This story was sponsored by Pulitzer Center.
When Qatar, a small Gulf kingdom with plenty of money and an aging sports arena, won the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup in 2010, it had no choice but to jump into a large-scale construction campaign to build the stadiums, transport and hotels needed to receive, relocate and accommodate more than 1.5 million fans and players. And he did it with great zeal. More than $220 of its petro-billion has been funneled into world-class infrastructure projects that have transformed the once-sleepy pearl-fishing village of Doha into a dazzling display of architectural excess in just over a decade.
It was a building boom in one of the hottest places on the planet, fueled by hundreds of thousands migrant workers working in grueling conditions which were getting hotter every year – the daily high summer temperatures in Qatar have increased by an average of 1.4°F since 2010. This trajectory is likely to continue. Due to climate change, the Middle East is one of the fastest warming places on the planet; by 2100, temperatures may rise to the point that just going outside for a few hours will exceed the “upper limit for survival,” according to a 2020 study published in Scientific progress.
But the World Cup is just one aspect of the gas-rich kingdom’s efforts to diversify its economy by becoming a world-class destination for business, sports and leisure. As workers put the finishing touches on stadiums and hotels shortly before the opening ceremony, scaffolding was being erected on hundreds more construction sites across the peninsula. But how much longer can construction—a job limited by the limits of human tolerance for heat—continue if temperatures continue to rise?
The opening ceremony of the World Cup in Qatar on November 20 began just a few hours after the conclusion of the 27th edition of the United Nations global climate conference, known as COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. There, representatives of 196 member states and the European Union barely managed to uphold the Paris COP15 goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels, beyond which scientists warn that the dangers – floods, droughts, wildfires, heat waves and ecosystem collapse – are increasing significantly. The world has already warmed 1.2°C (2.16°F) and Climate Action Tracker, a research organization that calculates potential warming based on national commitments to reduce emissions, warns that we are currently on track to reach 2°C (3.6°F) by the end of the century, and that’s only if countries meet their 2030 targets. If they don’t, it will be more like 2.7°C (4.86°F).
Even the optimistic scenario means that by 2050, the Gulf states are likely to witness up to 250 dangerously hot days a year, according to an August study published in Communications Earth and Environment. “Dangerous” heat is defined as exceeding a temperature and humidity index of 103°F (39.4°C). These extremes can easily lead to heat exhaustion for those without protection, and continued exposure to dangerous heat can lead to chronic illness, the authors say. By 2100 the survey predicts, “Extremely dangerous heat stress will be a common feature of the climate” not only in the Gulf region, but also in parts of Africa and South Asia. By “extremely dangerous,” the authors mean an index of 124°F (51.1°C), which can lead to heat stroke and death within hours. It is difficult to see how construction, at least as it is now done, can continue under these conditions.
Read more: What causes extreme heat to the human body
There are some technological fixes. Qatar has already invested an undisclosed but “significant” amount of money in developing the clothing which can keep workers cooler in extreme temperatures, according to James Russell, managing director for Europe, Middle East and Australia of the UK-based cooling clothing company Technical, which partnered with Qatar to create the equipment. But these kits, which have been handed out to World Cup stadium workers and state-employed street cleaners, only provide comfort in high heat and are not yet designed to enable workers to work longer or at higher temperatures. Night work is already part of the Gulf construction scene, Russell says, but will likely need to increase. So will the size of the construction workforce. “If we reduce the amount of work people do by increasing the number of people on sites,” he says, “then we mitigate the overall risk.”
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In the long term, construction projects may need to become prefabricated projects that can be assembled in air-conditioned warehouses and then stacked together outside using heavy machinery. But machines break down and outdoor workers will still be needed. Meanwhile, much more can be done to reduce the radiant heat that is emitted from construction equipment and scaffolding, Russell says. “It is not beyond our technology. It just needs further development and of course more money.
There is no shortage of money, as the World Cup construction boom in Qatar clearly demonstrates. The only problem is that the money needed to adapt regional construction to a warming climate comes from the fossil fuels that power it.
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