Until recently one of the most overseen effects of climate change, heatwaves make it now to the headlines as they hit hard some European and North American regions since the last few years – although the rising temperatures have been a reality for many for decades. Indeed, this last month of July has marked the hottest two weeks on record in human history. If for some climate change could still be seen (deep down) as something distant both in time as in space, there is no mistake about it now that its effects are felt at everyone’s doorsteps, or almost (hello inexistent-Swedish-summer!). Extreme heat is not only a real bore to our dream vacation, it is also the number one climate risk in many countries, and it is particularly threatening in cities – a recent study found that it killed 61,000 people in Europe last summer.
The situation is hot, one could say, and the rising urbanisation of the world is not helping – it implies, among others, further land deforestation and ‘heat islands’, as concrete buildings and pavement absorb and trap it. While it’s complicated to drive down the Earth’s temperature -unless someone has a time machine? – it is still possible to prevent and mitigate heat’s effects. With this mission has appeared in some cities in the last couple of years the figure of the ‘chief heat officer’, or CHO, a municipal public servant focused on planning for extreme heat and co-ordinate actions enhancing urban heat resilience. Although most CHO are hired by cities or other forms of local government, the american think thank Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center helped establish this new municipal role and has advocated for it worldwide, making specific tools and solutions available for cities tackling extreme heat.
One of the firsts cities worldwide, shortly after Miami, to have its own CHO was Athens in 2021. Anthropologist Eleni Myrivili, who occupied the position until recently, advocated in Shareable’s audio-documentary on heatwaves and energy poverty for heavily subsidized efficient housing and renewables, as well as for as green infrastructure by ‘aggressively take back public space from cars’ and focus on public transportation and on bringing green– not just parks but elongated forests – and water in the cities. Other adaptation and mitigation measures that she pushed for was classifying heatwaves particular to Athens into different categories, pretty much as it’s done with earthquakes or hurricanes. Working with historical data on temperatures and mortality, the city could forecast the impact of heatwaves and warn about associated risks the vulnerable population. Indeed, the effects are worse in lower-income neighborhoods, with less green areas and more people dealing with pre-existing health conditions, and with little choice but to keep working -often outdoors – through heatwaves.
This disproportionate vulnerability of the poor to climate change is an important piece of the equation, that CHOs alone won’t be able to solve without a larger systemic vision of climate justice. As it is evocated in the same documentary, ‘maybe some need to consume less energy, for others to consume adequately’.