The “insidious” impact of extreme heat is challenging cities to find cross-disciplinary solutions.
The first-ever gathering of chief heat officers from cities around the globe brought civic leaders from countries as diverse as Chile, Greece and Sierra Leone to Washington, D.C., recently. The all-female group of urban policymakers shared the challenging role of adapting to the harsh realities of climate change today.
“The awareness part is the most important thing, because it’s the first thing we have to target,” said Eleni Myrivili, heat adviser to the city of Athens. “Heat is always something that’s insidious and silent.”
Organized by the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, which has spearheaded the global Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, the event last Monday also marked the release of the nonprofit’s latest report, “Hot Cities, Chilled Economies: Impacts of Extreme Heat on Global Cities.” The analysis examined how global warming is affecting 12 major urban areas, with some grim findings. The manufacturing hub of Monterrey, Mexico, for example, is already facing $1.8 billion in annual heat-related losses. In the once-temperate UK, temperatures in the London Underground are often above the legal limit for transporting livestock in the UK.
The role of “chief heat officer” is still relatively new, with many current titleholders having less than a year under their belts. But after another summer of record-setting heat across much of the Northern Hemisphere, CHOs, as they’re known, seem poised to become much more important to urban sustainability.
In a roundtable talk, the heat officers discussed their evolving roles and the increasingly relentless grip global warming has on cities across the globe. In coming decades, climate change will render urban areas — suffering from overdevelopment, the urban heat island effect, insufficient tree canopies, and wildly inequitable shade coverage — increasingly dangerous. By 2050, nearly 1,000 cities will see average summertime highs reach or surpass 95 degrees F (35 degrees C) — nearly triple the 350 cities that already do.
They shared solutions with a focus on nature-based interventions, as well as investing in infrastructure and piloting new types of awareness campaigns. Eugenia Kargbo, the chief heat officer of Freetown, Sierra Leone, said at the summit that many women in her city trade at informal markets that lack shade. She’s currently focused on an extensive tree-planting campaign, analyzing those areas to figure out the best strategies for providing cooling, especially during the December-to-April dry season, when temperatures hover above 100 degrees F. Time is short: By 2050, Freetown will be experiencing 13 times as many extreme heat days annually as it does today, the Arsht-Rockefeller report found.
Jane Gilbert, the chief heat officer of Miami-Dade County, is working on a similar canopy effort, with a goal of covering 30% of the county with shade trees by 2030. When she started in June 2021, having previously served as a chief resilience officer for the county, it quickly became apparent that any progress would require broad coalition work: Even a single action item requires coordinating across multiple bureaucracies and 34 separate municipalities.
And implementing proactive policies can be a challenge at the local level. Consider one of the vulnerable populations Gilbert focuses on, outdoor workers — who, particularly in landscaping and construction, make up a significant part of the Miami economy. While the federal work safety organization OSHA plans to draw up new rules to protect outdoor workers, finalizing them could take a decade; meanwhile in Miami, the number of extremely hot days, when the temperature soars during the day and never gets below 77 degrees at night, will increase fivefold to 50 annually by 2050. A state-level worker-protection bill was defeated in the legislature, so now Gilbert is focused on getting the county to pass the first county-level labor regulations for outdoor heat protection. Then comes figuring out enforcement.
Gilbert’s experience — using her expertise and connections to nudge the rest of the city’s bureaucracy toward factoring heat into its work — was shared by the other chief heat officers. While some cities are further ahead with mapping and analysis, there’s a shared focus on increasing natural and city infrastructure for cooling, especially pocket parks and tree canopy.
The state of California, as well as the cities of Athens and Seville, Spain, have set up heat-wave naming and categorization systems to standardize preparation, planning, and emergency responses. Athens’s system, for instance, goes beyond meteorological data to provide a way to see temperature through the lens of human health, and makes data and alerts more actionable; heat waves are named like Atlantic hurricanes and ranked by severity, with corresponding data about how to escape the heat and find government cooling resources.
In Los Angeles, CHO Marta Segura is focused on making the city’s policymakers aware of design guidelines and tools like cool roofs that should be formalized, particularly as US cities begin seeing an influx of climate-focused redevelopment funds from Biden administration policies like the Inflation Reduction Act. Latching on to existing programs and funding streams, and making sure to maximize the opportunity to adapt to changing climate, is key, Segura says, especially for workers impacted by rising heat. (Segura, who grew up in San Jose and whose father was a farmworker and mother worked in a cannery, has personal experience with the issue.)
“If the chief heat officer in LA didn’t exist, those innovations wouldn’t be happening,” she said.
Part of the future of these roles is looking back to find solutions — revisiting older design and architecture methods. Myrivili, Athens’s heat adviser, said that water conservation is key, especially after a dry European summer that saw rivers across the continent hit record lows. Athens plans to develop more parks that utilize treated sewage and blackwater, and also tap into the ancient Hadrian Aqueduct built by Romans in 140 A.D., a 12-mile tunnel system that runs deep in the ground, and use the subterranean network to help cool the city.
In Santiago, Chile, surrounding glaciers — which are the city’s main source of water, have been thinning at the rate of 2 meters (6.6 feet) a year, leading CHO Cristina Huidobro to propose more use of recycled water. But the reality is that pilot programs rarely move fast enough to meet the rapidly growing needs of a city in a warming world.
“I’m a public servant, and I say we are our worst enemy sometimes,” said Huidobro. “Because bureaucracy doesn’t allow innovation in the short term; it takes a lot to change [the] mindset.”