Impacts of extreme heat on cities have ranged from disruptive to devastating in recent years. In 2017, planes in Phoenix couldn’t physically take off in 120-degree heat. In Washington, D.C., and London, metro and tram tracks have melted. And during the pandemic, as people spent more time outside, even public health took a hit, as COVID-19 testing was shut down in areas of D.C. and New Jersey because the heat was too dangerous for those lining up in the sun.
While many are aware of heat risks, they’re perhaps not taken as seriously as more visible climate disasters like hurricanes and floods, leading many experts to call heat the “silent killer.” A 2020 study suggests that it contributes to the deaths of 5,600 people every year. Data on such deaths is sparse, since they’re often attributed to other conditions, but severe heatstroke can lead to coma or even death. In an effort to raise awareness and put into place concrete actions on local levels to combat heat’s effect on human health and economies, three cities are appointing chief heat officers, who’ll also share best practices with other cities in their regions.
Miami was an apt place to start: Known for its vulnerability to sea-level rise, the coastal city broke its own heat records last year, reaching a June high of 98 degrees, the hottest ever for that month. “It’s killing more people than any other climate-driven hazard in the U.S.,” says Kathy Baughman McLeod, senior vice president and director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, a nonprofit that works with cities around the world to fund climate-resilience solutions. It’s under the group’s Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance program that the mayors of Miami-Dade, Athens, Greece, and Freetown, Sierra Leone, agreed to appoint CHOs (the organization helps fund the position). Miami-Dade’s mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, was the first to announce the role. Jane Gilbert, who worked for many years on the city’s climate resilience initiatives, is the first person to hold a position of this kind in the world.