Quantifying the human cost of global warming

Timothy M. Lenton*, Chi Xu*, Jesse F. Abrams, Ashish Ghadiali, Sina Loriani, Boris Sakschewski, Caroline Zimm, Kristie L. Ebi, Robert R. Dunn, Jens Christian Svenning, Marten Scheffer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

47 Citations (Scopus)


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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1237-1247
Number of pages23
JournalNature Sustainability
Issue number10
Early online date22 May 2023
Publication statusPublished - 22 May 2023


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