Politics of Heat as an Opportunity for Climate Justice

By Meira Hanson, originally published in Hebrew on Rosa-Media.

June 2030. It’s the fourth day of a severe heat wave. The time is 14:00 in the afternoon and extreme heat stress prevails across the country. The streets are empty. Shops on the street and markets are closed. Air-conditioned shopping centers will only open in the late afternoon so that workers won’t have to walk around in the hot sun. Schools, kindergartens, and public institutions are open to the community, to offer local residents refuge after staying home for so long. The emergency system is on full alert: each neighborhood has a map or a list of people who are especially vulnerable to the heat, and emergency workers contact them to ensure their well-being. Everyone is already used to such days. Heat waves and multiple days of extreme temperatures are part of our routine and are expected to deteriorate in the coming decades.

Although extreme heat has become an integral part of life, in 2030 we are confident that there are support systems for us and our loved ones, even in extreme weather conditions. It’s hard to believe that just seven years ago heat was seen as fate. Back then, addressing rising temperatures was the domain of meteorologists and environmentalists who warned of the consequences of the climate crisis. At the time, few recognized the close connection between our degree of vulnerability to severe heat events and housing policy; urban planning; government investment in the health and welfare system; and disparities between settlements, regions, and populations. 

Looking back, the turning point was the summer of 2023. A series of heat waves strained hospital intensive care units. Nurses and medical care workers were the first to flag the problem. With the support of the trade union, they began to collect information on emergency department calls during heat waves to demand a response from governing authorities. It soon became clear that the Association of Social Workers collects data on households that struggle with power outages, incidents of domestic violence, suicidal tendencies, residents struggling with addiction, street gangs, and more. Together, they organized the first national gathering, which connected other organizations to the issue, such as after-school workers who can no longer take children to play outside, and daycare workers who also have to cope with increasing electrical expenses. The first major demonstration was not long in coming. Labor organizations teamed up with environmental organizations to demand that government authorities take responsibility for national residents in the face of the climate crisis’ consequences.

The insight that heat is a social problem was central to the success of a struggle centered on questions such as: who may cool their home and who must give up food or medicine so as not to lose electricity? Who works in an air-conditioned office and who works outside? Which employers are abusive regarding conditions of heat? Who has shade in their neighborhood? Who has effective public transportation and who is left with a choice between traveling in a private car and unreliable public transportation, with long waits at shadeless stations? Heat has become a political issue connecting communities that share different elements of climate injustice.

Coalitions were formed to address different aspects of the challenge. Already in the 2023 local elections, groups of residents demanded that candidates commit to projects to provide more shade in public spaces. The next step was a demand that the government allocates larger budgets for shade and mandate faucets with cold water in public spaces. A broad coalition of organizations mobilized toward a mass renovation of apartments and buildings to ensure that we all enjoy climate comfort at home. Organizations of passengers and public transportation workers cooperated in demanding shaded bus stops throughout the country. Labor organizations advocated for the adaptation of legislation to protect working conditions of the changing climate while increasing the enforcement of the work carried out outside. Everyone supported the revolutionary legislation that prevents cutting off power for those in debt.

Alongside the significant investments, new options for green jobs were created, such as consulting for families on energy efficiency, which created thousands of new employment opportunities, especially among Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities. Widespread public pressure created a demand for more positions for nursing and social work jobs alongside a significant improvement in conditions, to attract more laborers to the field. The demand for renovation of buildings to adapt to the extreme weather also created new opportunities and the conditions of the public tenders contributed to a considerable improvement in construction workers’ labor conditions.

This picture is not all rosy. The climate is still warming and Israel still has much work ahead to contribute its part to the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, we are on the path to dealing with the crisis while improving the quality of life for all.

Photo by Sam te Kiefte on Unsplash