Billionaires Can Have the Cosmos—We Only Want the Earth

Screenshot of Richard Branson, wearing sunglasses and earphones, in a rocket. Two other crew members are visible behind him. On the left is a window through which you can see part of the outside of the rocket, labeled VIRGIN, and blue sky.

If we leave it up to the oil barons and space cowboys, they will chase the last dollar till they annihilate us all. Photo: Screenshot from Virgin Galactic launch video on YouTube

Fleeing is what the rich do best. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz fled Texas last winter, abandoning millions to freezing temperatures. But some have tired of the Earth altogether.

Billionaires Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson are fleeing to space on rockets with stratospheric price tags.

Branson was the first to venture forth July 11, in a gambit to launch a commercial space tourism industry—as if we didn’t have enough trouble with the carbon emissions from excess tourism.

That’s what it means to be ultra-rich—to squander oodles of untaxed cash and rake in public subsidies on boyhood fantasies of “space hotels, amusement parks, yachts, and colonies,” as Bezos put it in high school.

But the billionaires playing space cowboys aren’t like the rest of us. They’re on the other side of the fault line of an accelerating climate catastrophe caused by greenhouse emissions.

Workers who plow fields, erect scaffolding, haul garbage, lay track, and stuff mail are not going to escape onboard a winged rocket. We are going to have to fight to survive on Earth.

EXTREME HEAT

From 1992 to 2017 in the U.S., heat stress killed 815 workers and injured 70,000; every year, 65,000 people visit the emergency room for heat stress.

In June, an extreme heat wave hit the Pacific Northwest. With no federal heat standards in place, the United Farmworkers called on Washington’s governor to issue protections for thousands of vulnerable farmworkers.

Washington and Oregon adopted emergency heat standards for outdoor workers, guaranteeing cool drinking water and shade breaks (Oregon’s stronger rules cover indoor workers too)—but not before Guatemalan-born farmworker Sebastian Francisco Perez, 38, died moving irrigation lines in a 104-degree field in Marion County, Oregon.

Proposed heat-stress legislation in Congress, the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, doesn’t go far enough, especially in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that bans union organizers from approaching farmworkers in the fields.

Telecom workers, canvassers, and even librarians are among the union members who are fighting for contractual protection from heat and smoke.

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In Maine, unions are teaming up with housing advocates, environmental groups, and indigenous people to push climate bills that will recognize tribal sovereignty, build energy-efficient affordable housing, and create green jobs in low-income areas.

WE WANT THE EARTH

But these are modest efforts compared to the scale of the challenge. All told, the scalding heat wave in the Pacific Northwest killed 800 people. Blistering heat melted power cables and buckled roads in normally temperate Seattle and Portland.

In New York, scorching sun gave way to floods. Viral videos showed subway riders wading through train stations waist-deep in sewage and runoff. A massive flood also hit Detroit, turning thousands of Labor Notes books to pulp.

Meanwhile the Southwest is parched; the people of Colorado are preparing for wildfires. Already the Canadian village of Lytton, British Columbia, combusted after setting an all-time heat record of 121 degrees.

European Union researchers released more evidence in July that planetary heating’s pace far outstrips the climate’s ability to adjust, noting that human-caused climate change is “abrupt and irreversible.”

But it’s never about more information; it’s about power. Alaska, for instance, is installing a cooling system to keep the permafrost frozen and prevent a section of the Trans-Alaska pipeline from crashing and spewing oil everywhere.

In other words, rather than solve the problem by removing the pipeline, the owners have geoengineered a way to keep exacerbating the very conditions that are melting the ice.

Newly leaked audio of an Exxon lobbyist reveals how sneakily the world’s biggest fossil fuel corporations have fought to stymie legislative solutions and sow doubts about the science behind climate action.

It’s up to workers to jump-start a mass movement to save life itself. If we leave it up to the oil barons and space cowboys, they will chase the last dollar till they annihilate us all.

Bezos and his space-trotting pals can have the cosmos. We only want the Earth.

Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes. luis@labornotes.org