Quantifying the human cost of global warming

4 March 2024

Journal Article

The costs of climate change are often estimated in monetary terms, but this raises ethical issues. Here we express them in terms of numbers of people left outside the ‘human climate niche’—defined as the historically highly conserved distribution of relative human population density with respect to mean annual temperature. We show that climate change has already put ~9% of people (>600 million) outside this niche. By end-of-century (2080–2100), current policies leading to around 2.7 °C global warming could leave one-third (22–39%) of people outside the niche. Reducing global warming from 2.7 to 1.5 °C results in a ~5-fold decrease in the population exposed to unprecedented heat (mean annual temperature ≥29 °C). The lifetime emissions of ~3.5 global average citizens today (or ~1.2 average US citizens) expose one future person to unprecedented heat by end-of-century. That person comes from a place where emissions today are around half of the global average. These results highlight the need for more decisive policy action to limit the human costs and inequities of climate change.

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