Implications for workability and survivability in populations exposed to extreme heat under climate change: a modelling study

Oliver Andrews, Corinne Le Quéré, Tord Kjellstrom, Bruno Lemke, Andy Haines

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

62 Citations (Scopus)
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Background: Changes in temperature and humidity due to climate change affect living and working conditions. An understanding of the effects of different global temperature changes on population health is needed to inform the continued implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement and to increase global ambitions for greater cuts in emissions. By use of historical and projected climate conditions, we aimed to investigate the effects of climate change on workability (ie, the ability to work) and survivability (the ability to survive).

Methods: In this modelling study, we estimated the changes in populations exposed to excessive heat stress between the recent past (ie, 1986–2005) and 2100. We used climate data from four models to calculate the wet-bulb globe temperature, an established heat exposure index that can be used to assess the effects of temperature, humidity, and other environmental factors on humans. We defined and applied thresholds for risks to workability (where the monthly mean of daily maximum wet-bulb globe temperature exceeds 34°C) and survivability (where the maximum daily wet-bulb globe temperature exceeds 40°C for 3 consecutive days), and we used population projections to quantify changes in risk associated with different changes to the global temperature.

Findings: The risks to workability increase substantially with global mean surface temperature in all four climate models, with approximately 1 billion people affected globally after an increase in the global temperature of about 2·5°C above pre-industrial levels. There is greater variability between climate models for exposures above the threshold for risks to survivability than for risks to workability. The number of people who are likely to be exposed to heat stress exceeding the survivability threshold increases with global temperature change, to reach around 20 million people globally after an increase of about 2·5°C, estimated from the median of the models, but with a large model uncertainty. More people are likely to be exposed to heat stress in urban than in rural areas. Population exposure can fluctuate over time and change substantially within one decade.

Interpretation: Exposure to excessive heat stress is projected to be widespread in tropical or subtropical low-income and middle-income countries, highlighting the need to build on the Paris Agreement regarding global temperature targets, to protect populations who have contributed little to greenhouse gas emissions. The non-linear dependency of heat exposure risk on temperature highlights the importance of understanding thresholds in coupled human-climate systems.

Funding: Wellcome Trust.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E540-E547
Number of pages8
JournalLancet Planetary Health
Issue number12
Early online date4 Dec 2018
Publication statusPublished - 4 Dec 2018


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