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Why cities are hiring dedicated officials to prepare for extreme heat 

The urgency to hire heat officers globally reflects a reckoning on heat unfolding across the world

When Jane Gilbert heard last April that she had been appointed Miami-Dade County’s chief heat officer — a first for both the United States and the world — she was not surprised. Already employed as the first chief resilience officer of the City of Miami, one of the 34 municipal areas under the Miami-Dade County in Florida, she knew that it was time the world focused on extreme heat brought on by climate change.

“Extreme heat is the number one climate-related killer, but it has been relatively under addressed. Now cities are beginning to take action on heat mitigation and management,” says Gilbert, in an email interview with Down To Earth (DTE). 

She plans to address the challenges posed by extreme heat in a more holistic manner, rather than just focusing on emergency response or mitigation strategies.

In less than a year since Gibert’s appointment, four more cities have followed. In July 2021, Athens, the capital of Greece, named its former deputy mayor Eleni Myrivili as chief heat officer.

In October, Phoenix city in Arizona, US, and Freetown in Sierra Leone, Africa, named their chief heat officers. On March 3, 2022, Santiago, the capital of Chile, appointed urban planner Cristina Huidobro as the world’s fifth chief heat officer. Los Angeles in California, US, has also advertised a vacancy for the role.

The new-found urgency with which cities are hiring heat officers reflects a reckoning on heat unfolding across the world. Heatwaves claimed over 166,000 lives between 1998 and 2017, according to the World Health Organization.

The human cost is bound to increase as the incidence and intensity of heatwaves are on the rise. The Sixth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, released by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on February 27, 2022, states that 33 per cent of the world’s population is already exposed to heat stress.

This could increase to 48-76 per cent of the population by the 2100. “We know the Earth is warming and that cities are heating up faster than peri-urban areas. We have reported up to a 10 degrees Celsius (°C) difference in daytime temperatures and a 5°C difference at night between Athens and peri-urban areas. Even within the city, we have measured substantial temperature differences,” says Myrivili, over a video interview, with DTE.

Uncertain times

“A chief heat officer wakes up every morning worrying about the heat going up because of global warming, and worrying about the fact that cities are not really taking it seriously enough,” says Myrivili.

Almost all the chief heat officers took up their new roles just when their cities faced the worst heatwave in decades. The delay in response and a lack of communication, they say, present a grim picture of the preparedness of both policymakers and the public.

Therefore, they have identified spreading aware-ness on the risks of extreme heat as a key part of their jobs.

Gilbert has begun raising public awareness through social and traditional media messaging. She has put up multilingual posters in public spaces, and the introduction of educational programmes in summer camps.

In Athens, Myrivili attempts to categorise heatwaves on the basis of health impacts. This would help people understand the danger that is looming while enabling decision-makers to trigger policies that would better protect them, she says. The city has also launched EXTREMA Global, a mobile application that allows users to assess heat-health risks in real time.

Freetown chief heat officer Eugenia Kargbo is developing a heat plan for the city. She works with stakeholders to implement adaptive measures to reduce heat stress and urban heat island effect. Her immediate challenge is to collect comprehensive heat data.

“We do not have a definitive baseline in terms of temperatures and vulnerable locations in the city, which are crucial for policy intervention,” says Kargbo, in an email interview with DTE.

Inclusive plans

The heat officers, through their initiatives, plan to safeguard the most vulnerable population. While most extreme weather events lead to the destruction of property and physical spaces, heatwaves directly impact the human body.

“The blood circulation gets deregulated at high temperatures, and it affects the functioning of different organs. High temperatures during the nighttime mean loss of sleep and fatigue, which leads to workplace accidents,” says Myrivili.

She says almost a quarter of the population cannot afford air conditioning and other cooling alternatives. “The worst affected are the old population and the poor,” she says, adding that the vulnerable population usually gets disoriented due to the lack of sleep and fatigue, which results in an increase in violence against women and children.

Myrivili’s medium-term plans focus on identifying and creating a network of vulnerable people and ensuring they have certain facilities such as consistent energy supply, so when the weather goes above a specific degree they do not have blackouts.

Gilbert is trying to find solutions to safeguard the health of the 30,000 outdoor workers in Miami, who suffer from chronic illnesses because of the extreme heat. She is sensitising residents of Miami-Dade County to garner support for the passing of a pending state legislation on the health of outdoor workers.

Three states in the US (Oregon, California, and Washington) have similar legislation that requires employers to provide training and education about ways to avoid heat-related illnesses and they also have provisions to provide water at the worksite and rest breaks when the mercury crosses safe thresholds.

She is also developing climate resilience hubs, where people can go if it is too hot. “It is a trusted place in a community where people can come to cool off, charge their phones, get services, and maybe have preparedness training and learn about energy efficiency,” she says.

Miami already has cooling centres in parks and libraries, but they do not always have backup power if there is widespread power loss. With just one hub currently designated, opening more “is our first priority,” Gilbert says.

The overall challenge is that extreme heat is both a shock and a stress. While, on the one hand, it claims a lot of lives every year, the excessive use of air conditioning is leading to substantial greenhouse gas emissions that are only aggravating the climate crisis.

Jane Gilbert | World's first chief heat officer appointed at Miami-Dade County, Florida, US‘Need to make county heat-safe equitably’

JANE GILBERT | World’s first chief heat officer appointed at Miami-Dade County, Florida, US

DATE OF JOINING: April 30, 2021

WHY WAS SHE APPOINTED: To improve coordination and accelerate existing heat protection efforts and initiate new work that reduces the risks and impacts of heat stress for vulnerable communities in the county

JOB DESCRIPTION

  • Create public awareness through social and traditional media messaging about the increasing dangers of extreme heat
  • Produce tool kits for heat action to help municipalities and other partners understand the different actions available to prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths
  • Conduct heat health vulnerability assessment to understand populations most at risk to heat-related illnesses
  • Create a three-year Climate and Heat Health Action Plan that will come out by the end of May 2022
  • Educate residents and stakeholders about pending legislation for safety of outdoor workers
  • Create community-level climate resilience hubs where people can take refuge during extreme heat events

Eleni Myrivili | Chief heat officer, Athens, Greece‘Need to sensitise people to take heat waves seriously’

ELENI MYRIVILI | Chief heat officer, Athens, Greece

DATE OF JOINING: July 23, 2021

WHY WAS SHE APPOINTED: To raise awareness among the citizens about the dangers of extreme heat and help decision-makers take action to cool the city

JOB DESCRIPTION

  • Raising awareness about heat waves. Creating a methodology that brings together meteorological data with health data, morbidity and mortality and put them together to categorise heat waves
  • Popularise the use of EXTREMA Global, a smart phone application that allows people to assess real-time heat health risk. It also draws a map with all safe spots during a heat event and is useful as a guide
  • Identify a network of vulnerable people and keep a watch on them
  • Thermally insulate buildings and public spaces with shading. Employ traditional knowledge on cooling buildings

Eugenia Kargbo | Chief heat officer, Freetown, Sierra Leone‘Will set up taskforce, draw temperature map of the city’

EUGENIA KARGBO | Chief heat officer, Freetown, Sierra Leone

DATE OF JOINING: October 26, 2021

WHY WAS SHE APPOINTED: To develop a heat plan for the city and work with stakeholders to implement adaptive and mitigative measures to reduce heat stress

JOB DESCRIPTION

  • Develop a plan focused on four key elements: behavioural change and communications, coordination and networking, building community resilience and regulatory framework
  • Conduct a heat mapping assessment to identify vulnerable communities, and understand special patterns of heat stress in Freetown
  • Establish a heat-health taskforce and develop an application to disseminate health alerts
  • Employ design innovations (cool roofs, street shades) and natural measures (mangrove forestry) to enhance community resilience
  • Develop heat policies and strengthen laws
  • Develop a plan that can be replicated in Africa

This was first published in the 1-15 April, 2022 edition of Down To Earth

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