Care Workers and First Responders Are on the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis

NRDC and SEIU to lawmakers: We need game-changing investments to address climate change and strengthen our care system—and we need them now.

Nurse Maria Angeles Tur demonstrates the treatments for heat-related illnesses.

Credit: David Obach/Europa Press via Getty Images

This blog was co-authored with Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The latest report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes it clear that we have no time to waste, especially when climate solutions are within reach.

As Secretary-General António Guterres said recently about a previous United Nations’ climate change report, “People and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change.” The findings called increased climate risks “unavoidable” and “potentially irreversible,” especially if swift action isn’t taken. You would think it would be impossible for such a drastic conclusion to fly under the radar, but yet it has, amid multiple, overlapping global crises.

There’s no ambiguity in the U.N. reports: We must act now. That’s why we need Congress to urgently pass President Joe Biden’s proposed investments in solutions that will make our nation safer, cleaner, healthier, more equitable, and more prosperous.

This is especially true for the nation’s most vulnerable. Frontline workers are essential to the ongoing functioning of our society—and they need home care, childcare, and paid leave in order to care for all of us. Caregivers and the people who depend on their services—young children, seniors, people with disabilities, and others—are also more at risk in the event of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and wildfires, which are devastating communities with alarming regularity because of climate change. As the pandemic has shown us, when frontline workers are not safe, protected, or supported by their employers to take care of themselves and their own families, all of us pay the price.

Members of Congress need only listen to their constituents to understand how the climate crisis is threatening their lives, while care workers are stepping up to meet that threat on an everyday basis. Maria Alvarez, a home care worker from Santa Paula, California, was caring for her client, Alex, in 2018 when a wildfire erupted in their area. They couldn’t evacuate because Alex was confined to his bed and Maria wasn’t able to carry him, and the air was so thick with smoke that they couldn’t see a way out anyway.


The Thomas Fire burns along a hillside near Santa Paula, California on December 5th, 2017.

Credit: Kyle Grillot/Getty Images

When the power failed, Maria took over for the machine that keeps Alex’s breathing regular. She manually kept his airway open and his lungs pumping by lifting his head and moving it back and forth. She sat by his bedside while fires raged on, for two whole days and nights. She was terrified about what would happen if she fell asleep.

Millions of people like Maria and Alex don’t have the luxury of choosing between climate action or a stronger care system, and neither does Congress.

President Biden has pledged to reduce greenhouse gasses by 50 to 52 percent by 2030. Meanwhile, the White House promised to advance investments that “will increase economic opportunity, advance environmental justice, and improve the health and safety of communities throughout the United States.”

We know that to meet these critical goals, Congress must pass major investments in climate action without delay. We also know that the impacts of climate change are being felt unevenly across socioeconomic lines, and as a workforce predominantly consisting of lower-income women, women of color, and immigrants, care workers are disproportionately at risk. To invest in care is to advance environmental justice, as well as racial, immigrant, and economic justice.

But even as a purely practical matter, the physical and economic mobility to flee danger cannot be taken for granted. The number of seniors and people with disabilities who will be impacted by climate disasters and environmental injustice is expected to double by 2050. We’re already feeling those losses. Last June, 96 people in the Pacific Northwest died from hyperthermia during the unprecedented heat wave. According to a local analysis by Multnomah County, Oregon, “most of those who died were older, lived alone, and had no air conditioning.” That’s why we must invest in not only reducing climate pollution but in making our communities more resilient to the impacts we can no longer avoid.

We also need to invest in our nation’s care workers, like Maria, by creating even more care jobs and ensuring they’re good-paying, union jobs. Union care jobs give workers a voice to demand what they need—living wages, which bolsters families and entire communities, as well as proper training and protection to carry out their duties, even amid the most unpredictable circumstances.

While these issues are complex, our message to lawmakers is simple: Congress has an opportunity right now to deliver historic, game-changing investments to address climate change and strengthen our care system. It’s time to pass them without delay.

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