“What do you mean, ‘why am I working in this heat?’ If I don’t work, we will die of hunger.”
Mandal, one presumes, does not consider planetary warming a topic relevant only to the rich.
Yet, in the wake of the Australian federal election, we’re hearing versions of that claim again and again and again.
Think of how Liberal Senator Hollie Hughes – one of the Coalition’s senior spokespeople on climate, no less – recently dubbed warming “almost like a luxury issue”.
Similarly, Quillette editor Claire Lehmann says those who advocate for renewable energy do so primarily to signal their own wealth, while the Spectator’s Rebecca Weisser judges the poll a victory for “green and teal rent-seeking elites” (whom she describes as having “been helped immeasurably by an education system that indoctrinates children and young adults, from kindergarten through to university, in the cult of climate catastrophism, legitimising climate ‘strikes’ during school hours, which are openly attended by Greens and the Socialist Alliance.”).
Meanwhile, Lillian Andrews goes so far as to claim the election reveals the Liberals are “becoming the new party of the ordinary people”, with their climate stance revamping “what were once core Labor values of protecting the working class and defending their rights.”
Well, it’s nice to have an imagination.
In the real world, anyone concerned about the actual working class recognises that, always and everywhere, global warming most harms the oppressed and the poor.
The horrific Indian heatwave means temperatures in Delhi have exceeded 42C for 25 days since summer began. Yet millions of workers still toil outside, simply because, like Mandal, they can’t afford to stay out of the sun.
In the unbearable conditions, all of them suffer – and some of them die.
“This is not just exhaustion or discomfort,” says Avikal Somvanshi of the Urban Lab at the Center of Science and Environment. “It is actually killing people.”
The same distinction between the wealthy, who can protect themselves from a warming planet, and the poor, who patently cannot, manifests in the developed world.
With a heatwave gripping the United States, authorities have urged a hundred million Americans to stay inside.
Alexia Gonzales works for Instacart. Her employers might sit in air-conditioned comfort but she certainly can’t.
“It’s too hot to work,” she told the Guardian, “but this is when people want deliveries.”
Across the planet, rising temperatures mean densely populated areas become “urban heat islands”, as the concrete landscapes inhabited by working-class families absorb the sun and then warm up the air.
By combining satellite measurements with census data, University of North Carolina researcher Angel Hsu has shown how heat correlates both with poverty and race. Shockingly, almost everywhere in America communities of colour endure temperatures a degree higher on average than those faced by non-Hispanic white people.
Similar factors govern the population’s exposure to the climate crisis in Australia, where, for instance, western Sydney gets an astonishing 8-10 degrees hotter during heatwaves than the eastern parts of the city.
It’s not just a question of temperatures, either.
We know the carbon getting pumped into the atmosphere means more fires and more flooding – and we know who will bear the brunt of the entirely predictable disasters that will ensue.
Researchers looking at the 2019-2020 bushfires say that “the most socio-economically disadvantaged communities bore a disproportionately higher hazard exposure in the Black Summer than relatively advantaged communities.”
Likewise, the floods of 2022 most affected poorer households, who were more likely to live in riskier areas and less likely to be covered by insurance.
To put it another way, if you’re not fighting global warming, you don’t care about the working class, irrespective of how often you take to Sky News to rage rhetorically against “woke elites”.
Given what’s at stake for ordinary people, we might wonder why environmentalism hasn’t been unequivocally linked to the battlers to the extent where green might be proclaimed the new red.
Part of the answer lies with how so many of the climate “solutions” espoused by mainstream politicians come straight out of the neoliberal toolkit. Decades of philosophical dominance by rightwing economists means, ever since the 1990s, the default response to global warming has centred on market mechanisms akin to those that, for everyone outside the political class, turned “reform” into a dirty word. When policymakers enthuse about emissions trading systems and other free market nostrums, to many ordinary people they sound just like the brainiacs who “reformed” public utilities, industrial relations, welfare and education into the ground.
The Labor party’s long association with neoliberalism equally espoused by the Liberals helps explain the continuing drift of rusted-on voters away from both major parties.
But a recognition of that disenchantment doesn’t mean embracing fantasies about the Liberals somehow establishing themselves as the proletarian choice.
It’s wrong, for instance, to see the election result as showing progressivism as “a politics of the rich” and conservatism “the politics of the struggling”. On the contrary, in his granular breakdown of voting trends, data scientist Shaun Ratcliff shows that, despite the success of the Teals, the Liberals remain very much the party of privilege. “[I[t is still mostly true,” he says, “that well-off and established voters are more likely to vote for the Coalition, and lower-income working-age Australians generally continued to vote for the left in 2022.”
That shouldn’t come as any surprise.
Working-class voters – in Australia and around the world – increasingly mistrust all established parties. But that doesn’t render them innately conservative. The cow tends not to vote for the butcher.
Understandably, workers want reassurances that, in a low-carbon future, they won’t lose the social gains they’ve secured in the traditional polluting industries.
But the generations of unionists who won relatively high wages in mining would turn in their graves at the suggestion that coal – a substance stained for a century and a half with the blood of those who extracted it – was innately good for the working class.
And they’d roll even further at the idea that the massive corporations profiting from planetary destruction care in the slightest about the consequences for ordinary people.
• Jeff Sparrow is a Guardian Australia columnist