Jul 9 12:10 PM

How hot is it? Hot enough to ruin the economy

Worker productivity as influenced by temperature.
Risky Business Project

The increased number of excessively hot days guaranteed to come with the changing climate has the potential to dramatically denigrate worker productivity, according to recent study. Add that to soaring energy costs, major shifts in agricultural production, higher crime rates and heavy damage to costal regions, and you’ve got a crisis of Grecian proportions … if you had the collapsing Greek economy also shoulder the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars while also being responsible for cleaning up Fukushima.

Hot enough for you?

For outdoor work, negative productivity seems to start at about 79 degrees Fahrenheit, but it really takes a nosedive at about 90 degrees. Above 100 degrees? Fuhgeddaboutit. Projecting from current greenhouse gas emission rates, by the end of the century, much of the Southern U.S. will experience 90-plus degree days for five months of the year.

It will make you long for when you measured the dog days of summer in just days.

At that rate, U.S. worker productivity will drop by 2 percent by 2100. For comparison, as the study suggests, the 2008 Greek recession saw a productivity drop of less than 1 percent. In personal terms, it breaks down to a $504 surcharge on every man, woman and child in the country … with that cost being higher in poorer and more agricultural areas (read: Southeast and Great Plains).

Productivity figures to be the biggest economic hit, though energy costs will certainly give it a run for its, uh, money. Higher temperatures mean higher demand for electricity, which means — unless the country makes a concerted effort to break from fossil and fissile power generation — higher energy costs. Increased costs could average $287 per year by century’s end, with it more than double that amount in the very poorest regions.

Violent crime is also expected to rise, and, of course, damage to costal communities caused by rising sea levels and warmer oceans will cost those residents hundreds to thousands of dollars each year, but if you want a break from dollars an cents, there’s always heat- and humidity-related mortality.

“There will be 10 to 20 times as many incremental deaths because of excess heat and humidity 100 years from now,” Dr. Alfred Sommer, Dean Emeritus and Professor of Epidemiology and International Health at John Hopkins, said.

What does that look like? Set the wayback machine to Chicago, July 1995:

On the first day of the heat wave, Thursday, July 13, the temperature hit 106 degrees, and the heat index—a combination of heat and humidity that measures the temperature a typical person would feel—rose above 120. For a week, the heat persisted, running between the 90s and low 100s. The night temperatures, in the low to mid-80s, were unusually high and didn't provide much relief. …

The city set new records for energy use, which then led to the failure of some power grids—at one point, 49,000 households had no electricity. Many Chicagoans swarmed the city's beaches, but others took to the fire hydrants. More than 3,000 hydrants around Chicago were opened, causing some neighborhoods to lose water pressure on top of losing electricity. When emergency crews came to seal the hydrants, some people threw bricks and rocks to keep them away.


After about forty-eight hours of continuous exposure to heat, the body's defenses begin to fail. So by Friday, July 14, thousands of Chicagoans had developed severe heat-related illnesses. Paramedics couldn't keep up with emergency calls, and city hospitals were overwhelmed. Twenty-three hospitals—most on the South and Southwest Sides—went on bypass status, closing the doors of their emergency rooms to new patients. Some ambulance crews drove around the city for miles looking for an open bed.

Hundreds of victims never made it to a hospital. The most overcrowded place in the city was the Cook County Medical Examiners Office, where police transported hundreds of bodies for autopsies. The morgue typically receives about 17 bodies a day and has a total of 222 bays. By Saturday—just three days into the heat wave—its capacity was exceeded by hundreds, and the county had to bring in a fleet of refrigerated trucks to store the bodies.

There were no uniform standards for determining heat-related deaths in 1995, so Chicago’s medical examiner had to develop them. By his counts, there were 465 heat-related deaths that week, and 521 for that July.

Methodology that measures “excess death rate” put the number higher: More than 700 Chicago residents died over and above the normal death rate for the week of the 1995 heat wave, according to Eric Klinenberg
author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.

That’s miserable, sad and scary … and it’s also expensive (sorry, this post is about the economy). The cost of those deaths will run the U.S. more than $700 per person by the most conservative of calculations.

How does that add up? Depends on the model, but a compilation of recent data analyzed by the most conservative measure puts the overall direct cost to the U.S. economy at 1.5 to 5.9 percent by 2100, with a 1-in-20 chance damage would approach 10 percent.

And that number actually leaves out things called “inequality aversion” and “risk aversion” — the amount a society is willing to shell out to mitigate or avoid some of the future harm. Those costs could double or triple the economic impact by 2100.

Anyone still want to argue we can’t afford to cut greenhouse gas emissions?

As the saying goes, it’s not the heat, it’s the economy … stupid.


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