Deadly heat wave more than an act of nature

By Larry Hales

Aug. 1—The heat wave that began in California two weeks ago has roasted the Midwest and is now moving on to the East Coast. Forecasters predict several days more of blistering temperatures, reaching triple digits in many areas.

Reported heat-related human deaths in California have climbed to 164; an estimated 16,500 cows also perished from the heat there, which finally eased three days ago. Daytime temperatures of 115 degrees persisted for almost two weeks in the agricultural Central Valley. At least two farmworkers and four others who worked out of doors are believed to have died from heat stroke, according to a representative of the United Farm Workers.

Last year, four farmworkers died of heat in the Central Valley. Many immigrant workers, especially the undocumented, are super-exploited and denied basic rights. They are compelled to bring in the crop despite extremely dangerous conditions posed by rising temperatures.

After the four deaths last year, new laws were enacted in California that were supposed to protect workers whose jobs expose them to the elements. The law is very minimal and requires the very least from bosses, like providing a quart of water an hour, shade structures, and a chance for a five-minute paid break in the shade.

However, as one worker put it, “Maybe it’s 94 degrees and you want to stop but you need money to pay the rent and get paid for the full day so you push yourself.”

Figures on heat-related deaths are just starting to come in from Chicago’s Cook County, where nine people are reported to have died since July 17. Ten were reported dead in Oklahoma and 12 in Missouri. Many of those who died were elderly; most perished in super-heated homes or apartment buildings.

A recently released government report shows a 54 percent increase in heat-related deaths between 1999 and 2003. In that five-year period, 3,442 people died from excessive heat, an average of 688 per year. Exposure to excessive heat, according to George Luber, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Pre ven tion, “is one of the major weather-related causes of death.”

“Every one of those deaths is preventable if folks are aware of some of the preventive measures.” He added, “We do have evidence that these events are going to increase in frequency, severity and duration as global climate changes.”

The report says most at risk are the poor, especially children and the elderly, as well as outdoor workers.

The high temperatures have frequently led to power outages. In St. Louis and Chicago, when temperatures soared and the power went out, hundreds of people had to be evacuated from their homes, especially the elderly.

Chicago resident Lenora Stinson said of the disorderly planning, “It’s a mess. It’s a big mess. Everybody’s panicking—they don’t know where they’re going.”

In Queens, N.Y., some people still lack power after an outage that began two weeks ago.

National, state and local officials seem to have spent most of their time urging people to conserve energy, putting the crisis on the backs of consumers.

Capitalism and its state apparatus have no answer for this growing crisis. A bare minimum statute like that passed in California doesn’t offer any respite for super-exploited workers and doesn’t deal with what workers have to do to survive and take care of their families in capitalist society.

Liberal politicians and the capitalist media have of late touted Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which shows the seriousness of global warming but puts the onus for reversing it on the personal lifestyle of consumers.

The destruction of the environment comes directly from unplanned, profit-driven capitalist production and the wars it generates. The film presents it as a moral issue without saying what class is responsible. It is the ruling capitalist class that cannot let up in its drive for profit, whether that means exploiting fossil fuels, super-exploiting workers around the world, or unleashing war on those who resist its dictates—whatever produces the greatest profit.


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