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  • 10.30.15

The Middle East Could Be Too Hot For Humans By The End Of The Century

Middle Eastern governments can’t stop pumping the oil that is going to destroy their own countries.

The Middle East Could Be Too Hot For Humans By The End Of The Century
[Top Photo: Flickr user Kurush Pawar]

When the heat index went over 160 degrees in parts of Iraq this July, the government was forced to call a mandatory four-day vacation for everyone. It was too hot to go outside.

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By the end of the century, if climate change continues unchecked, even hotter summers could become common in the Middle East–regularly passing the maximum combination of temperature and humidity that humans can survive.

Flickr user ADTeasdale

In a new study, researchers looked at two scenarios for the region: What would happen if we keep emitting carbon pollution at current levels, and what might happen if pollution is cut. On the current path, cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai will start exceeding a heat index of roughly 165 degrees. That’s something even the fittest person can’t survive for more than about six hours.

“The most impacted are the poor, particularly those working in outdoor conditions,” says Jeremy Pal, a civil engineering and environmental science professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, who wrote the new paper with MIT’s Elfatih Eltahir.

“The richer countries can connect buildings with air-conditioned enclosed bridges, much like they do in Las Vegas, and increase air conditioning in general,” he says. “However, in poorer countries, such as Yemen, they may not have that luxury.”

Even machinery might no longer work–airplanes could have trouble taking off and landing in such extreme heat, for example, and train tracks might warp. Some technology and infrastructure might have to be completely redesigned.

“We send machines into space that survive extremely harsh conditions,” says Pal. “We should be able to adapt our machinery on Earth, but that comes with a high price tag.”

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Flickr user Serge Bystro

Industries that rely on outdoor labor, like construction or, ironically, the oil and gas operations that helped cause climate change, may no longer be able to operate in the same way. “Many of these operations may not be feasible without significant adaptation during parts of the year,” says Pal.

Previous studies suggested that it would take more time–maybe 200 years–to reach these temperature extremes. But this research suggests it will happen much sooner.

The good news: If emissions are cut, heat waves will be much less dramatic. But, as the study points out, there’s a major conflicting interest in the Middle East: Countries that rely on oil financially are likely to want to keep selling it, possibly even as they start to better understand the risks.

“I am not all that optimistic,” says Pal. “There has been a lot of research highlighting the negative consequences of climate change on our ecosystems and human systems, yet little to this point has been done to curb emissions–at least in the U.S.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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