Jul 12, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Too much heat, too few "chief heat officers"

Illustration of an officer with a fire-shaped badge

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Amid record heat in Phoenix and the Southwest, fears are ratcheting up that U.S. cities aren't doing enough to mitigate extreme heat — including appointing "chief heat officers."

Why it matters: It's still early in the summer, and too many cities are getting caught flat-footed — without a heat action plan, or with uncoordinated response efforts siloed in different departments.

  • Excessive heat is the #1 weather-related killer in the world.
  • It's also a social justice issue, since heat disproportionately harms people who work outdoors, can't afford air conditioners or live in neighborhoods where shade and trees are scarce.

Driving the news: When Miami-Dade County, Phoenix and Los Angeles appointed chief heat officers in 2021 and 2022 to add muscle to their hot-weather strategies, it was expected that other major U.S. cities would quickly follow — but none have.

  • It can be hard to fund the position (and staff).
  • Cities like Boston and New York are managing their heat response through their emergency services departments or offices of resilience or sustainability.

But having a dedicated position can be important because it empowers the officeholder to cut through red tape and focus squarely on mitigating heat.

  • "If someone has extreme heat as part of their overall portfolio, they're juggling it with whatever the other top priorities are," Jane Gilbert, the chief heat officer in Miami-Dade County, tells Axios.
  • "I wake up every day thinking about how are we make progress" on each of our heat-related goals, says Gilbert, who was appointed two years ago as the nation's first chief heat officer.
  • She can pull everyone from community leaders to the National Weather Service and the local health department into the same room. "The mayor has charged me to work across departments and across stakeholders," Gilbert says.

Details: Accomplishments in Miami-Dade include getting the thresholds for "heat advisories" and "heat warnings" lowered — to 105 degrees and 110 degrees, from 108 degrees and 113 degrees, respectively.

  • The county has also installed 1,700 high-efficiency air conditioning units in public housing.
  • It's working to increase tree canopy coverage from 20% of the county to 30%, with an emphasis on low-income neighborhoods.
  • A first-ever public awareness campaign about "heat season" — from May 1-Oct. 31 — tries to make residents as mindful of the dangers of heat as they are of hurricanes.

Between the lines: A number of cities have "chief resilience officers" — but that role encompasses any number of natural and manmade threats, diffusing the focus from the perils of tremendous heat.

  • "The reason why we call them 'chief heat officers' is that heat is killing so many people and it's silent and invisible," says Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, an NGO that helps finance and train chief heat officers.
  • "We think the position needs to be set aside from these other climate hazards," Baughman McLeod tells Axios. "This is the No. 1 health and death threat from climate — let's focus on it, because it needs branding."

Yes, but: You don't necessarily need someone with the title of "chief heat officer" to have an effective strategy, some officials say.

  • "I think it's just really a case of semantics," says John Giles, the mayor of Mesa, Arizona, a city of 500,000 near Phoenix.
  • "We do not have a chief heat officer, but I think our programming is the same or similar to Phoenix's," he tells Axios. "We work principally through our fire and medical departments — they coordinate our cooling centers and our hydration stations."

Mesa has a climate action plan, a sustainability department that's in charge of it, and a new "Trees are Cool" campaign that aims to plant a million new trees by 2050 and increase canopy coverage from 6% to 15%.

  • The job of a chief heat officer is "just as essential in Mesa as it is in Phoenix," Giles says. "We absolutely have those job functions that are being performed, but we house them differently — the person who is doing those functions is wearing a fire department uniform."

Where it stands: The "new normal" of record temperatures is a challenge to the ability of all municipalities to take care of their citizens — let alone plan long-term mitigation efforts.

  • Eric Klinenberg, a professor of social sciences at New York University who wrote a book about a 1995 heat wave in Chicago that killed 700 people, told NBC Miami, "I don’t know a single city that is truly prepared for the worst-case scenario that some climate scientists fear."

Case study: In one instance, corporate America stepped in to show what can be done in a single community with everyone's buy-in.

  • Since last July, the Pacoima neighborhood of Los Angeles has been a lab experiment in coating heat-trapping pavement and asphalt with cool surfaces — courtesy of GAF, the roofing and weatherproofing company.
  • A 10-square-block area was covered with 700,000 square feet of solar reflective pavement — including streets, parking lots and play areas.
  • So far, the GAF Cool Community Project has lowered surface temperatures by 10 degrees on sunny days, and reduced the "urban heat island" effect by 25%-50% during peak temperatures, GAF says.
  • "What we're hearing more than anything is that there's more comfort in the community. They're more comfortable being outside — even on hot days — and they're more comfortable with their children being outside," says Jeff Terry, vice president of corporate social responsibility and sustainability at GAF.

The bottom line: Cities that have named a chief heat officer say the imprimatur of the position helps get things done and sends a critical message.

  • "You need someone who is hyper-focused on this to bring together the health care community, the policy bodies, the community advocates, the outdoor workers," Daniella Levine Cava, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, tells Axios. "Everybody has to be on the same page."
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