Humidity and Worker Productivity
7:31 am
Fri March 1, 2013

Humidity Will Worsen With Climate Change And With It, Worker Productivity

Anyone who has tried to tend a garden or walk the dog in the height of a South Florida summer understands the energy-zapping qualities of a heat and humidity combo. A recently released study reports that climate change will mean an increase in those sticky, sweaty days.

As temperatures around the country rise, worker productivity will take a dive.
Credit couchlearner / Flickr Creative Commons

While not entirely shocking -- it would stand to reason that a warming planet would mean more uncomfortable days -- the study, released earlier this week by Nature Climate Change, suggests a significant drop in worker productivity if climate change patterns continue.

Using the Earth System Model (ESM2M), the report predicts that within 40 years, labor capacity will drop to 80 percent in peak months. Right now, that figure is at about 90 percent. If climate change reaches the "highest scenario considered" worker productivity could drop to "less than 40 percent by 2200 in peak months."

In reporting on the study, NPR's All Things Considered spoke with John Dunne of the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA). Dunne said "heat stress itself affects more people as climate warms and affects the people that it already affected more severely."

To put the temperature change in context, scientists say cities like New York could eventually have "peak season" climates that mirror regions like Bahrain in the Middle East; incredibly hot and muggy. The nation's poor -- who may not have readily-available access to air conditioning or the option not to work during peak hours -- will be hardest hit. Likewise, climate-controlled workspaces aren't feasible for low-paid agricultural workers, such as those who work at farms in Miami-Dade and throughout South Florida. 

Meanwhile, looking at the "Climate Assessment Report" recently released by the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee, "the Southeast is expected to have the highest increase in heat index (a measure of comfort that combines temperature and relative humidity) of any region in the country." As such, Florida and other states in the Southeast should brace for "a rise in hospital admissions due to respiratory illnesses, emergency room visits for asthma, and lost school days."

In assessing the implications of the report, Climate Central quoted University of South Florida Professor Thomas Bernard, who said: "You're going to have a loss of productivity as the temperatures go up. That's a good, valid, kind of irrefutable message. If the study's authors want to argue that there is an economic cost, I think they're on strong ground."  

Looking at it from an optimistic angle, already-muggy regions like South Florida may be better adapted to handle the increasing heat. In a Huffington Post piece from Reuters, NOAA scientist Dunne said regions that already are affected by heat and humidity may suffer less with the changes; "It's very regionally dependent and highly determined by adaptation."