Health and Healthcare Systems

3 billion people could live in places as hot as the Sahara by 2070 unless we tackle climate change

An indigenous Sahrawi man rebuilds his house, which was damaged by floods last October, in Al Smara desert refugee camp in Tindouf, southern Algeria March 4, 2016. In refugee camps near the town of Tindouf in arid southern Algeria, conditions are hard for indigenous Sahrawi residents. Residents use car batteries for electricity at night and depend on humanitarian aid to get by. The five camps near Tindouf are home to an estimated 165,000 Sahrawi refugees from the disputed region of Western Sahara, according to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES  Matching text ALGERIA-SAHARA/ - GF10000333467

Billions more people could be living in desert-like conditions, unless climate change is addressed. Image: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Sean Fleming
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  • In the next 50 years, a third of the world’s population could be living in areas as hot as the hottest parts of the Sahara now.
  • Humans have adapted to live in a narrow band of environmental and climatic fluctuations, but temperature rises threaten this.
  • Health, food security and economic growth would face huge challenges outside the temperature ranges we currently inhabit.

By 2070, one-third of people could be living in conditions that are outside humanity’s comfort zone. That’s the conclusion of a group of scientists from the US, China and Europe who have analysed rising global temperatures and compared them to average climatic conditions over the last 6,000 years.

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Their research warns that unless decisive action is taken to reverse the damage done by greenhouse gases, billions of people could be living in what are “unliveable” circumstances.

Climate change-related rapid temperature rise combined with population growth means that about 30% of the world’s projected population will live in places with an average temperature above 29°C in the next 50 years, according to the paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Less than 1% of the Earth's land surface - mostly in the hottest parts of the Sahara desert - currently experiences this climate. But by 2070, almost a fifth of the planet’s land area will reach these temperatures, the researchers say.

climate change migration habits environment temperature earth global globe world planet
The projected shift in temperature would affect the geographic distribution of people. Image: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America/ Chi Xu, Timothy A. Kohler, Timothy M. Lenton, Jens-Christian Svenning, Marten Scheffer [CC 4.0]

Climatic envelope

For more than 6,000 years, the human race has learned to live within a relatively narrow band of environmental and climatic fluctuations. The mean annual temperature over that period has been around 13ºC. And the crops, livestock and irrigation that are the bedrock of the planet’s food production system were developed, discovered and designed within those constraints.

These, and other critical systems, cannot be expected to function normally outside the environmental niche they grew up in, the researchers warn. In their recently published paper, 'Future of the human climate niche', they explain: “All species have an environmental niche, and despite technological advances, humans are unlikely to be an exception”.

As temperatures continue to rise, these human-friendly conditions could become scarce in many parts of the world. The worst effects of this change will be felt by some of the world’s poorest people and poorest countries.

“Global warming will affect ecosystems as well as human health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, and economic growth in many ways,” the researchers warn.

Most people currently live in areas where the average temperature is 11-15°C. A smaller number live in regions with a mean of around 20-25°C. If greenhouse gases emissions increase unchecked by 2070 the average person will be living in temperatures 7.5°C hotter than preindustrial times, the study authors predict. This is because population growth is expected to be the greatest in already-hot places, and although the projected global temperature rise in this scenario is just over 3°C, land will warm much faster than oceans.

climate change migration habits environment temperature earth global globe world planet
Much of Africa, South America and Australasia will face challenging conditions. Image: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America/ Chi Xu, Timothy A. Kohler, Timothy M. Lenton, Jens-Christian Svenning, Marten Scheffer [CC 4.0]

While North America, Europe and large parts of Asia will be the least hit by the change, much of Africa, South America and Australasia will face challenging conditions. Some of the effects of extreme weather – droughts and floods, failed crops and famine, pestilence and disease could become the norm. That may trigger a series of secondary pressures and problems.

A growing problem

The world’s population is expected to grow to around 10.9 billion by the end of this century. According to the authors, 3.5 billion people will by then be living in parts of the world where the mean annual temperature will be around 29°C, which is far outside the climatic envelope of human development.

climate change migration habits environment temperature earth global globe world planet
Environmental concerns dominate the risk outlook over the next 10 years. Image: World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2020

In the World Economic Forum Global Risk Report 2020, “climate change and related environmental issues” dominate concerns for our world in the long-term.

According to the charity Oxfam, over the last decade, more than 20 million people a year have been pushed out of their homes by climate-fuelled disasters. As living conditions become more hostile, and food production is disrupted, there is an increased likelihood of mass migration, placing increased pressure on the host countries migrants move to and through.

“People prefer not to migrate. Also there is scope for local adaptation in part of the world within limits, but in the Global South this will require boosting human development rapidly,” Professor Marten Scheffer of Wageningen University, who coordinated the research, says in an article for the University of Exeter.

He added: "This study underscores why a holistic approach to tackling climate change that includes adapting to its impacts, addressing social issues, building governance, and empowering development as well as compassionate legal pathways for those whose homes are affected, is crucial to ensuring a world in which all humans can live with dignity.”

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