Europe is in the grip of an extreme heatwave. Temperatures in Spain and Portugal have crossed 40°C (104°F), with warnings that the same could be true for the first time ever in the UK this week (18 July). Meanwhile, thousands of firefighters are tackling wildfires in France, Spain and Greece. 

France heatwave fire
Firefighters tackle blazes that ravaged more than 10,000 hectares of forest in Gironde, south-west France, on 16 July 2022. (Photo by GAIZKA IROZ/AFP via Getty Images)

One of the major impacts of increased heat on businesses is lower worker productivity, which can take many forms. When the temperature exceeds 38°C (100.4°F), the overall risk of injury increases by 10–15%, points out a July 2022 press release from the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), the independent research and training centre of the European Trade Union Confederation, citing a 2021 study. ETUI adds that numerous other health impacts risk lowering productivity, including the increased risk of heatstroke, cardiovascular illnesses and respiratory diseases, as well as increased sweating, dehydration, exhaustion, body aches and skin rashes.

White-collar workers in offices are protected from these impacts if they have air-conditioning, but these conditions are “the exception” says Claudia Narocki, the sociologist behind the ETUI study. In this sense, heat stress “reflects and accentuates pre-existing social inequalities”, she adds. 

While academic sources use different models to calculate the extent to which heat affects work productivity, they all paint a similar picture. After the ambient temperature crosses around 30°C (86°F), productivity begins to rapidly decline, until humans are simply not capable of doing anything at all.

When heat reaches such a level that it seriously begins to affect productivity, it also becomes dangerous. Extreme heat now kills more people each year in the US than any other natural disaster. Extreme heat events like the Chicago heatwave in 1995, or the 2003 heatwave in Europe that increased the risk of dying by 70% in Paris, can kill thousands.

A 20-year international study found that on average around 500,000 deaths occur each year as a result of exposure to excess heat, a figure equivalent to almost one in every 100 people who die. While excess cold continues to cause even more deaths, the study found that the gap between the two figures is growing smaller.

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The World Health Organization estimates the health risks of climate change will cause roughly 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 – looking at malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress alone.

Policymakers continue to turn a blind eye to this reality in their climate plans. A 2021 analysis by the Global Climate and Health Alliance think tank found that major economies ⁠– including the EU, Australia and Brazil ⁠– completely failed to mention health impacts in their emissions pledges submitted to the UN.

At a time when catastrophic climate change headlines are hitting the news at an alarming rate, treating the climate crisis as a health crisis could also help engage those otherwise disinterested in environmental destruction, or the loss and damage experienced on the climate front line

“Thinking about climate change from a biodiversity loss perspective, for example, only appeals to a certain number of people,” suggests Tim Benton, climate change lead at the think tank Chatham House. “But when you start saying, actually it could damage your health and it could push up your health bills, then it is highly likely that everyone will start to care.”