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What’s the Link Between Climate Change and Productivity?

Rachel Lark - March 21, 2024

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People think about climate change in various ways. Which areas are already experiencing the most severe effects? How will things worsen in their lifetimes? Should couples delay or change their plans to have kids? However, they don’t always connect climate change and productivity. Here are some likely effects. 

Challenging Conditions in the Agricultural Sector

Even some of the most experienced farmers frequently find climate change makes their harvest seasons more unpredictable now than in the past. One analysis found farmers could lose more crops to fungal infections exacerbated by climate change. These issues already cause losses of up to 43% during the harvest and post-harvest stages. Rising percentages could be devastating for many agricultural professionals. 

Another study found extreme humid heat increasingly threatens farmworkers during planting and harvest seasons, particularly associated with rice and maize production. Relatedly, nearly half of rice crops and approximately a third of maize already experience extreme temperatures during a typical year. One of the study’s co-authors said the fast rise of the heat-humidity curve may make conditions unbearable and unsafe for outdoor workers if this trend continues. 

Climate change’s impact on agricultural production also affects those who’ve never been on farms, of course. One study highlighted how wheat — a primary nutrition source for 3.4 billion people — will likely become scarcer and more expensive due to climate change. The researchers believe that’ll happen even if the world meets current mitigation goals. 

Here, the connection between climate change and productivity relates to food access. Suppose it becomes prohibitively costly and difficult for most people to get nutritious consumables. Then, they won’t have the energy to give their best effort at work. 

Lasting Impacts on Schoolchildren

For the past several years, kids have skipped classes to protest against climate change. Many understandably assert their youth puts them at more risk of planet-related perils than their elders. While looking at climate change and productivity through this lens, it’s easy to see how teachers and administrators could face more challenges in planning curriculums or meeting academic goals due to activism-related absences. 

However, there’s a deeper connection, too. Researchers examined data from Peru to see how climate-related disasters and other shocks impacted kids in school. It found that a higher number of such events early in life caused prolonged reductions in vocabulary and reading scores and put the individuals at a higher risk of food insecurity. 

Relatedly, air pollution causes millions of annual fatalities and exacerbates respiratory conditions. Children are not the sole parties affected, but an analysis shows dirty air could hurt their academic outcomes. The study published in 2022 involved Massachusetts air pollution data from 2019. 

During that year, researchers estimated children in the state collectively lost 2 million IQ points, or two per individual. The team clarified that a lower IQ can affect school performance and academic achievement. 

The researchers noted that, since fossil fuel combustion increases the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change, these results should encourage decision-makers in Massachusetts to accelerate the state’s clean energy transition.

Increased Rates of Infectious Diseases in Humans

The COVID-19 pandemic was a harsh reminder of just how severely large numbers of sick people can cause ripple effects on hospital staff members, factory workers and those filling essential roles that keep society functioning. Humans also got used to increased sickness risks on a seasonal basis, understanding that the winter months elevated their chances of getting colds or the flu.

Could there be a stronger link between productivity and climate change? A 2022 academic analysis strongly suggests people should expect one. The work indicated climate change worsened 58% or 218 out of 375 infectious diseases threatening humans. The data also revealed 1,006 distinct pathways where climate-related hazards resulted in infectious diseases. 

They found 160 unique illnesses specifically associated with a warming planet. Several other illness groups had climate change-driven causes, such as floods, droughts, and fires that influenced viruses. 

Sick people are typically less productive, even if they feel well enough to work from home during their illnesses. Suppose climate change contributes to more novel diseases. Then, the overall workplace effects may be broader, especially as business leaders figure out how to help employees work safely during outbreaks.

Frequent Severe Weather Restricting Work Access and Productivity

Scientists only began pinpointing a connection between climate change and inclement weather relatively. As their knowledge increases, many warn that strong storms and similar damaging events will significantly impact society. 

One 2022 study analyzed to what degree human-induced climate change affected five types of extreme weather events. The link varied, but the analysis showed a clear and worldwide connection with heatwaves. However, the data associated with tropical cyclones was more regionally based. 

Even as scientists recognized the progress in studying the weather this way, they warned of numerous data gaps. For example, some countries do not freely offer weather data, and lower and mid-income nations are less likely to have extensive information to study. Information elsewhere also indicates different severe weather events happen together more often, worsening the overall effects. 

The internet has many resources advising managers about handling weather-related workplace absences. Before long, human resources professionals and others may pay more attention to climate change and productivity. That’s especially likely if offices, warehouse locations or other critical infrastructure get hit with several severe weather events per year or in close succession. 

If employees can’t get to work because of flooded roads, downed trees, or high winds, their absences could significantly impact the company’s productivity. Remote working may be an option for some people, but that’s highly dependent on the kind of business it is and what percentage of the operations must occur on-site. 

Plus, severe weather could limit people’s productivity if they must try to do their work during heatwaves or they deal with storms that damage parts of facilities. Many may find they cannot work safely until conditions change. 

People Must Anticipate Climate Change and Productivity Impacts

These studies and examples show many connections between climate change and productivity. Even if people have not anticipated them yet, they should start considering these issues as likely realities and think of how they’ll deal with them when the time comes. 

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About the author

Rachel Lark

Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.