| FASTCOMPANY.COM | Meet the 7 Chief Heat Officers who are making their cities more resilient
One of the most overlooked emergencies of the climate crisis is extreme heat, which, research suggests, is killing more than 5 million people a year. Deaths from severe heat strokes and related complications increased 56% in the U.S. between 2018 and 2021, and that could only get worse across the globe as temperatures continue to soar.
While it’s more complicated to mitigate climate change’s effects and drive down temperatures, it is possible to prevent heat deaths. Heat is making cities inhospitable, as buildings and roads absorb and trap it—especially in lower-income and minority neighborhoods, where people live without shade, often with pre-existing health conditions, and with little choice but to keep working through the oppressive heat. So the prevention work is about adapting those communities, and keeping people alert to the dangers.
Now, there’s an allied force to do that work: a band of Chief Heat Officers (CHOs). The roles are partially funded bythe Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, as well as a mixture of other public and private grants. Seven cities around the world have recently appointed these leaders, with Miami being the first in June 2021. All are women—an intentional strategy for representation, since women are disproportionately impacted: 80% of people displaced by climate change are women, and many work in the informal economy, doing domestic tasks such as caretaking, which is often indoors and unair-conditioned.
In their respective cities, the CHOs are taking action: installing cool pavements and roofs; planning cool route mapping systems; and planting trees for canopy, which can reduce surrounding temperatures by 20 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. And they’re sharing the best heat resilience practices with one another. At the end of September, they all congregated for the first time in Washington.
“IT’S A SILENT KILLER.”
Appointed October 7, Krista Milne is the newest Chief Heat Officer, a co-officer for Melbourne, Australia, along with her colleague, Tiffany Crawford. In Australia, heat has caused more fatalities than all other natural hazards put together—but it often goes under the radar because it lacks the same arresting visual cues as a flood or a hurricane. Heat can be insidious; more people died from lingering heat in Melbourne from a bushfire 300 kilometers away than from the fire itself. “It’s very hard to see heat, but it’s also a silent killer,” Milne says.
An urban heat island covers 70% of the population of Monterrey, Mexico, which has a perilous lack of trees and vegetation. As the CHO there, Surella Segú feels that meeting her fellow officers is important. While specifics vary from city to city, they experience the same processes and barriers when implementing tactics, such as dealing with politics, appeasing communities, and finding financial resources. “We have different backgrounds,” she says. “I think that gives you a different lens on how you see these issues. We’ve been complementing each other.”
“IT MAKES SENSE FOR WOMEN TO LEAD ON THIS AGENDA.”
Director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, Kathy Baughman McLeod oversees the work—though she prefers the title “chief of the chief heat officers.” The number of CHOs has ramped up faster than in the original plan, which was one per continent. But there’s a method to selecting the cities. Naturally, they chose cities that suffer from particularly harsh heat seasons, but also cities that have previously shown climate leadership. They will likely add one more, probably in India. “We are a small NGO, so it’s not practical for us to place one in every community,” she says.
It was crucial for McLeod to recruit women—and mothers. “[They] come into the role with some inherent understanding of what it is to be a woman in the face of climate impacts,” she says. But it’s also about a certain leadership style; she mentions that countries led by women during COVID-19 had better outcomes. “When women are provided resources and training and access to things, everyone benefits,” she says. “So it makes sense for women to lead on this agenda. I mean, it kind of makes sense for women to lead on every agenda.”
“WHAT ARE THE LOW-HANGING FRUIT?”
In her hometown, Eugenia Kargbo deals with not only the human toll, but also the economic realities of extreme heat. As the CHO of Freetown, Sierra Leone, she’s representing the global south, which is especially hard hit by heat, as well as the labor-intensive African economy. Many Sierra Leoneans have migrated from rural areas to Freetown for better economic opportunity, which has ballooned the city’s population, leading to deforestation and even more intense heat.
Fifty-two percent of residents are market traders (the majority of whom are women); they endure blistering heat as they sell their goods. But mitigation measures could be relatively simple. “What are the low-hanging fruit that we can do to prevent people from dying?” Kargbo asks. As well as planting more trees for shade, she’s working on covering market stalls where the traders work, which also saves their perishable produce—and livelihoods.
Jane Gilbert was the first appointed CHO, in Miami, Florida, and she’s surprised at how rapidly the program has accelerated. “I never imagined, when I accepted this position, how much attention the issue of extreme heat would have gotten,” she says. In Miami, she has focused on raising awareness through messaging, so the public is alert to the risks and can avoid them—especially in the most affected communities.
They conducted a vulnerability assessment, gaining input from people in different communities with a lived experience of extreme heat. “It can’t be just me, a white caucasian, from a privileged background, saying, ‘Oh, this is how we need to message,’” she says. “It needs to be a Haitian person who can’t afford the electricity bill. Where do they get their information? What will they need to hear?” After an assessment, her team ran multilingual PSAs, including across Haitian and farmworkers’ radio channels. “We were able to reach deep into those communities,” she says.
“WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO, CHANGE THE TEMPERATURE?”
Having another U.S. CHO after Miami wasn’t in the original plan, McLeod says. But Marta Segura, already director of L.A’s city’s climate emergency mobilization office, reached out. So, “L.A. did itself,” McLeod says. And the city is a perfect example that there are vulnerable communities everywhere. “Many think of the U.S. as the wealthiest country in the world, and yet there’s abject poverty in lots of pockets of the U.S.,” she says.
Among Segura’s initiatives is naming, ranking, and categorizing heat waves—just like hurricanes— and Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill to direct funds to the program. The categorization will be linked to health outcomes. “People look at [heat] as a number: 99, 101. But you can’t do very much about changing the temperature,” Segura says. “That’s a joke around the media: ‘What are you going to do, heat officer, are you going to change the temperature?’ No, but we can create a more climate-adaptive city, and we can help people be more proactive when a heat storm comes.”
Segura appreciates the all-women alliance because it brings a certain work style. “I find it much easier to go to them and get a real response than I once did when I had to go to all men,” she says. “It’s almost night and day.” She adds that it’s not the fault of men or their lack of empathy. “I’m going to blame it on protocol and status quo, and that’s just the way that things have been done,” she says. “I definitely work with a lot of passionate, caring men as well. But it’s just been refreshing to lean on other women—and women of color—who see the urgency of the matter.”
“CLIMATE ACTION NEEDS TO BE DONE YESTERDAY.”
Each CHO has to work with their respective governments, and Cristina Huidobro, CHO of Santiago, Chile, feels lucky that her ideals are aligned with the region’s governor, Claudio Orrego. For instance, Orrego greenlit a $2 million urban reforestation program that will start before the end of the year.
Like the others, Huidobro is pleasantly surprised by the speed at which the CHO force assembled. That was crucial because strategies take time to execute, as they balance the needs and desires of different stakeholders and decision makers. And, they will need to get ahead of the climate crisis. “I don’t think this specific moment is important,” she says. “What I think is, we should have done it earlier. We’re already almost late. I’m committed to climate action because I think climate action needs to be done yesterday.”
Eleni Myrivili, the second CHO appointed, was brought on in July 2021 as the CHO of Athens, Greece. The partnership provides her with “solidarity,” she says, “because it feels very lonely to be trying to do this kind of work.” Particularly to have other women to collaborate with. She notes the distinction between climate mitigation, and adaptation and resilience, noting that the latter tend to be spearheaded by women. Women have carved out the climate adaptation beat organically. “I don’t think it’s something innate, I just think that it usually falls in their lap,” she says.
But in November, Myrivili will have a change of role: “I’m going global,” she says. She will be replaced in Athens as she becomes Global CHO for UN-Habitat, the United Nations Human Settlement program, for promoting sustainable urban settlements, with a goal to provide adequate shelter for all people around the world. Myrivili will integrate heat adaptation and resilience into all of its policies and initiatives.
Πηγή: Fast Company