From Miami to Melbourne, a quiet revolution is underway

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

Javier Torres | Afp | Getty Images

A quiet revolution is underway to address a widely underestimated climate challenge: 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 United Nations settlement 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 when roofs are torn off houses or streets are turned into rivers.

“Heat, I believe with all my heart, will be the greatest public health challenge we face in the next decade. And we have to prepare for it now,” Myrivili told CNBC via video conference. “We can – but we really need to make it a priority.”

Heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that more than 1,700 deaths were attributed to heat-related causes in 2022, about twice as many as five years ago. Researchers said these are likely conservative estimates.

Most people don't realize that in Australia, extreme heat kills more people than bushfires, floods and storms. There is a reason for this and that is the delay in data.

Tiffany Crawford

Co-Chief Heat Officer of Melbourne, Australia

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

Older adults, young children and people with chronic illnesses are considered most at risk for heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke. The CDC warns that young and healthy people can also 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.

The CHO role was created by the Atlantic Council's Arsht-Rock Resilience Center, a US-based think tank that aims to support one billion people with resilience solutions by 2030.

“We have relatively high ones [air-conditioning] Penetration, but with our rising temperatures, electricity bills are skyrocketing. Our electricity prices have also risen. “AC power can account for over 50% of the electricity bill, so people are choosing between AC power and serving food to their families,” Gilbert told CNBC.

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

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

Giorgio Viera | Afp | Getty Images

Six months of the year, Gilbert said, temperatures in Miami exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 degrees Celsius) almost daily, posing a particularly big problem for outdoor workers.

To reduce the risks to the county's 2.7 million residents, Gilbert said her team's action plan focused on informing and preparing people for extreme heat, cost-effectively cooling homes and cooling community neighborhoods to avoid the so-called To combat the “heat island effect” – where temperatures in a city are much warmer than in nearby rural areas.

In practice, Gilbert said, the measures included large-scale marketing campaigns targeting the ZIP codes and populations known to be most at risk, as well as working with the National Weather Service and emergency management teams to update advisory and warning levels. This included installing 1,700 efficient air conditioning units in public housing and ensuring that new, affordable housing requires the most efficient cooling systems such as cool and solar-powered roofs to keep operating costs low.

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

Dhaka, Bangladesh

“All of us here grew up in a typically hot and humid environment. We are used to the heat, so it is really difficult to differentiate between normal heat and unsafe heat,” Bushra Afreen, CHO for Dhaka North in Bangladesh, told CNBC via video conference.

Afreen, who was appointed CHO of Dhaka North in May last year, said severe income inequality in the country's largest city meant excessive heat was not a similar experience everywhere.

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

At the moment, the two reactions we see most often are: “Well done, keep it up, we need more awareness.” And the other type is: “Oh, you're going to turn down the heat?” Good luck.'

Bushra Afren

Chief Heat Officer for Dhaka North in Bangladesh

Afreen said her team will not only plant thousands of trees in the informal settlements of Dhaka North and reintroduce a culture of water fountains in the city, but also introduce a pilot project in an urban settlement to create green nooks and crannies for recreation .

Afreen said it is 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, surveillance cameras, a water fountain and signs asking to give priority to women and children are also necessary, she added.

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

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“Right now the two reactions we see most often are: 'Well done, keep up the good work, we need more awareness,'” Afreen said.

“And the other way is, ‘Oh, you’re going to reduce the heat? Good luck.'”

Melbourne, Australia

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

“There is a reason for this and that is the lag in data,” she said.

Crawford, who works as Melbourne's CHOs alongside Krista Milne, said the true extent of heat-related deaths and illnesses often only became clear after health authorities combed through hospital admissions and ambulance data.

The city of Melbourne in southeastern Australia is known for its mild and temperate climate and has around five million inhabitants. However, Crawford says it is vulnerable to bouts of summer heat waves that last several days and offer little respite at night.

Environmental activists gather at the Flinders Street Station intersection in Melbourne, Australia on December 9, 2023. The east coast of Australia is facing a severe heatwave, with temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius predicted in many places. The hot weather could trigger devastating bushfires.

Diego Fedele | Getty Images News | Getty Images

“There is an extreme northerly wind blowing that is simply violent. I liken it to going outside and it's like someone left the oven door open or left the heat on all night and forgot to turn it off,” Crawford said.

Short-term measures implemented in Melbourne include extending the opening hours of public libraries and swimming pools and introducing so-called cool kits containing water bottles, bandanas and old-fashioned fans.

Looking forward, Crawford said the city is in discussions with Google to provide voters with so-called “cool routes” on the internet that make it easier for users to navigate the city by taking advantage of existing shade or canopy .

“In places like Europe the dialogue in the media is a little different, the heat is shocking. “While Australia has lived with the heat constantly and we will continue to live with it, these variables, like any climate response, are becoming more and more pronounced,” Crawford said.

“We have to plan for that.”

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