When It Becomes Too Hot To Work

We will have to reorganize everyday economic life around what the human body can bear.

Billy Clark for Noema Magazine

Justin H. Vassallo is a writer and researcher who specializes in party systems and ideology, political economy, American political development and modern Europe.

Nearly every country and economic sector is heading for a tipping point that could derail efforts to decarbonize the economy: A time when it will be too hot to work for weeks every year, not just isolated days. Farm and outdoor workers, low-income people dependent on public transit and those who work indoors without adequate cooling would face potential dire health effects, leading to massive productivity loss with significant negative feedback loops for development. Our food, sanitation and energy grid systems would all become more precarious as a result.

While the problem of heat and labor is often overshadowed by other apocalyptic climate scenarios and tipping points, it is an urgent one nonetheless — failing to plan for it could grind the energy transition to an agonizing crawl and limit our ability to avoid catastrophe. To address this problem, we will have to reorganize everyday economic life around what the human body can bear.

Neither warnings about the loss of growth and purchasing power nor decreased life expectancy fully capture what’s at stake. Permanent health damage arising from recurrent exposure to extreme heat will result in higher rates of effective disability and force early exits from the labor market. In the U.S., in particular, it will overwhelm a health care system rife with underpaid labor, private bureaucratic inefficiencies and predatory billing practices. Like other components of the country’s patchwork welfare state, Supplemental Security Income is not designed to meet a ballooning demand for government assistance. Particularly among immigrant communities, participation in the informal economy may only increase among younger generations to cover  family budgets stretched thin by chronically ill former breadwinners. Those who are dependent on Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance marketplace may likewise slide into the informal economy if employment conditions in lower-end services, retail and manufacturing become too onerous.

New labor market interventions are thus needed not only to undergird the energy transition but to preserve the social objectives historically ascribed to economic development and full employment — a goal long championed by labor unions, left Keynesians, civil rights activists and the “paleo” left more broadly. As understood by these groups, full employment has always meant economic policies that guarantee a job with a living wage to everyone who wants to work; in theory, this requires investment by the public sector in programs that ensure employment keeps pace with innovation. While a universal basic income could be part of the solution, it does not provide a means to plan for extended shortfalls in productivity and the most socially necessary forms of labor.

Instead, full employment should be redefined in both practical and radical ways. Climate change will undoubtedly sharpen the difference between purposeful, desirable jobs and their opposite while also reducing most people’s threshold for daily productivity. If the labor pool shrinks for ill-compensated formal employment at the same time that both higher-income professionals and manual laborers demand fewer working hours, public policy will have to move in a direction that guarantees work and distributes production in a manner that compresses differentials in hours and wages. In fact, there are already ideas in progressive policy circles that governments can adapt to preempt or offset the economic risks of extreme heat and introduce a “pro-social,” as opposed to “pro-market,” spectrum of labor flexibility.

An Era Of Extreme Heat

We are going to feel the economic impacts of extreme and protracted heat long before we might experience the fallout from many other climate tipping points — the consequences, for example, of failing to contain global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030. Projections that outdoor workers in the U.S. could suffer at least one week of unbearable heat by 2050 may understate its growing severity and mounting consequences, particularly for developing countries. When it becomes too hot to work for significant parts of the year, the recessionary effects could be akin to those experienced by regions and populations that have struggled with decades of disinvestment. Trade and industrial policies in the U.S. that promise to re-shore or “friend”-shore supply chains in order to promote national economic resilience will consequently be undermined, creating the potential for a new type of stagflation that postpones investment in critical industries at the worst possible juncture.  

In the near-term, extreme heat may not result in the scale of death and illness wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. But unlike a global pandemic, it will not be a once-in-a-century event, which required extraordinary fiscal support to restore the basics of economic activity. Rather, it will be a regular yet fluctuating aspect of each passing year. The failure of public policy to meet that challenge will ensure that global inflation for certain necessities does not abate, while contracting overall capacity to produce and consume the things that make modern society cohere. Purchasing power among workers and much of the middle class will erode substantially, shrinking demand for skilled work, which will stunt the life chances of younger generations amid an aging, increasingly care-dependent population.

“Failing to plan for the problem of extreme heat and labor could grind the energy transition to an agonizing crawl and limit our ability to avoid catastrophe.”

Lethal heat is, of course, just one example of the extreme weather events already afflicting the globe. From massive, uncontrollable wildfires to hurricanes that shut down entire energy grids to the catastrophic monsoon that Pakistan experienced this past summer, devastating climate events are now a fact of life. Yet persistent, dangerous heat is uniquely insidious. Unless governments design regulatory frameworks with standards and enforcement that are applicable at the international level, heat stress will have exponential ramifications for human development.

Numerous organizations have sounded the alarm about its effects on working conditions, labor productivity and public health. The Union of Concerned Scientists has warned that the United States’ roughly 32 million outdoor workers “have up to 35 times the risk of dying from heat exposure than does the general population,” and that “$39.3 to $55.4 billion in outdoor workers’ earnings would be at risk annually by midcentury.” At around one fifth of the country’s total labor force, outdoor workers’ projected income drop will tear through local economies and municipal budgets while also drying up foreign remittances sent by immigrant laborers, who make up roughly between a fifth and a third of this group.

Globally, the crisis posed by heat stress is even more dire. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has warned that in 2030, an estimated “2.2% of total working hours worldwide will be lost to high temperatures — a productivity loss equivalent to 80 million full time jobs.” This conservative estimate assumes there will be a certain percentage of days with reduced sun exposure, which is essential for construction and agricultural work — but if those days conducive to outdoor labor become dramatically fewer, the loss in productivity would increase to an equivalent of 136 million lost jobs.

These numbers, however, don’t fully convey how potentially tens of millions of people being unable to work may effectively suspend major parts of the global economy during future heatwaves. According to a 2020 report by Somini Sengupta for The New York Times, under a moderate warming scenario, significant portions of the Global South will suffer annually between 100 and 200 days of temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit over the next two decades. Beyond leading to crop failures and a diminished capacity to harvest and process foodstuffs, such conditions could dramatically interrupt the mining of minerals that are critical to the production of renewables.

Rethinking The Workweek

Neither the U.S. nor any other advanced economy has a system to anticipate and avert the disruption that will be caused when entire sectors buckle from rapid heat exhaustion. Legal workplace protections against unsafe heat exposure are paltry to nonexistent in the U.S. At present there is no federal heat standard that can be enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and only three states — California, Washington, and Minnesota — have rules concerning heat stress. (In 2021, the Biden administration announced plans for  multiple departments and agencies to develop new and more comprehensive standards.) Europe and other regions lag, too. The E.U. has only recently begun to consider universal legislation that would establish maximum permissible temperatures in the workplace. Several developing countries have minimal standards that depend on self-monitoring by employers and their knowledge of labor rules, rather than explicit government enforcement.

On the policy front, there is an absence of innovative mechanisms to alter the structure of work itself. Whether in agriculture, food service or essential heavy industries, hospitalizations, deaths on the job and abrupt business closures arising from prolonged extreme heat have the potential to ricochet into the wider economy, just as the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic gruesomely illustrated.

“Full employment should be redefined in both practical and radical ways.”

Nevertheless, there are plausible options to consider. First, the most imminently doable solution is a staggered but accelerating transition to a shorter workweek. When France introduced a 35-hour workweek in 2000, it amplified a discussion in the West about country-based (and, to a lesser extent, class-based) disparities between work and leisure time. But the climate crisis has transformed what was once commonly framed as a lifestyle issue affecting national happiness indices into a matter of curbing emissions and supporting economic sustainability.

Reducing the workweek can be approached in manifold ways. For example, rather than simply mandate an across-the-board four-day workweek, reduced total hours can be disaggregated across seasons and further adjusted to respond to major climatic deviations within each season; an increasing number of firms and industries may also have to schedule labor for parts of the day, such as night and very early morning, that have heretofore been unconventional for the jobs in question. These latter adjustments should entail greater benefits and compensation, either facilitated through progressive taxation or otherwise subsidized by the state, to make up for the inevitable disruptions to personal habits and family life that would ensue.

Another way to reduce the workweek stems from recognizing, as economist Ann Pettifor has, that at least some facets of a green economy will be more labor-intensive than our current, carbon-based one. Massive investment in the skills required to run a green and more rational economy can be combined with spreading certain kinds of work across more people. By limiting each individual’s exertion per week and, as best as possible, their exposure to extreme heat — which can threaten any worker who needs daily transportation — critical labor could still be fulfilled, including that which is most integral to furthering the energy transition. Meanwhile, other types of labor still vital to modern society — the provision of public services, recreation, sport, art and certain universal, everyday forms of hospitality — could rally broad popular support on behalf of more policy changes. As the climate forces societies to rediscover their collective interests and most paramount cultural experiences, the demand for sustainability and government support will spread to those facets of the economy that constitute the “good life.”  

A Job Guarantee And A New Mixed Economy

A second, related mechanism to help insulate the economy against extreme heat would be the adoption of a job guarantee via a permanent public works program. Echoing climate activists, Pavlina R. Tcherneva, an economist at the Levy Institute, proposes a job guarantee “can be designed as a ‘National Care Act’ that addresses the environmental and care needs of communities.” It would cover a range “of ‘invisible’ environmental work that is labor-intensive and can be done by people of various skill levels”— more routine upkeep of municipal infrastructure, for instance, but also an array of projects that can amplify efforts by less wealthy cities and towns to achieve decarbonization. This permanent program would have a degree of elasticity to accommodate labor market fluctuations that are likely to be directly influenced by the climate.

Of course, public works projects involve significant amounts of outdoor labor, which would have to pause in the event of extreme heat, just as analogous activity in the private sector would. Supplemented by more generous and automated unemployment insurance, a “climate corps”-driven job guarantee could, however, lubricate voluntary transitions from employment in the private sector to the public one and back. If increasing numbers of firms begin to organize fiscal and operational calendars that account for major, climate-based periods of inactivity, workers that need or want additional income during these forced lulls can arrange to temporarily participate in a job guarantee program.

Because public works do not need to meet customer demand the way most private enterprises do, nonhazardous, purposeful duties can be assigned and modulated during the cooling intervals of an extended heatwave. As with private sector occupations that would become nocturnal during riskier parts of the year, some job guarantee programs should include bonuses or overtime pay for highly unconventional schedules. The base pay should also exceed the $15 per hour that job guarantee advocates originally recommended before the pandemic.

“Unless governments design regulatory frameworks that are applicable at the international level, heat stress will have exponential ramifications for human development.”

There are other potential social and political benefits to a job guarantee. It could rebuild confidence in the public sector that transcends political polarization between major cities and less urban areas, which has exacerbated the anti-majoritarian features of the U.S. political system. By alleviating pressures to sustain year-round operations, it may also temper greatly the aversion to socialized employment that a large faction of capitalists has historically held. Expanded care work, meanwhile, would relieve parents who are able to work from home or are otherwise employed in more “climate-proof” fields from having to attend to children or other vulnerable family members. Alongside far more robust public investments in the training required to sustain a green economy — think not only of jobs in the advanced sciences, but of electricians and other trades overlooked by the “knowledge economy” — a job guarantee could help underpin a “just transition” for workers and regions that are most dependent on carbon-intensive industries.

Combined with this new, more egalitarian division of labor, a job guarantee would help keep more firms afloat in the long run by facilitating “track switching” — shifting workers between the public and private sectors in a way that would allow them to more flexibly plan their lives without loss of income. This would ensure a modicum of output when other forms of economic activity, particularly those that are services-based, are compelled to radically slacken or halt. At the same time, the political onus to achieve full employment would finally hinge on public entities instead of markets, whose innate volatility and jealously-guarded centers of power have always kept true full employment an elusive target.

The nature of the guarantee would thus inject a certain level of stability into macroeconomic conditions that a neoliberal approach to climate adaptation and labor flexibility would most certainly not. Indeed, the record of neoliberal labor markets suggests only chaos would prevail as extreme heat becomes virtually ubiquitous. In the 40-plus years of increased employment in low-wage services, much of the American workforce has experienced the petty anarchy of “just-in-time” scheduling or on-call labor, the deceptive exploitation of “wearing multiple hats,” and the ordeal of having to juggle multiple, ever-varying income streams. The walkouts and strikes that have occurred during the pandemic are a mere hint of the collapse that awaits employment based on maximally extractive flexibility.

By contrast, a job guarantee will likely introduce a qualitatively different form of discipline into markets, especially as companies are forced to reckon with extreme heat. Transparent and increasingly democratic firm-level planning might finally take precedence over practices meant to obtain short-term efficiencies from employees, which are often at the expense of their wages and mental and physical health.

Alongside indicative planning and more direct forms of state-driven development, a job guarantee may also hasten the exit of firms whose business model cannot be reasonably adapted to climate change. As the economist J.W. Mason has suggested with regard to the relative increase in worker power that tight labor markets yield, the elimination of businesses that cannot improve employee welfare is ultimately good for the health and productivity of the national economy. This phenomenon will be far more pronounced when extended heatwaves reveal which businesses refuse to meet the most elemental of employee demands for better pay and safer work conditions.

“If there were ever a moment that called for a positive, humanistic interpretation of biopolitics, it is now.”

Of course, measures to reduce working hours and, in some cases, radically change our relationship to productive labor will need to be undergirded by an expanded welfare state. That will require much more political will than was glimpsed at the peak of the 2020-2021 crisis, when enhanced unemployment insurance, extended Medicaid coverage, and what amounted to an experiment in monthly cash transfers for families with children previewed the social rights that the American state is amply capable of providing.

 Some will dismiss these proposals as impractical and utopian. Setting aside the obvious political challenges that a climate-based labor policy will face, there are reasons to believe millions are anxious for government to fully recognize that economic security and climate adaptation are mutually reinforcing. Young people know that the alternative, at minimum, is spiraling underdevelopment.

Skeptics should consider that since the 1990-91 recession, “jobless” recoveries have been the underlying fact of continued but largely anemic economic growth in the U.S. Due to asset inflation and increasing amounts of wealth tied up in globalized financial markets (as well as more regressive taxation and redistribution), each rebound has primarily benefitted the top 10% while eliminating the kind of steady jobs that once underpinned upward mobility and a family wage for blue-collar workers. This dynamic deferred the fixed investment in renewable energy production and related technology needed to adapt our entire social infrastructure to climate change — investment that would have generated more decent jobs and curtailed the rise of staggering inequality. As supporters of a green developmental agenda have recognized, the result of myopic governance and short-term profit-seeking has been decades of lost growth in the real economy.

The advent of life-threatening extreme heat that is dispersed in rough cycles with immense geographic variability will dwarf these socioeconomic consequences. Growth that could have built sustainability for the present moment is now being desperately sought just as climate change introduces more and more contingency in the maintenance of everyday economic life.   More than extreme heat, the increase in wet-bulb globe temperatures will expose the folly of failing to devise new regulations and systems to reallocate labor toward greater social and environmental utility. Where the “urban heat island effect” is most serious, the logic of disposability that propels gig worker platforms could turn deadly. If there were ever a moment that called for a positive, humanistic interpretation of biopolitics — in which a planning apparatus was implemented to avert regular, mass exposure to atmospheric conditions that can trigger organ failure — it is now.

If we are to secure a more holistic form of development and avert permanent decline, we must not only unyoke our economy from fossil fuels, but plan, with ingenuity and courage, for the limits that the sovereign force of extreme heat will impose. By redefining how labor markets should function and the state’s role in determining them, we can create a bridge to an economy that can endure at least some of the climate shocks on the horizon.