hong kong building with AC units


Climate Change & Human Adaptability


We now have ample tools and strategies to mitigate climate effects by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, yet we still don’t fully understand our potential to adapt to changing climate conditions. This knowledge gap makes it challenging to reliably estimate climate change damages and identify opportunities for humans to remain resilient over time.
Using the most comprehensive dataset ever compiled on 20th century mortality rates and determinants, the Climate Solutions Group at emLab has conducted an empirical analysis to assess the potential for existing technologies and innovations—from electrification, to air conditioning, to better access to healthcare--to help humans successfully adapt to our changing climate. Our results show that there was a remarkable decline in the mortality effect of extreme temperatures after the year 1960, when residential air conditioning was widely adopted across the United States. Since the early 1960’s, there have been roughly 20,000 fewer heat-related fatalities annually. 

These results highlight the complexity of developing effective and efficient climate change solutions. While air conditioning supports human adaptation to extreme heat more so than any other available technology, global emissions from air conditioning usage add more than 1 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year, meaning this technology perpetuates the very problem whose effects it was designed to mitigate. Moving forward, it is essential that we develop cleaner technologies that can support human adaptation without exacerbating climate change.