The Acropolis has stood above the city of Athens for centuries, its ancient walls and pillars withstanding war, siege and conquest. But as temperatures crested 40C across southern Europe last month, Greece’s top tourist attraction briefly fell victim to extreme heat.
Officials shut the site for several hours during the hottest parts of the day, after holidaymakers queueing to enter required medical attention.
The Cerberus heatwave — named after the three-headed dog who guarded the gates to hell in Greek mythology — has shone a spotlight on just how vulnerable the Mediterranean’s huge tourism industry is to the heatwaves that are becoming increasingly common in Europe.
But the economic impact of what experts warn could be a new era of record-breaking heat goes far beyond tourism. Industries ranging from construction, to manufacturing, agriculture, transport and insurance are all bracing for changes to the way they do business as high-temperature days become more routine because of climate change.
Scientists are clear that extreme weather, including heatwaves, will become more frequent and intense with every fraction of a degree of warming. Last month, with average temperatures already at least 1.1C hotter globally than pre-industrial levels, swathes of the US, Europe and Asia sweltered under “heat domes”. Record highs were reached from China to Italy.
A study published by academics at Dartmouth College in the US last year found that heatwaves, brought on by human-caused climate change, cost the global economy an estimated US$16 trillion over a 21-year period from the 1990s.
Extreme heat is “pulling down our growth”, says Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Centre at the Atlantic Council, and “dragging down our economies ... the runways are buckling, metros are closing, restaurants have to shut down because the kitchen staff are too hot”.
But those costs are likely to spiral in coming decades as economies reorient themselves for peak seasons of ever more extreme heat.
One of the main reasons that extreme heat poses an economic threat is because it makes it harder to work. High temperatures go hand in hand with low productivity.
In hot conditions, human beings typically “work slower, we take on more risk, our cognitive function decreases”, says Laura Kent of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, a professional association that recently produced a report on how industry will need to adapt to extreme heat.
A study by the International Labour Organisation, the UN agency for workers, projected that by 2030, the equivalent of more than 2 per cent of total working hours worldwide would be lost every year, either because it is too hot to work or because workers have to work at a slower pace.
Yet few countries have a maximum temperature for when work must stop. In the UK, for example, where extreme heat has not historically been a problem, there is only a recommended threshold for stopping work in cold, not hot, temperatures.
Outdoor workers — especially those in agriculture or construction — are particularly at risk of death, injuries, sickness and reduced productivity because of heat exposure, according to the ILO. Between 1992 and 2016, 285 construction workers in the US died from heat-related causes, about a third of all the country’s occupational deaths from heat exposure, according to academic research.
But those working inside are at increasing risk as intense heatwaves become more frequent, including the world’s 66 million textile workers, who often work inside factories and workshops without air conditioning. Many are in the global south, where peak temperatures are even more extreme and dangerous.
After British Columbia in Canada suffered a devastating heatwave in 2021, heat-related workplace injuries requiring compensation increased by 180 per cent when compared to the previous three-year average, according to research. More than a third of those came from indoor workers, compared to 20 per cent on average.
Beyond the consequences of extreme heat on their employees, industries are being forced to rethink more existential issues, such as where their businesses are based and how they operate.
The construction industry is one area that might require a radical reinvention, says Daisie Rees-Evans, who works on policy at the Chartered Institute of Building.
“Not only do extreme weather conditions impact construction work on sites but it actually impacts material,” she says.
Steel can warp in hot conditions, while concrete becomes difficult to work with and sets much more quickly — leaving it more prone to cracking and affecting its strength and durability. There is also the risk concrete will spoil before it can be poured.
All of this adds up to additional costs for the sector, says Rees-Evans.
Any delays to projects can also come with additional costs, including fines for exceeding the agreed completion date, she adds.
Manufacturing is another sector that faces significant changes. Factories and warehouses “are just not designed for the temperatures we are seeing now and expected to see”, says Kent of the mechanical engineers’ association.
This means that equipment might not work as effectively or wears out more quickly, which comes with higher operational costs. “A vast majority of our industry rely on some sort of heating or cooling process,” she says. “If you are heating or need to cool down to a certain temperature and the ambient temperature is already hotter, that difference is harder to overcome.”
At the same time, the availability of water can come under intense pressure during periods of higher heat — a huge problem for the industrial sector, which needs water for functions such as cooling and transportation.
Along the Rhine, one of Europe’s most important waterways, companies have faced disruptions because of low water levels for three out of the past five years, including in 2018 when barges struggled to travel, hitting fuel and chemical supplies.
“For the longest time, we have put industries next to rivers,” says Johanna Lehne, programme lead at climate consultancy E3G, but companies are now faced with questions about where they should be based and what they are able to produce.
Then there is the risk to infrastructure. Heat stress is “going to shorten lifespans”, says David Carlin of the UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative. That affects everything from train tracks to roads and airports.
“Not only do you have potential infrastructural damages like bridge collapses, but you also have to replace these things faster, which is increasing costs.”
For agriculture, extreme heat can decrease crop yields. Research from Arsht-Rock found corn, the most widely produced US crop, is losing about US$720 million in revenue annually because of extreme heat, which will increase to a projected US$1.7b by 2030.
As work becomes riskier in a range of sectors, insurance costs will rise.
According to data from reinsurer Swiss Re, heat-related catastrophe losses for insurers, such as crop failures from drought or wildfire damage to properties, amounted to US$46.4b in the five years to 2022, up from US$29.4b in the previous five years.
In California, one of the areas most affected by wildfires, some big US insurers have pulled back. Allstate cited the growing bill from wildfires as among the reasons it paused selling new home insurance policies in California last year. State Farm, another big home insurer, warned of “rapidly growing catastrophe exposure” when it did the same this year.
That has fed a growing debate about the affordability of insurance for individuals and companies as climate change effects intensify, with more people falling into public safety nets.
A couple of generations down the line, humans will have to find new ways to adapt their societies as temperatures rise ever higher.
Climate pledges made by countries put the world on track for temperature rises of between 2.4C and 2.6C by 2100. This is far ahead of the 1.5C threshold after which scientists have warned of potentially irreversible changes to the planet and devastating consequences for citizens.
“This [extreme heat] is not going to go away anytime soon. It’s going to be more frequent, it’s going to be more intense, it’s going to be longer as well,” says Carolina Cecilio, policy adviser at E3G.
Some countries are waking up to the issue. Greece appointed its first chief heat officer in 2021, while Spain said this year it would ban outdoor work during periods of extreme heat.
Companies are introducing measures such as using “misting” on animals and employees to keep cool. Others are switching working hours, trying to do more at night or during the early hours of the morning — although this can be met with objections from local governments and residents.
As the world warms, so-called passive cooling is likely to become more important for economies, says Kent.
Many of the materials that buildings and roads are made from — such as tar and concrete — absorb and retain energy from the sun’s rays, warming their surroundings, while factories and warehouses are often found in industrial parks that lack green spaces and allow heat to build up.
Cost-effective solutions included “cool roofs” that are painted white to reflect the heat, or adding shade through the use of “overhang” on buildings or increased tree cover.
Rees-Evans says construction firms are starting to use AI to factor forecast weather into a project’s running order. This would allow them, for example, to hold off ordering steel if they expected a prolonged period of hot weather.
Internationally, adaptation is expected to be high on the agenda of the international COP28 climate negotiations. Politicians are increasingly looking at how money can be raised to help countries, especially those in the global south, deal with extreme temperatures because of climate change.
But Baughman McLeod says businesses and policymakers needed to act now to prepare for extreme heat. A big rethink of our economies may be needed, she says, as countries that depend on tourism see visits plummet during peak seasons, or companies can no longer do business for key months of the year. “There is not a solution for every place, but there is a solution for every person.”
Delivery workers pay the price of climate change
Larry McBride, a 46-year-old UPS delivery driver in Arizona, was seven minutes away from the regional depot when he pulled over and threw up. Fearing he could lose his job for “theft of time”, he kept on working. Later that day, he was hospitalised for heatstroke and severe kidney injury. Temperatures that day in May last year reached an unusually hot 40C.
A few weeks later, UPS driver Esteban Chavez, 24, died on his route in California from sudden cardiac dysfunction. His family blames this on the heat that day, when temperatures peaked at 35C, although UPS noted that the coroner’s report did not mention this as a cause.
The incidents demonstrate how rising temperatures remain a serious concern for all delivery workers, who have the physically demanding tasks of carrying goods and driving vehicles that often lack air conditioning.
These dangers have been underlined by the record-breaking heat experienced worldwide in recent weeks. July is likely to have been the hottest month ever recorded, scientists said last week, with temperatures climbing above 40C across swathes of America, Europe and Asia. And the health risks are clearly demonstrated by a study published in the journal Nature this month that estimated 61,700 people died because of heat in Europe last summer, itself a record-hot season.
“Worker productivity losses due to extreme heat are eye-popping, but invisible and silent,” says Baughman McLeod.
In 2021, the centre calculated that extreme heat costs the US US$100 billion a year in lost labour productivity — a figure that could double by 2030 if no meaningful action is taken. That compares with the estimated US$60b-US$65b cost of the record-breaking 2020 Atlantic hurricane season.
At 33-34C, a worker operating at moderate intensity loses 50 per cent of their work capacity, according to research published by the International Labour Organisation. At high temperatures, which can be compounded by high humidity, people’s bodies struggle to maintain the 37C internal temperature that is essential for normal body function. An analysis by the Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation said losses from extreme heat were “greatest overall” in service industries — particularly among warehousing and logistics workers, because of limited air conditioning.
At the three biggest package delivery companies in the US — UPS, United States Postal Service and FedEx — 317 workers were hospitalised from heat exposure between 2015 and 2022, which is 16 per cent of the total for such injuries among all US employers, according to FT analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data.
However, this is likely to be an underestimate given heat injuries are often under-reported or misclassified — heat can cause someone to fall from a ladder, but it may not be logged as heat-related.
UPS delivery vans do not have air conditioning, although the company last week reached a deal with the Teamsters union for it to be provided in new vehicles purchased from January. The deal covers other issues including pay and is subject to a vote by union members.
The US Postal Service said in December that it would replace its vehicles with air-conditioned models. This is standard in FedEx’s company-owned vehicles, although a significant proportion of its fleet is owned and operated by third parties.
Zakk Flash, an Oklahoma-based package deliverer who joined UPS five years ago, suggests that concerns remain, though: “The message you get from both management and internally is ‘push through it, and you’ll be fine’. But we have underlying health issues. I’ve got an autoimmune disease. Those things do not go away when we enter the company gates.”
A UPS spokesperson says: “The health and safety of our employees is our highest priority. We instituted new steps to ensure safety and comfort for employees during heatwaves, including providing heat-related gear. We instruct drivers and their management to immediately call emergency services if there are heat stroke symptoms.”
Referring to McBride, UPS said that it “doesn’t reflect the way we train our teams today to respond to signs of potential heat-related illness”. It also said: “We are saddened by the death of Esteban Chavez and send our deepest condolences to the Chavez family...While the coroner’s report doesn’t point to heat as a cause, and CalOSHA conducted an investigation that did not cite the company, we have been steadily building on our efforts to protect our people in the face of increasingly hot temperatures.”
Baughman MacLeod believes low-cost measures — such as use of fans, water breaks, adapting hours of work and changing dress code — can make a difference. “No one needs to die from extreme heat,” she argues. “We know exactly what to do.”
After the latest waves of extreme heat, US President Joe Biden instructed the Department of Labour to ramp up enforcement on workplace heat hazards. Some jurisdictions already have regulations in place governing heat at work. They include California, Qatar and Spain.
Elissavet Bargianni, the chief heat officer of Athens — the Greek capital is the first European city to create the role — says “public and private bodies need to align and specify special measures according to the nature of the work done and working environment”. For example, this month, for the first time, Greece banned construction and delivery work in the hottest hours of the day.
Elizabeth Humphrys, an economist at the University of Technology Sydney who researches occupational heat stress, has interviewed warehouse and logistics workers across Australia. She says the most concerning barrier to workplace heat safety was in workers feeling “incapable or not powerful enough” to take a break.
Some workers explained they avoid drinking water frequently, because taking toilet breaks would require them to work harder to compensate for time away. “Businesses are mostly worried about the bottom line,” says Humphrys. “But what gets lost in that are the workers.”
Written by: Attracta Mooney, Camilla Hodgson, Ian Smith and Aime Williams
© Financial Times