Extreme Heat on the Field at the World Cup
In a sense, this World Cup, which got started in Qatar on Sunday, might be the biggest climate event of the year.
Yes, the global climate summit that just ended in Egypt is where policies are decided. But the World Cup is watched by billions of soccer fans, and this year, with the tournament being played in one of the fastest-warming countries on the planet, they could get a glimpse of the future.
In the 12 years since Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, the average annual temperature in the country has warmed 1 degree Celsius, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the journal Nature.
To protect fans and players from the worst of the heat, for the first time, the championship was postponed from its traditional summer slot. The country also designed and built stadiums with outdoor air-conditioning.
But the people who worked on the stadiums, highways and hotels did so under temperatures that reached beyond 50 degrees Celsius, or 122 Fahrenheit. Hundreds, maybe thousands, are reported to have died from the heat.
I am as much a World Cup fan as the next Brazilian (we’ve won it five times, by the way, more than any other country). But as I watched the first matches, my mind kept drifting back to the heat.
Not just hot, but deadly
The extreme heat that killed workers in Qatar may be a reality for nearly half the world’s population by 2050. My colleagues Alissa Rubin and Ben Hubbard have been documenting what those extremes feel like in places where temperatures are already dangerously high.
In Basra, Iraq, for example, they monitored workers to show that, as the body struggles to cool itself by sweating, it can dehydrate. That puts the kidneys under stress. Pressure also builds up in the heart, as it works to pump more blood and carry heat out of the body.
This means there is less blood reaching the brain, which can cause dizziness, thus increasing the likelihood of accidents.
According to Nepal’s Labor Ministry, at least 2,100 Nepali workers have died in Qatar since 2010, when the country was awarded the World Cup. My colleague Tariq Panja reported that many of those deaths were linked to extreme heat.
Many workers went back to Nepal suffering from kidney damage, and some, without access to the necessary medical care, may have died from it years after returning from Qatar.
Adaptation comes at a high cost
One thing that prompted Alissa and Ben to investigate the toll of heat in the Middle East is the fact that the wealthier countries in the region are experimenting with ways to adapt.
In oil-rich Kuwait City, for example, they found that most people spend most of their lives inside, where there’s air-conditioning.
“Despite the abundance of sun, many Kuwaitis suffer from deficiencies of vitamin D, which the body uses sunlight to produce,” they wrote. “Many are also overweight.”
It’s key to remember that air-conditioning systems are one of the biggest culprits of climate change. As my colleague Somini Sengupta wrote in this newsletter a few months ago, there are a lot of more efficient ways to cool down.
Qatar claims to have developed a cooling system that uses 45 percent less energy. Less than what? They didn’t say. But the system made the stadiums two to three times more expensive to build, the engineer behind the cooling technology told The Guardian.
In the future, adaptation projects like these will just take longer to build and become more expensive.
In the hottest months, “there is no real way to do construction in a place as hot as the Persian Gulf or areas of India, Pakistan, and some areas of China,” Alissa said.
In poorer countries like Iraq, Alissa told me, there has been little discussion about adaptation strategies.
Brought to you by fossil fuels
Qatar spent $220 billion to prepare for the World Cup, and that’s just the official total. United States prosecutors have accused Qatar representatives of paying bribes to members of FIFA’s top board to secure the event.
How could tiny Qatar afford all that? By selling the fossil fuels that are warming our planet. Qatar is one of the world’s top gas producers.
Many have said Qatar is using the event to deflect attention from its record on fossil fuels and human rights and clean up its reputation. They call it “sportswashing.”
Ben told me he wondered whether what we are seeing may be a glimpse of the future of global events: “Will rich countries that can afford luxuries like outdoor air-conditioning snap up more of the headline international events merely because they can afford to protect attendees from the heat?”
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