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How cities and people are saving lives in extreme heat and how you can help

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

sunset and trees with thermometer
Image Credit: Xavier Coiffic // Unsplash. Illustration by Nate Merrit

Around the world, there are nine individuals tasked with battling heatwaves in some of the hottest urban centers on Earth.

Established in 2021 by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock), the foundation worked with several local governments to appoint chief heat officers (CHOs) in six cities growing both in population and in temperature: Miami, Florida; Santiago, Chile; Freetown, Sierra Leone; Athens, Greece; Melbourne, Australia; and North Dhaka, Bangladesh, which saw its heat officer appointment in May 2023.

These six were appointed alongside the world’s very first global heat officer, Eleni Myrivili, as well as two more recent officers who were appointed on historical city initiative alone: Marta Segura in Los Angeles, California, and David Hondula in Phoenix, Arizona.

The reason why the world is adding chief heat officers to its arsenal of climate solutions is that the globe is warming, and compared to any other extreme weather-related event, extreme heat kills more people.

If you thought this Fourth of July was hotter than usual, you’re not alone. Monday, July 3, 2023, was recorded as the hottest day ever in world history, with an average global temperature of 17.01°C, or 62.46°F, besting the record set in the previous hottest year on record: 2016.

While that may sound comfortable, and even a tad chilly, this average means that heatwaves are scorching many parts of the globe, with the southern U.S. sizzling in a triple-digit heat dome, China’s capital seeing its hottest June day in 60 years, and spring heatwaves that spread from Northern Africa across Asia, and all the way to the Western Mediterranean made 100 times more possible and 6°F hotter due to climate change.

As cities warm, especially those existing in urban heat islands, more and more city officials are accounting for extreme heat from places like India more accustomed to heatwaves to colder American cities being hit uncharacteristically hard summer after summer.

These solutions range from hiring chief heat officers like Segura in L.A. to oversee city initiatives that prevent heatwaves from turning deadly, to as a study recently released by the University of Washington shows, enacting simple solutions, laws, and infrastructure that save lives in the long run.

“The solutions that we need are there,” Segura said via Yahoo News. “We just have to connect them to the areas that most need them.”

Connecting solutions to the most in-need areas sits at the heart of the University of Washington study, which provides tools for municipalities to decide which solutions are best to invest in for preventing both suffering and death, from simple actions like providing air conditioners to lower-income households, adding more trees for increased shade, to even adding more sprinkler parks for children to play and cool off in.

When extreme heat days are projected to increase on the order of five-fold by the 2050s, taking immediate action, the researchers detail, is paramount, especially in areas that don’t already have heat infrastructure in place.

As two of the report's authors — Jason Vogel and Brian G. Henning — detail in an editorial in The Conversation, “The heat dome that descended upon the Pacific Northwest in late June 2021 met a population radically unprepared for it.” They reference the 2021 heatwave in Washington state which unfortunately contributed to 441 deaths in the state from June 27 to July 3.

Whether it be that 70% of rented houses in some Washington counties completely lack air conditioning, or that one in five in one county face financial barriers to even turning their AC on, many households were left stuck in a heatwave with no way to cool themselves. The goal of the report is to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

Many cities can not only take inspiration from the report but from many actions already happening across the country.

In L.A. for example, Segura established “Heat Relief 4 L.A.” which she launched with an annual budget of $1 million to designate libraries and recreational facilities as cooling centers, particularly spreading the word about extreme heat in communities that are majority Latino, Black, Asian American, or low-income.

She also developed an app called Cool Spots that provides a map of these cooling centers. It doesn’t end there, as Segura is also working with parks and infrastructure departments to plant more trees and build heat-resilient urban architecture.

These solutions aren’t unique to L.A. but go hand-in-hand with the playbook established by the UW study, which emphasizes the need to utilize a coalition people and community resources to get the job done.

In prioritizing marginalized communities — whether they are those Segura focuses on, the elderly, the unsheltered, those with chronic health conditions, etc. — the report shows how churches, libraries, community centers, and community nonprofits can take center stage, supported by resources from local and state governments.

These include Baltimore’s solar-powered “community resiliency hubs,” which like Los Angeles’s provide water, cooling, power for charging devices, and other support, in times of crisis; a nonprofit in Spokane, Washington’s “cooling fund” which provides portable ACs to those who can’t afford one; cities like Phoenix working to coordinate early action warning systems, and NYC’s the Be A Buddy model.

Established in 2018, the program connects residents most susceptible to the health impacts of climate change-related hazards with volunteers who provide wellness checks and connections to city services.

One way the model works is that during heatwaves, the volunteers check on the elderly. During a two-year pilot, 66 volunteers alone were able to help over 1,300 residents. Participating in a program like this, checking if your city has one, or even working to create a network of individuals who call elderly individuals during heatwaves can potentially save a life.

In using a community-first approach, many cities are also looking to use technology to make their cities more heat resilient, inside and outside, with places like Phoenix using light-colored roofing and pavement materials or paints to reflect the sun's rays rather than absorb them, and help cool the outdoors.

To quote the study’s authors in their Conversation editorial, “Addressing extreme heat over the long term requires the participation of many other groups not tasked with protecting public health.”

That’s why beyond utilizing people and existing community infrastructure like libraries, churches, and centers, the report also outlines how landlords, utilities, employers, and lawmakers can step up to the plate.

This is exemplified positively by Oregon’s law, passed after the 2021 heatwave, that prevents landlords from restricting tenants’ ability to install window air conditioners, and negatively by a growing number of states declining to require water breaks for outdoor workers in extreme heat.

Right now, only three states — predictably California, Oregon, and Washington — require heat breaks for outdoor workers, with Minnesota having standards for indoor workers and Colorado only for farm workers. Texas recently eliminated the rule, despite the sweltering heatwave the state is currently undergoing and the fact that in Texas, at least 42 workers died of heat exposure between 2011 and 2021.

Aside from ensuring breaks, and adjusting schedules to avoid times of extreme heat, while accounting for fair pay, the report also shows how utilities can contribute to the role of saving lives, by working with communities to reduce costs for vulnerable people that may prevent them from using air-conditioning, for example.

American cities can also take a page from international communities and the actions proposed by CHOs around the world, such as Ahmedabad, India’s Heat Action Plan which includes further training healthcare professionals on heat-related care and an agreement recently signed in Santiago Chile that will educate employers to recognize and respond to the dangers of extreme heat, help institute practices to protect their workers, and health coverage for workers injured on the job, especially due to extreme heat exposure.

“In the end, saving lives from extreme heat is a complicated challenge requiring coordination across multiple levels of government, agencies, and the civic and private sectors,” the researchers of the UW study wrote.

“But individuals have an important role to play as well,” from protecting themselves and loved ones, voting for policy that can save lives, donating to heatwave mutual aid funds, calling for government and civic action, and volunteering at the plethora of heat-related programs taking off across the country. Who knows, as the world warms and more cities take note of the trend of chief heat officers, maybe becoming one will be an individual action too.

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