Why 'Fight for 15' activists want to address climate change, too

Climate change is going to impact everyone, but people from low-income communities will feel it first, experts say. 

Thibault Camus/AP/File
An activist hold a poster during a demonstration near the Eiffel Tower, in Paris during COP21, the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

According to Janet Redman, Director of the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies, “Climate change is going to impact everyone, but people from low-income communities and communities of color will feel it first and worst, as climate change increasingly impacts food production, disrupts global supply chains, and unleashes more extreme weather on our communities, the cost of basic needs like food is expected to go up.” While many activists and policy experts were be able to travel to Paris for the Paris Climate Change Conference, many low-income workers who are most affected by the issue won’t be able to travel to Paris and get their voices heard on an issue that will have drastic effects on their lives.

I had the opportunity to talk to a few food service worker organizers in Washington, D.C. Jessica Smith, Patrick McDermott, and Gregory Allen, who are currently active in the Fight for 15 campaign in D.C. as well as other labor campaigns, as they seek to not only improve their lives but the lives of other working class people. Below are their thoughts on climate change, COP21, and how the fight for 15, climate change, and black lives matter are all connected.

McDermott: Given the nature of our occupations, the adverse effects brought on by climate change would dramatically impact us for the worse. Our tips would shrink or become non-existent because people would no longer want to eat out or would be unable to. People would rather spend money on necessities for a changing climate, or people would be unable to go out because of that changing climate (e.g. too hot or too cold, too severe a storm, etc.). Severe weather changes would make life harder for restaurant workers going to work, which they often times have to do even in the most adverse weather conditions because of economic necessity or because their boss is demanding they come in or they are fired. Some restaurants also depend on deliveries on an almost daily basis and adverse weather conditions can make those deliveries difficult, if not impossible, which may force some restaurants to close, hence impacting the restaurant workers, who might be out of a job that night.

Allen: Climate change affects food service workers economically. There are a lot of poor people that work in the industry and have food insecurity. Climate change would make it harder for people to live because of food scarcity. In addition to the workers buying more expensive food, some jobs will end because of the increase in prices. There will be a terribly deleterious effect on the industry and the people on the bottom who support it.

Smith: Climate change affects food production which may cause certain foods to become unavailable, be a lower quality (unacceptable for use), very expensive or be available at a different time of the year due to moving seasons (i.e. the spring starting later in the year causing berries to ripen later than usual). For example, an establishment I once worked for had a special menu dedicated to heirloom tomatoes that they pulled out in August the primary month for the fruit.  This past year a lot of organic farmers, such as myself, noted that it took much longer than usual for the tomatoes to turn and ripen. Due to this, they had to adjust the dates of their menu and their heirloom tomato event. This being an annual tradition, dozens of people had to cancel or reschedule their reservations to accommodate this change.

What are your thoughts on the Climate Change Summit going on right now?

McDermott: These leaders are too separated from the challenges working people face day to day, and frankly, if they truly understood or cared as deeply as they say they do in the media, something much more substantive would have been done about climate change already. I'm not optimistic about what will come out of the summit and I think that the only time something truly significant will be done is when the powers that be are forced to care and do something about it. Those demands can only come from those affected.

Allen: We have been having these meetings for years, and the climate keeps getting worse. Unless we have a real conversation and make drastic actions to change our current way of life for a sustainable one, we will die.

Smith: I have very low hopes that our political leaders in this country have the courage to actually enact change in this country to properly deal with climate change and the environmental crisis we are in. To put it plainly, our politicians are smart enough not to bite the hand that feeds them and they are fat off of the corporate dollar.  

Do you see any connection to black lives matter, the fight for 15 and climate change?

Smith: Yes I do. The connections I see are that there is a clear cut subversive movement to keep vast portions of the population ignorant and under the control of a small minority of obscenely wealthy people. Black/African empowerment, low wage worker empowerment, and environmentalism all threaten this hierarchy. If all Blacks/Africans of the world stood together and empowered ourselves, we can change the world. If low wage workers banded together, demanded and received a share of the wealth, we can change the world. If the people and leaders of the world made a substantive shift in our view of the natural world and environmentalism, we can change the world. By keeping these groups and many more suppressed and divided it is easier to confuse us and maintain the status quo.

This article first appeared in Food Tank.

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