It’s a good thing that robots are stealing our jobs, because in about thirty-five years, nobody in their right mind is going to want to do them.
Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just published a report in Nature Climate Change that details how a warming climate impacts the way we work, and the results are pretty clear—we do less of it. NOAA discovered that over the last 60 years, the hotter, wetter climate has decreased human labor capacity by 10%. And it projects that by 2050, that number will double.
The reasons are simple: we humanfolk can only work so hard in the heat, no matter how badly we try. Reuters explains the fundamental problem: “Humans are endothermic creatures, which means they give off heat. If they can't get rid of it faster than they create it, they go into hyperthermia.” Now, we can cool off by resting—long live the siesta—but only if it’s not so horrifically hot that even that doesn’t help: “it may get so hot and humid that even a sleeping person wouldn't be able to dissipate heat fast enough.”
In other words, in severe heat and humidity, it becomes physically impossible to work. John Dunne, the lead author of the NOAA study, says that “the only way to retain labor capacity … is to limit global warming to less than 5 degrees F (3 degrees C).” We’re already on track to go well beyond that. The climatologists’ models produce a wide range of potential temperature scenarios—dependent of course on how much greenhouse gas we continue to pollute—but the worst render vast swaths of the nation unworkable.
Here’s the cheery longview, via NOAA:
If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise under the higher projections, increased heat stress would reduce labor capacity to 39 percent .. In this case of 6 degrees C (11 degrees F) global warming, heat stress in New York City would exceed that of any location in the present day. Many areas would be unable to sustain safe human labor without environmental control, air conditioning for example, during the warmest months.
Think about that. If temps rise 11 degrees F, as they are projected to do, currently temperate New York City is going to be hotter than anywhere that currently exists right now. According to NOAA, people will literally be unable to work in the lower Mississippi Valley.
So you want to talk dystopian? How’s this for an apocalyptic projection: It will be too scorchingly hot to work at all without A/C for months at a time and in some regions altogether. So the only people who will work are those situated in air-conditioned buildings—mostly, the white collar workforce and service sector employees. Can’t land an indoor job? Head north, or buck up for some heatstroke, I guess.
And we’d better hope that we have some super-proficient construction and agricultural robots built by the time the heat swells, or maybe some drug that lets humans somehow temporarily stave off hyperthermia. Don’t count on it.
Whichever way you cut it, work productivity will plunge—the trend has already begun, and is now to some extent inexorable—and while this will certainly limit the amount of things we can build and grow, it also likely means increasingly stark class divisions. It means less food for more people. It means, inevitably, social conflict.