By Cara Korte
Over the last 30 years, heat has caused more deaths than hurricanes, tornadoes and extreme cold combined. And if climate and demographic trends stay the same, by 2050, more than 59,000 people could die every year from heat, according to a new report from the Atlantic Council.
“Heat is the Grim Reaper that no one can see,” said Kathy Baughman McLeod, senior vice president and director at the council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center.
As soon as 2030, experts say, excess heat could kill more than 8,500 people per year.
Extreme heat killed nearly 2,000 people in the U.S. in 2018. If greenhouse gas emissions go unchecked, more than 130 million people in the U.S. every year will experience at least 100 days of heat exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050.
Heat is pervasive and expensive, Baughman McLeod said. High temperatures trigger heat stroke and exacerbate pre-existing conditions such as heart and lung disease. Common medications, including antihistamines and antidepressants, make people more vulnerable to heat stress.
And the socioeconomic ramifications of extreme heat are numerous and can compound in a domino effect.
Those working outside or without air conditioning — such as agriculture or construction workers — require more breaks in extreme heat, causing their productivity to suffer. People who are physically uncomfortable at work tend to make more mistakes. They’re also more likely to get sick or injured, forcing them to miss work or work through pain. Heat also contributes to mechanical stress, meaning machines break down and slow production.
Extreme heat has economy-wide consequences, said Anant Sudarshan, the South-Asia Director at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, affecting everything from the cost of goods increasing if heat-stricken workers produce less, to investors deciding to build new businesses in cooler regions.
While owners can decide to relocate to avoid brutal temperatures, Sudarshan said adaptation via automation might be a way to get workers out of the heat, but it could also cost them their jobs.
“Think of it as a kind of tax on business; a tax that is proportional to labor,” said Sudarshan. “You either pay it in the form of less productive workers or pay it in the form of adaptation costs.”