April 24, 2024

From Miami to Melbourne, a silent revolution is underway

Firefighters work in the zone of a forest fire in the hills of the municipality of Quilpue, Valparaiso region, Chile, on February 3, 2024.

Javier Torres | Episode | Getty Images

A quiet revolution is underway to tackle a widely underestimated climate problem: extreme heat.

Local authorities have appointed several Chief Heat Officers (CHOs) in cities around the world in recent years to prepare residents for increasingly frequent and severe bouts of excessive heat.

“They call it the silent killer,” said Eleni Myrivili, who serves as global CHO for the UN human settlements program and previously worked in a similar role for the Greek capital Athens.

Myrivili said she believes extreme heat is often overlooked because it lacks the visible drama of roofs being torn off houses or streets being turned into rivers.

“Heat, I believe to my core, will be the greatest public health challenge we will face in the next decade. And we have to prepare for it now,” Myrivili told CNBC via video conference. “That’s possible, but we really have to make it a priority.”

Heat is the leading weather-related cause of death in the U.S. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that more than 1,700 deaths resulted from heat-related causes in 2022, roughly double the toll from five years earlier. Researchers have said these are likely conservative estimates.

Most people wouldn’t know that extreme heat kills more people in Australia than bushfires, floods and storms. There’s a reason for that, and it’s the lag in the data.

Tiffany Crawford

Co-chief heat officer of Melbourne, Australia

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

Older adults, young children and people with chronic diseases are considered to be at greatest risk for heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke. The CDC warns that even young and healthy people can be affected.

Miami, USA

The first person in the world to be appointed as CHO was Jane Gilbert, who was appointed in 2021 to oversee Florida’s most populous county, Miami-Dade.

‘We have a relatively large amount [air-conditioning] penetration, but with our rising temperatures, electricity bills are skyrocketing. We have also seen electricity rates rise. AC can account for more than 50% of the electric bill, so people are choosing between AC and food on the table for their families,” Gilbert told CNBC.

Miami, a coastal metropolis in the southern US, is internationally known for its vulnerability to sea level rise and hurricanes. Still, Gilbert said community-led studies have identified chronic heat as the most pressing climate problem.

View of the Miami Bay entrance channel in Miami, Florida during a heat wave on June 26, 2023.

Giorgio Viera | Episode | Getty Images

For six months of the year, Gilbert says temperatures in Miami exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 degrees Celsius) almost every day, posing a particularly big problem for outdoor workers.

To help reduce risks to the province’s 2.7 million residents, Gilbert said her team’s action plan focused on educating and preparing people for extreme heat, helping to affordably cool homes and working to cooling community neighborhoods to address the so-called ‘heat island effect’. “- where a city experiences much warmer temperatures than nearby rural areas.

In practice, Gilbert said the measures included large-scale marketing campaigns targeting the zip codes and demographic groups known to be most at risk, working with the National Weather Service and emergency management teams to update advisory and warning levels. They also include installing 1,700 efficient AC units in public housing and ensuring that new affordable housing needs the most efficient cooling systems, such as cool and solar-resistant roofs, to keep energy costs low.

“We want to get to the root of this problem while helping people adapt,” Gilbert said.

Dhaka, Bangladesh

“We all grew up here in a typically warm and humid environment. We are used to the heat, so that makes it very difficult to differentiate between normal heat and unsafe heat,” Bushra Afreen, CHO for Dhaka North in Bangladesh, told CNBC. via video conference.

Afreen, who became the CHO of Dhaka North in May last year, said high income inequality in the country’s largest city meant excessive heat was not a universally similar experience.

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

Right now the two responses we see most are ‘well done, keep it up, we need more awareness’. And the other kind is, ‘Oh, you’re going to turn the heat down? Good luck.

Bushra Afreen

Chief Heat Officer for Dhaka North in Bangladesh

Besides planting thousands of trees in the informal settlements of Dhaka North and reintroducing a culture of water fountains in the city, Afreen said her team would roll out a pilot project in one city settlement to create green nooks and corners for respite.

Afreen said it would be important to consider the type of trees to plant, such as citrus or neem trees, to repel mosquitoes during a dengue outbreak. Adequate lighting, a bench, CCTV cameras, a water fountain and signage urging priority for women and children would also be needed, she added.

A rickshaw puller splashes water on his face to get relief during a heat wave in Dhaka, Bangladesh on May 10, 2023.

Nurfoto | Nurfoto | Getty Images

“Right now the two responses we see most are ‘well done, keep up the good work, we need more awareness,’” Afreen said.

“And the other kind is, ‘oh, are you going to turn the heat down? Good luck.'”

Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne co-CHO Tiffany Crawford told CNBC that extreme heat kills more people in Australia than bushfires, floods and storms.

“There’s a reason for that, and it’s the lag in the data,” she said.

Crawford, who works alongside Krista Milne as Melbourne’s CHO’s, said the true scale of heat-related deaths and illnesses often only becomes clear after health authorities dig into hospital admissions and ambulance data.

With a population of about 5 million, the southeastern Australian city of Melbourne is known for its mild and temperate climate, but Crawford says the city is prone to summer heat waves that last for several days and provide little respite at night.

Environmentalists gather at the intersection of Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, Australia on December 9, 2023. Australia’s east coast is facing a severe heatwave, with temperatures expected to exceed 40 degrees Celsius in many places. The warm weather can be a trigger for devastating forest fires.

Diego Fedele | Getty Images News | Getty Images

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

Some of the short-term interventions introduced in Melbourne include extending public library and swimming pool opening hours and rolling out so-called cool kits, which include water bottles, neck scarves and old-fashioned fans.

Looking ahead, Crawford said the city was in talks with Google to provide residents with so-called online-mapped “cool routes,” which would allow users to navigate around the city by taking advantage of existing shade or canopy.

“In places like Europe the media dialogue is a little different, the heat is shocking. While in Australia the heat is something we have consistently lived with, and we will continue to live with, but it is those variables, As with any climate response, they are becoming increasingly apparent,” said Crawford.

“We have to plan around that.”

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