With the crispness of the fall season normally comes the bounty of the harvests, as grocery stores and farmers markets throughout the state overflow with all the varied agriculture that North Carolina has to offer. North Carolinians depend on the western apple orchards and eastern sweet potatoes to prepare staple dishes for the holidays. However, as is increasingly common, these harvests are feeling the effects of climate change -- and so are those working in the fields. Here in North Carolina, and across the country, there are few more vulnerable than farmworkers, a population that is working hard to gain rights but will only face more challenges because of climate change.
From increasingly frequent and severe heatwaves to lower crop yields to higher risk of mosquito-borne diseases, climate change is already affecting the health of farmworkers and impacting their ability to economically sustain themselves. After a string of weather-related disasters created one of the worst years for agriculture in decades, farm owners are facing extraordinary uncertainty this year as climate change-fueled extreme weather ravages otherwise productive land. Increasingly, climate change is resulting in greater instability for farmworkers, with harsher working conditions and dwindling yields resulting in fewer working hours and more risk. For farmworkers, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid.
For those who labor in our North Carolina fields, a population that is overwhelmingly Latinx immigrants, that uncertainty extends beyond their paychecks and into their physical and mental health. As a fellow with Student Action with Farmworkers, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of farmworkers and their families, I witnessed the unimaginable conditions farmworkers endure on a daily basis while working and living in the fields. I saw farmworkers returning to cramped living quarters with no air conditioning after having worked 12-hour days in 100+ degree temperatures. With rising temperatures affecting agricultural industries around the country, outdoor laborers face a far greater risk of heatstroke, dehydration and kidney failure as a result of their environment. In an industry that is rife with abusive labor practices, these conditions all add up to make an already difficult workplace all the more precarious.
As a first-generation child of an immigrant mother, I’ve seen firsthand how these climate-fueled health disparities are affecting both documented and undocumented communities throughout North Carolina. Migrant farmworkers, in addition to many other Latinx and undocumented communities, stay in homes that are often susceptible to flooding. I remember reading heartbreaking stories of Latinx families who lost everything after Hurricane Florence. Extreme weather events, like Florence, are made more severe by climate change and have a disproportionate effect on those who work outdoors.
In addition to climate justice issues such as hurricane impacts, environmental justice issues such as water and air quality are prevalent in many local communities, too. Nationwide, insufficient access to health care among Latinx populations is one reason why children in these communities are 40% more likely to die as a result of an asthma attack compared to white children. Couple this with the fact that an estimated 39% of Latinx families live within 30 miles of a polluting power plant, and we begin to see the unique ways in which a failure to act on climate change is a particularly dire failure for communities of color.
Addressing the root cause of these injustices is going to require much more than just talking about it – we must commit to transitioning to a 100% clean energy economy. With Hurricane Florence alone costing North Carolinians nearly $17 billion, it’s clear that nothing short of bold action will suffice.
Unfortunately, our senators, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, recently sided with big polluters over the health and wellbeing of our state by voting to support the Trump administration’s so-called “Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule,” which would extend the lives of dirty coal plants and do absolutely nothing to curb the carbon pollution behind climate change. While farmworkers and Latinx communities are bearing the brunt of climate change’s devastating impacts, our senators have shown themselves to be more interested in lining industries’ pockets than in taking action on climate and helping transition North Carolina to a 100% clean energy economy.
For the sake of vulnerable laborers, hardworking Latinx immigrants, and all North Carolinians, we must act on climate. It’s time our senators do the same. Join me as we call on our elected officials to take action now.