Climate Change

Here’s how heat waves can impact economies, as well as people and wildlife

Two cargo ships on water during daytime. Between 1980 and 2000, heat waves in 32 European countries cost up to $71 billion.

Between 1980 and 2000, heat waves in 32 European countries cost up to $71 billion. Image: Unsplash/William william

Helen Nugent
Senior Writer, Formative Content
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Climate Change?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Climate Change is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Climate Change

Listen to the article

  • Countries across the globe have witnessed record high temperatures in 2022.
  • Climate scientists expect the unprecedented heat waves to continue.
  • Between 1998 and 2017, more than 166,000 people died as a result of heat waves.
  • But extreme heat also impacts economies – between 1980 and 2000, heat waves in 32 European countries cost up to $71 billion.
  • Fast-tracking the switch to clean energy sources is vital, say scientists.

“We are living in hell.” That’s how one person described the recent record-breaking heat wave in Pakistan.

Earlier this year, Australia recorded its hottest day with a temperature of 50.7C on its western coast, while Delhi in India registered its highest-ever temperature of 49C in May. Meanwhile, recent days and weeks have seen mercury-busting readings across Europe and North Africa, and large swathes of the central United States continue to endure scorching weather.

Western Europe suffered extreme heat waves in July 2022.
Western Europe suffered extreme heat waves in July 2022. Image: WMO

The deadly impact of heat waves

Heat waves can be deadly, with the elderly particularly at risk of heat exhaustion and heatstroke. According to the World Health Organization, between 1998 and 2017, more than 166,000 people died as a result of heat waves. In the UK alone, stifling temperatures claimed in excess of 2,500 lives in summer 2020.

Experts predict that climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of extreme hot weather. Climate scientists expect heat waves to be the ‘new normal’, with the World Weather Attribution saying recently that climate change made this year’s prolonged, devastating early heat in India and Pakistan 30 times more likely.

Aside from creating dangerous health conditions, heat waves increase the likelihood of droughts and fuel wildfires, which affect both animals and humans, points out NBC News.

Heat waves can impact economies as well as people and wildlife

And beyond the immediate threat to life, extreme temperatures can impact economies, too.

Extended bouts of great heat can result in more hospital visits, a sharp loss of productivity in construction and agriculture, reduced agricultural yields, and even direct damage to infrastructure,” points out Phys.org.

Employees are less productive during hot weather, even if they work inside, while children struggle to learn in extreme heat, resulting in lower lifetime earnings which in turn hurts future economic growth, according to The Conversation. Indeed, a 2018 study found that the economies of US states tend to grow at a slower pace during hot summers. “The data shows that annual growth falls 0.15 to 0.25 percentage points for every 1 degree Fahrenheit that a state’s average summer temperature was above normal.”

And it’s not like air conditioning is a simple solution. For some, the technology is either not practical (outside workers) or is financially unattainable. And for those where air conditioning is an option, there are consequences down the line. One study anticipates that by 2100, greater use of air conditioning could increase residential energy consumption by 83% globally. And as The Conversation points out, “if that energy comes from fossil fuels, it could end up amplifying the heat waves that caused the higher demand in the first place”.

The financial cost of heat waves

A closer examination of the effect of very hot weather on economies reveals some extremely worrying statistics. For example, the European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates that, between 1980 and 2000, heat waves in 32 European countries cost up to $71 billion - and that’s before the deadly heat waves of the past two decades are taken into account.

Meanwhile, the International Labour Organization (ILO) predicts that, by 2030, heat waves could reduce the number of hours worked globally by more than 2%. That’s the equivalent of 80 million full-time jobs and a cost of $2.4 trillion - nearly 10 times the 1995 figure, says Phys.org.

What happens next?

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the negative effects of climate change are mounting much faster than scientists predicted less than a decade ago. The warnings are dire, not least the panel’s finding that a rise in global temperatures of more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels may result in permanent and potentially catastrophic changes to our world.

Fast-tracking the switch to clean energy sources is vital, say scientists.

In the meantime, experts say that it is possible to prepare for heat waves, both physically and economically. Amar Rahman of Zurich Insurance Group believes that the key is “adaptation”. Among his recommendations are some for businesses that, he says, “need to adapt their buildings, infrastructure and working hours to higher temperatures”.

There are also benefits to so-called ‘urban greening’, where more trees and other vegetation can help to cool down cities and towns.

At an individual level, keeping the air flowing in rooms and buildings is important, as is staying hydrated.

Discover

How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

Have you read?
Loading...
Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Climate ChangeFuture of the Environment
Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Two years to save the planet, says UN climate chief, and other nature and climate stories you need to read this week

Johnny Wood

April 15, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum