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Heat and Loss: How a Hotter Planet Will Destroy Jobs

New research finds that heat-induced labor losses will double by 2050

Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Construction workers in Nepal battle the summer heat. (Photo: judepics via Flickr)

Muggy, summer days on the warmer planet of our future will be "beyond anything experienced in the world today," says a new report published Sunday in the journal Nature by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).

The report, entitled "Reductions in labor capacity from heat stress under climate warming," examines the general misery and striking loss of labor capacity the world can expect as our planet continues to cook.

Another consequence of human-caused global warming is increased humidity in the atmosphere, because warmer air can hold more moisture than cooler air. As anyone who has endeavored physical labor on a muggy summer day can attest, work in those conditions is significantly more miserable and taxing.

According to the report, not only is work capability already reduced by 10 percent during peak months because of increased heat and humidity, by 2050 labor capacity is predicted to drop twice as much, to 80 percent in peak months.

The impact will be most severe in mid-latitude and tropical regions, including South and East Asia, North America, and Australia and will be felt most by those who work outside or in hot environments, such as farmers, firefighters, bakery workers, construction and factory workers.

“Most studies of the direct impact of global warming on humans have focused on mortality under either extreme weather events or theoretical physiological limits. We wanted instead to describe climate warming in practical terms that people commonly experience already,” said lead author, John Dunne.


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Reporting on the study, Reuters writes that under the severe, albeit realistic, estimated temperature rise of 6 degrees Celsius (or 10.8F),

labor capacity would be all-but eliminated in the lower Mississippi Valley and most of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains would be exposed to heat stress "beyond anything experienced in the world today," [Dunne] said.

Under this scenario, heat stress in New York City would exceed that of present-day Bahrain, while in Bahrain, the heat and humidity could cause hyperthermia – potentially dangerous overheating – even in sleeping people who were not working at all.

In climates where work behaviors have not adapted to extreme heat stress—by utilizing siestas during peak hours or doing manual labor at night—such as Europe and the US, occurrences such as the 2003 European heatwave which killed 70,000 will be more common.

According to a statement released by NOAA, "this work represents a fundamental step forward in the ability to quantify the direct impact of climate warming on the global human population."


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