Climate Change Is Making It Too Hot to Work

Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images

Victims of an overzealous office air conditioner have science on their side: Past research has suggested that office workers’ productivity peaks at around 71 degrees, or maybe even warmer — one 2004 study, for instance, found a dramatic reduction in employee mistakes, and a surge in output, once the thermostat was raised from 68 to 77.

These are handy facts to anyone who spends the workday huddled under a blanket, but the most pressing problem regarding temperature and productivity actually swings the other way: The greater threat to workers worldwide isn’t that the office is too chilly, but that the planet is just too hot. In the Washington Post this week, Brady Dennis reported on a new, alarming study illustrating how climate change is harming economies the world over.

The study, sponsored by the United Nations, “builds on research detailing how extreme heat in some places prevents employees from working during the hottest hours of the day,” Dennis wrote. “People simply tire faster and accomplish less the hotter it gets. That lost work time translates into significant hits on the gross domestic product in nations across the globe, and it is a problem that could deepen as the Earth continues to warm,” particularly in less affluent areas:

By the mid-1990s, persistently hot, poor countries such as Bangladesh were estimated to have lost 1 to 3 percent of all daylight work hours to extreme heat, which can cause exhaustion, stroke and sometimes death among exposed workers. In West Africa, research found that the number of very hot days per year had doubled since 1960. Serious heat waves have become more prevalent in various parts of the globe. Those figures could only be getting worse over time …

[The study authors] found that in dozens of countries, daylight work hours lost to excessive heat have increased since the 1990s. They also estimate that at the current rate of global warming, that trend will continue. For instance, countries such as India, Vietnam and Indonesia could see the number of lost work hours more than double by 2055 and more than triple by 2085.

For a small a handful of countries — mostly wealthier ones — climate change may actually be something of a boon, productivity-wise: A study published in Nature last year found that the most productive parts of the globe are those with an average annual temperature of around 55 degrees — meaning that in colder climes, “a little bit of warming could actually be beneficial,” Marshall Burke, one of the Nature co-authors, told the Post at the time. The flip side, of course, is that everywhere else, “a little extra warming is going to hurt you.”

And according to this latest paper, it’s going to hurt the most in the nations that can afford it the least. “It’s extremely likely that the poorest countries and the poorest communities are the ones most affected,” study author Tord Kjellstrom, a visiting professor at Australian National University, told the Post. In some places, he said, the working hours lost to heat could add up to as much as a month a year. “It slows down and undermines efforts to reduce poverty in the world.”

Climate Change Is Making It Too Hot to Work