with the displacement or destruction of jobs in many sectors and regions. The ETUC recently conducted a study which details these challenges and explores possible solutions. It found that without adaptation measures Europe would lose more than 400,000 jobs by 2050 due to climate change.
To put meat on the bones of its demands, the ETUC has made a series of recommendations for the EU adaptation strategy. Above all, it must be legally binding and have a strong social dimension which puts people first. That means a change of direction.
There should be new laws to protect workers from high temperatures, natural ultra-violet radiation and other health-and-safety hazards. Protection currently varies across Europe and in some countries fails to address rising temperatures. The EU should encourage member states to carry out studies on the impact of climate change on the world of work, examining different regions and sectors in detail.
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Public services, for example, are likely to be affected by climate change, as demand for caring, health services and emergency support will increase. The EU needs to plan for the consequences and to invest in public services, infrastructure, social protection and insurance schemes, so that our societies are ready to handle the challenges.
Such investments should work alongside additional resources to protect biodiversity and the natural environment. The strategy must tackle the scourge of water and energy poverty, recognising that clean water, sanitation and energy are human rights and must be safeguarded in the future.
The consequences of climate change will affect employment in many sectors and regions. For example, the rise in temperature and extreme weather events will profoundly modify crop yields across Europe. The strategy must therefore put forward active labour-market policies—plans for the retraining and reskilling of workers whose jobs will need to adapt to the new climate or disappear. The changes will be felt not only in agriculture but across a whole range of sectors, from transport and tourism to construction and utilities. The ETUC is calling for in-depth analysis of the likely impact of climate change on these sectors and related supply chains.
As with everything else, climate change will affect men and women—and their jobs—in different ways. Adaptation measures must promote and not undermine gender equality. This means women should participate in the ‘gender-screening’ of all proposals, to assess their specific impact. In the same way, the strategy must protect vulnerable communities, such as migrants and seasonal workers, and avoid perpetuating any form of ethnic, religious or other discrimination.
The economic costs of doing nothing far outweigh the investment needed. Indeed, adaptation measures are expected to bring positive benefits for jobs and economies. But to ensure member states have adequate funding for climate adaptation and a just transition for workers, the ETUC seeks a fairer taxation system.
Agreement on a financial-transactions tax, a European Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base, a minimum corporate-tax rate of 25 per cent and a digital tax would all help to fund the action needed. Fair taxation would also ensure that the costs and benefits arising from climate change are fairly distributed among people, regions and countries.
It is crucial for the strategy to fully involve workers and trade unions as decisions are made. Workers on the ground are in the best position to foresee the problems arising from climate change and to put forward fair solutions. This calls for a bottom-up approach, with inclusive governance at all levels, so that communities, trade unions and employers can be part of implementing the strategy. The new adaptation strategy should promote social dialogue and collective bargaining, to address the social impacts of climate change and develop adaptation measures for the world of work.
Finally, the EU must step up co-operation with less-developed countries. Because climate change is a global problem not constrained by national borders, international action is vital, yet some areas of the world will suffer more than others. They are likely to be those with lower capacity to adapt—even though also less responsible for greenhouse-gas emissions. The EU must help develop and finance solutions in emerging countries and use its diplomatic influence to accelerate international adaptation.
The ETUC and its affiliates will continue to work to raise awareness about the challenges of climate change. Together they will also collect more information about the potential impact and problems facing trade union members, wherever they work—and the measures needed to protect them.