In a Boiling World, Chief Heat Officers Fight ‘Silent Killer’

BOGOTA — As the era of “global boil” spawns increasingly deadly heat waves, a handful of heat czars are teaming up with officials in cities from Miami to Melbourne in a race against time to cool urban heat traps and prevent tens of thousands of deaths.

Seven Chief Heat Officers – all of whom are women – work in Miami, Melbourne, Dhaka, Freetown and Athens to plant trees, create ‘pocket parks’, install water fountains and educate people about the effects of extreme heat on the human body. .

The role of Chief Heat Officer was created three years ago by a US-based think tank, but even in that short time the job has become more urgent as global warming emissions – largely due to the use of coal, oil and gas – is increasing. Scientists say temperatures are pushing us into “uncharted territory.”

Last year was already the hottest on record, and new research suggests that the Northern Hemisphere’s intense summer heat made it the hottest summer in some 2,000 years – further evidence of what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the era of called global cooking’.

This year, heat waves have already hit several countries in Asia, costing lives, disrupting education and damaging livelihoods. In Europe, where as many as 61,000 people have died in the 2022 heatwaves, people are bracing for even more record temperatures in the coming summer months.

Despite this increased frequency, many people don’t fully understand how dangerous extreme heat can be, says Krista Milne, Melbourne’s co-chief heat officer.

“In Australia, as in the rest of the world, (heat) kills more people than any other natural hazard, but people don’t understand it’s a problem and therefore don’t prepare for it.”

Extreme heat can cause heatstroke or kidney failure and worsen heart or respiratory conditions. Children, the elderly, pregnant women, farmers and handymen are among the most vulnerable, especially in poorer countries.

Nearly 19,000 people die each year from workplace injuries attributed to excessive heat, according to an April report from the United Nations International Labor Organization.

“The simple fact is that there is a point at which the body cannot cool down,” says Milne.

‘Silent killer’

The Chief Heat Officer posts have been created through an initiative by the US-based Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock), which says heat waves will affect more than 3.5 billion people worldwide by 2050 – half of them in urban centers.

“Heat is the deadliest climate hazard. It is a silent killer,” said Elissavet Bargianni, who was appointed Chief Heat Officer for Athens in May 2023.

The city was the first in Europe to classify heat waves from category 1 to category 3, allowing residents to decide whether to stay indoors or cancel outdoor sporting events. The rankings also help officials assess whether to temporarily close tourist sites such as the ancient Acropolis, Bargianni said.

Cities are often several degrees warmer than nearby rural areas because the heat trapped by dense clusters of concrete and dark-colored roads and buildings creates a ‘heat island effect’, meaning nighttime temperatures also remain high.