Even A/C Can’t Keep Our Economies From Slacking Off on Hot Days

As global warming turns up the temperature on the planet, it’s going to be tougher to get anything done

Photo: SuperStock/Corbis

For those of us who work indoors, it can often seem like we're completely disconnected from what's going on outside. According to new research, however, we're not nearly as isolated from the environment as we might think. When it's especially hot or cold outside, the economy as a whole suffers.

The study authors, two economists from University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and the University of California, Berkeley, compared daily temperature and personal income data collected at the county level in all 48 continental states and spanning from 1969 to 2011, the Washington Post describes. They found that individual productivity, as measured in dollars, declines by 1.7 percent per 1.8°F increase in temperature above 59°F, and that productivity declines by $20 per person, or 28 percent overall, on days above 86°F. The Washington Post points out that the same holds true for extreme cold, as evidenced by the impact of last year's polar vortex to our bottom line on those days. 

These results—adjusted for inflation—held true throughout the years. However, they only applied to weekdays. Weekend earnings showed little response to temperature, suggesting, the Washington Post writes, "that warm temperatures are interfering with people's ability to work." When the researchers dug deeper into the data, they found that it's those jobs that involve some outdoor component. In the heat, people work up to an hour less than normal and are more prone to mistakes, the Washington Post writes. 

However, given the fact that temperature's impact on earnings hasn't changed since 1969, the authors point out, "we infer that recent uptake or innovation in adaptation measures have been limited." This means that, despite the money and resources we invest into temperature control, our economies are still profoundly tied to the weather. 

As the authors conclude, all of this means that, as the planet continues to heat up due to global warming, our economies, in turn, will likely wither. Even if some places become more productive due to a lessening of extreme cold, the authors of the study calculated that the overall effect will be negative—costing about 0.12 percent of income growth per year. As the Washington Post concludes, "That may not sound like much, but it's 1 percent every 8 years or so."

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