A Quiet Revolution Is Underway, From Miami To Melbourne, To Fend Off An Invisible Killer

Source: Stephen Lam

Cities around the world are quietly gearing up to tackle a big climate challenge: extreme heat. In the past few years, local authorities have appointed a number of chief heat officers (CHOs) in cities around the globe. They’re doing this to help people prepare for more frequent and severe heat waves.

“They call it the silent killer,” said Eleni Myrivili, who serves as the global CHO for the U.N.’s human settlement program and previously worked in a similar role for the Greek capital of Athens.

Beat The Heat: A Hot Topic On The Rise

Myrivili thinks extreme heat doesn’t get as much attention as it should because it doesn’t have dramatic visuals like roofs getting torn off houses or streets flooding.

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“Heat, I believe it to the bottom of my heart, is going to be the number one public health challenge that we will be dealing with in the next decade. And we need to prepare for it now,” Myrivili told CNBC via videoconference. “We can — but we really need to make it a priority.”

Biggest Cause Of Weather-Related Deaths In The U.S

Heat is the biggest cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 1,700 people died from heat-related issues in 2022, which is about twice as many as five years earlier. Experts think these numbers are probably even higher than reported.

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The CDC defines extreme heat as summertime temperatures that are significantly hotter and/or more humid than average.

Everyone Is At Risk

The CDC warns that older adults, young kids, and people with long-term illnesses are at higher risk of heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion or heat stroke. But even young, healthy people can be affected too.

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Keep reading to find out who cities have employed and what measures they’ve put in place to tackle this problem.

In Miami, U.S.

Jane Gilbert became the world’s first Chief Heat Officer (CHO) in 2021. She was appointed to oversee heat affairs in Miami-Dade County, the most populated area in Florida.

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The CHO position was made by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock), a think tank in the U.S. Their goal is to help 500 million people with solutions to handle heat by 2030.

Rising Temperatures Pushing Electricity Bills Off The Charts

“We have relatively high [air-conditioning] penetration, but with our rising temperatures, electricity bills are just through the roof. We’ve also had the electricity rates go up. AC can be over 50% of the electricity bill so people are choosing between AC and putting food on the table for their families,” Gilbert told CNBC.

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According to Gilbert, surveys conducted by the community show that severe heat is the top climate worry. In Miami, temperatures go over 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 degrees Celsius) almost every day for six months. This is a big problem, especially for people who work outside.

Gilbert’s Action Plan To Fight Heat Risks

To make things safer for the county’s 2.7 million residents, Gilbert’s team is focusing on educating and getting people ready for extreme heat. They’re also working on making homes cooler without spending too much and cooling down neighborhoods to fight the “heat island effect,” where cities get much hotter than nearby countryside.

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Gilbert’s team took action by launching broad-scale marketing campaigns aimed at areas and groups most vulnerable to heat. They also collaborated with the National Weather Service and emergency management teams to update alerts and warnings. 

Addressing The Root Cause Of The Problem 

Additionally, they installed 1,700 energy-efficient AC units in public housing and made sure new affordable homes have top-notch cooling systems like cool and solar-ready roofs to keep energy bills low.

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“We want to address the root cause of this problem while we’re helping people adapt,” Gilbert said.

Dhaka, Bangladesh

“All of us here have grown up in a typically hot and humid environment. We are used to the heat so that makes it really hard to distinguish between normal heat and unsafe heat,” Bushra Afreen, CHO for Dhaka North in Bangladesh, told CNBC via videoconference.

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Afreen, who became Dhaka North’s CHO in May last year, mentioned that because of significant income differences in the city, not everyone faces extreme heat in the same way.

Heat Relief Initiatives In Dhaka North

“When you combine that with fragile urban systems like drainage and power outages and poor health management and poor health systems and poor education systems, you get a very bad stew,” she said.

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Afreen’s team plans to plant thousands of trees in informal settlements in Dhaka North and bring back water fountains to the city. They also aim to start a trial project in one settlement to make green spaces for people to find relief from the heat.

Creating Safe And Healthy Spaces

Afreen highlighted the importance of choosing trees like citrus or neem to repel mosquitoes during a dengue outbreak.

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She also mentioned the need for proper lighting, benches, CCTV cameras, water fountains, and signs prioritizing women and children in the area.

Melbourne, Australia

Tiffany Crawford, co-CHO of Melbourne, told CNBC that the severe heat is responsible for more deaths in Australia than bushfires, floods, and storms. “There’s a reason for that, and it’s the lag in the data,” she said.

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Crawford, who works alongside Krista Milne as CHO of Melbourne, said the true scale of heat-related deaths and illnesses often doesn’t become clear until health authorities have pored through hospital admissions and ambulance data.

Melbourne’s Summer Heat Challenges

Melbourne, with a population of about 5 million people, usually has a mild and temperate climate. However, Crawford says it often suffers from long, hot heatwaves during summer that can last for days and don’t cool down much at night.

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“There’s an extreme northerly wind blows that is just ferocious. I liken it to going outside and it’s like someone left the oven door open or the heater on all night and forgot to turn it off,” Crawford said.

Keeping Cool In Melbourne: Kits And Routes

In Melbourne, they’ve made short-term interventions like keeping public libraries and pools open longer and giving out so-called “cool kits” with water bottles, neck towels, and fans. 

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Crawford also mentioned that the city was in dialogue with Google to provide residents with

online maps showing “cool routes” to help people find shady spots or canopy cover when walking around the city.

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Mary Scrantin

Written by Mary Scrantin

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