A fundamental aspect of greenhouse-gas-induced warming is a global-scale increase in absolute humidity1,2. Under continued warming, this response has been shown to pose increasingly severe limitations on human activity in tropical and mid-latitudes during peak months of heat stress3. One heat-stress metric with broad occupational health applications4,5,6 is wet-bulb globe temperature. We combine wet-bulb globe temperatures from global climate historical reanalysis7 and Earth System Model (ESM2M) projections8,9,10 with industrial4 and military5 guidelines for an acclimated individual’s occupational capacity to safely perform sustained labour under environmental heat stress (labour capacity)—here defined as a global population-weighted metric temporally fixed at the 2010 distribution. We estimate that environmental heat stress has reduced labour capacity to 90% in peak months over the past few decades. ESM2M projects labour capacity reduction to 80% in peak months by 2050. Under the highest scenario considered (Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5), ESM2M projects labour capacity reduction to less than 40% by 2200 in peak months, with most tropical and mid-latitudes experiencing extreme climatological heat stress. Uncertainties and caveats associated with these projections include climate sensitivity, climate warming patterns, CO2 emissions, future population distributions, and technological and societal change.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $17.75 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Manabe, S. & Wetherald, R. T. The effects of doubling CO2 concentration on the climate of a general circulation model. J. Atmos. Sci. 32, 3–15 (1975).
Manabe, S. & Stouffer, R. J. A CO2-climate sensitivity study with a mathematical model of the global climate. Nature 282, 491–493 (1979).
Delworth, T. L., Mahlman, J. D. & Knutson, T. R. Changes in heat index associated with CO2-induced global warming. Climatic Change 43, 369–386 (1999).
American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists Threshold Limit Values for Chemical Substances and Physical Agents. Biological Exposure Indices (ACGIH, 1996).
Heat Stress Control and Heat Casualty Management Technical Bulletin Medical 507/Air Force Pamphlet 48-152 (US Army, 2003).
Parsons, K. Heat stress standard ISO 7243 and its global application. Ind. Health 44, 368–379 (2006).
Kalnay, E. et al. The NCEP/NCAR 40-Year Reanalysis Project. BAMS 77, 437–470 (1996).
Dunne, J. P. et al. GFDL’s ESM2 global coupled climate-carbon Earth System Models Part I: Physical formulation and baseline simulation characteristics. J. Clim. 25, 6646–6665 (2012).
Moss, R. H. et al. The next generation of scenarios for climate change research and assessment. Nature 463, 747–756 (2010).
Meinshausen, M. et al. The RCP greenhouse gas concentrations and their extensions from 1765 to 2300. Climatic Change 109, 213–241 (2011).
Cubasch, U. et al. in IPCC Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis (eds Houghton, J. T. et al.) 525–582 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001).
Confalonieri, U. et al. in IPCC Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (eds Parry, M. L. et al.) 391–431 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).
Steadman, R. G. The assessment of sultriness. Part I: A temperature–humidity index based on human physiology and clothing science. J. Appl. Meteorol. 18, 861–873 (1979).
Willett, K. M. & Sherwood, S. C. Exceedance of heat index thresholds for 15 regions under a warming climate using the wet-bulb globe temperature. Int. J. Climatol. 32, 161–177 (2012).
Jendritzky, G. & Tinz, B. The thermal environment of the human being on the global scale. Glob. Health Action 2 (Special volume), 10–21 (2009).
Sherwood, S. C. & Huber, M. An adaptability limit to climate change due to heat stress. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 9552–9555 (2010).
Kjellstrom, T., Holmer, I. & Lemke, B. Workplace heat stress, health and productivity—an increasing challenge for low and middle-income countries during climate change. Glob. Health Action 2 (Special volume), 46–51 (2009).
Epstein, Y. & Moran, D. S. Thermal comfort and the heat stress indices. Ind. Health 44, 388–398 (2006).
Davies-Jones, R. An efficient and accurate method for computing the wet-bulb temperature along pseudoadiabats. Mon. Weath. Rev. 136, 2764–2785 (2008).
Taylor, K. E., Stouffer, R. J. & Meehl, G. A. An overview of CMIP5 and the experiment design. BAMS 93, 485–498 (2012).
Delworth, T. L. et al. GFDL’s CM2 global coupled climate models. Part I: Formulation and simulation characteristics. J. Clim. 19, 643–674 (2006).
Winton, M. et al. Influence of ocean and atmosphere components on simulated climate sensitivities. J. Clim. 26, 231–245 (2013).
Meehl, G. A. et al. in IPCC Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (eds S., Solomon et al.) 747–845 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).
Reichler, T. & Kim, J. How well do coupled models simulate today’s climate? BAMS 89, 303–311 (2008).
Guilyardi, E. et al. Understanding El Niño in ocean–atmosphere general circulation models. BAMS 90, 325–340 (2009).
Hegerl, G. C. et al. in IPCC Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (eds Solomon, S. et al.) 663–745 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).
Meinshausen, M. et al. Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 °C. Nature 458, 1158–1162 (2009).
McCarthy, M. P., Best, M. J. & Betts, R. A. Climate change in cities due to global warming and urban effects. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L09705 (2010).
Fischer, E. M., Oleson, K. W. & Lawrence, D. M. Contrasting urban and rural heat stress responses to climate change. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L03705 (2012).
Rogner, H-H. et al. Global Energy Assessment—Toward a Sustainable Future 425–512 (Cambridge Univ. Press and IIASA, 2012).
Schindler, J. & Wittel, Z. Crude Oil: The Supply Outlook Report to the Energy Watch Group EWG Series No 3/2007 (Energy Watch Group, 2007).
Rutledge, D. Estimating long-term world coal production with logit and probit transforms. Int. J. Coal Geol. 85, 23–33 (2011).
Christensen, J. H. et al. in IPCC Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis (eds Houghton, J. T. et al.) 847–865 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001).
Fischer, E. M. & Knutti, R. Robust projections of combined humidity and temperature extremes. Nature Clim. Change 3, 126–130 (2013).
Bolton, D. The computation of equivalent potential temperature. Mon. Weath. Rev. 108, 1046–1053 (1980).
Wexler, A. Vapor pressure formulation for water in range 0 to 100C. A revision. J. Res. Nat. Bur. Stand. 80A, 775–785 (1976).
The scientific results and conclusions, as well as any views or opinions expressed herein, are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NOAA or the US Department of Commerce. The authors thank I. Held, T. Delworth, T. Knutson and V. Ramaswamy for constructive criticisms to improve the manuscript.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Dunne, J., Stouffer, R. & John, J. Reductions in labour capacity from heat stress under climate warming. Nature Clim Change 3, 563–566 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1827
International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2020)
Physiological responses of acclimatized construction workers during different work patterns in a hot and humid subtropical area of China
Journal of Building Engineering (2020)
Climate Dynamics (2020)
Increased frequency of and population exposure to extreme heat index days in the United States during the 21st century
Environmental Research Communications (2019)
Ecological Economics (2019)