This past summer in the Pacific Northwest has made painfully clear what climate justice writer Mary Annaïse Heglar (2020) meant by “converging crises.” Glaring inequality, drought, a record-shattering heat wave that killed 569 people in British Columbia, a wildfire season that burned an entire town to the ground, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have all merged in ways that palpably exemplify how the climate emergency acts as a “threat multiplier.”
I took these photos as part of my 2017 fieldwork in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley (Weiler 2021a, 2021b), Syilx territory, during the worst wildfire season the province had ever seen. The following year was even more devastating.
The Okanagan region is famous for its wines and cherries. For agricultural workers who train grapevines and harvest cherries beneath muddy orange skies, access to health is already threatened by inequalities of race, class, gender, and immigration status (Caxaj and Diaz 2018). These health threats are amplified by the climate crisis, alongside ill-advised forestry policies. Climate-related extreme weather events such as the heat wave this season have been deadly for agricultural workers, who have simultaneously faced disproportionate exposure to COVID-19. Researchers predict that over the next few decades agricultural workers who currently work an average of twenty-one dangerously hot days annually will encounter twice as many such days (Tigchelaar, Battisti, and Spector 2020). Alongside health concerns, agricultural workers who are paid based on the amount of fruit they pick have reported that that wildfire smoke can threaten their source of income by tainting fruit, such as grapes (Gale and Olmos 2021).
As researchers grapple with the emerging science of how wildfires affect our lungs and heat waves affect our hearts, what do we collectively owe food-chain workers exposed to the worst of climate chaos?
Grassroots farmworker justice groups, such as Community to Community Development in Washington State, have been pushing for stronger labor protections to prevent illness and death from heat waves and other events. Our occupational health and safety policies—alongside enforcement—must be updated to adequately contend with the new climate reality. Such advocacy should receive at least as much public support as, say, how to mitigate smoke taint from wildfires in our wine glasses.