This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
When Qatar, a tiny Gulf kingdom with a lot of money and one aging sports arena, won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup soccer championships in 2010, it had no choice but to embark on a massive construction campaign to build the stadiums, transport, and hotels required to host, move, and house more than 1.5 million fans and players. And it did so with considerable zeal. More than $220 of its petro-billions were funneled into world-class infrastructure projects that transformed the once-sleepy pearl fishing village of Doha into a dazzling demonstration of architectural excess in little more than a decade.
It was a building boom in one of the hottest places on the planet, powered by hundreds of thousands of migrant workers laboring in grueling conditions that got hotter every year—Qatar’s daily high summer temperatures have increased by an average of 1.4°F since 2010. That trajectory is likely to continue. Because of climate change, the Middle East is one of the fastest warming places on the planet; by 2100, temperatures could rise to the point that just going outside for a few hours will exceed the “upper limit for survivability,” according to a 2020 study published in Science Advances.
But the World Cup is just one aspect of the gas-rich kingdom’s effort to diversify its economy by becoming a world class destination for business, sports, and leisure. Even as workers were putting the final touches on stadiums and hotels shortly before the opening ceremony, scaffolding was going up on hundreds more construction sites across the peninsula. But for how much longer can construction—a job constrained by the limits of human tolerance for heat—continue if temperatures keep rising?
Qatar’s Nov. 20 World Cup opening ceremony started just a few hours after the conclusion of the UN’s 27th global climate conference, known as COP27, in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. There, representatives from 196 member nations 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, heatwaves, and ecosystem collapse—grow considerably. The world has already warmed by 1.2°C (2.16°F), and Climate Action Tracker, a research organization that calculates potential warming based on national emission reduction commitments, 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, Gulf countries will likely see up to 250 dangerous heat days a year, according to an August study published in Communications Earth & Environment. “Dangerous” heat days are 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 ongoing exposure to dangerous heat days can lead to chronic illnesses, say the authors. By 2100, the study predicts, “Extremely dangerous heat stress will be a regular feature of the climate” in not just the Gulf region, but parts of Africa and South Asia too. By “extremely dangerous,” the authors mean an index of 124°F (51.1°C), which can lead to heat stroke and death within a few hours. It’s hard to see how construction, at least as it is done now, can continue under those conditions.
Read More: What Extreme Heat Does to the Human Body
There are some technological fixes. Qatar has already invested an undisclosed but “significant” amount of money into the development of clothing that can keep workers cooler in extreme temperatures, according to James Russel, managing director for Europe, the Middle East, and Australasia of the UK-based cooling clothing company Techniche, which partnered with Qatar to create the gear. But those outfits, which have been distributed to World Cup stadium workers and street cleaners employed by the state, only provide comfort in high heat, and are not designed—yet—to enable workers to labor for longer hours or in higher temperatures. Night-time work is already part of the construction scene in the Gulf says Russel, but it will probably need to increase. So will the size of the construction workforce. “If we’re reducing the amount of work that people are doing by increasing the amount of people on sites,” he says, “then we’re mitigating the overall risk.”
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In the long term, construction projects may have to evolve into prefabricated projects that can be assembled in air-conditioned warehouses and then stacked together outside with the help of heavy machinery. But machines break down, and outdoor workers will still be needed. Meanwhile, a lot more could be done to reduce the radiant heat that emanates from construction equipment and scaffolding, says Russel. “That’s not beyond our technologies. It just needs further development, and of course, more money.”
Money is not lacking, as Qatar’s World Cup building boom so clearly demonstrates. The only problem is that the money needed to adapt regional construction to a warming climate comes from the fossil fuels that are driving it.