In a warming world, chief heat officers help adapt, prepare, and protect

In advance of Perry World House’s Global Shifts Colloquium on extreme heat in urban areas, Penn Today spoke with chief heat officers about their role in influencing public awareness, preparedness, and policy.

A low sun shines on a city street
Urban centers are feeling the burden of extreme heat events. Chief heat officers from around the globe will reflect on the challenges they face and the adaptation strategies they are implementing in a discussion at Perry World House. (Image: iStock/deberarr)

Temperatures worldwide have increased on average by more than 1 degree Celsius since pre-industrial times. And some cities are running a fever. 

For a variety of reasons—including densely packed people and buildings, high levels of vehicular and industrial activity, and low levels of tree canopy—cities tend to be hotter than the surrounding rural areas. With more than half of the world’s population living in cities, that means urban residents are particularly vulnerable to the health dangers of dwelling and working in hot conditions. 

In the past few years, cities around the globe have begun to prioritize the issue of extreme heat, in part due to the creation of the world’s first chief heat officer (CHO) leadership positions. A concept piloted by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock) and the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, CHOs serve as unifying points of contact and action for responding to extreme heat events, shaping and implementing policy, and enhancing public awareness of the dangers of extreme heat. At the local level, this entails the challenging task of coordinating agencies, sectors, and audiences. 

Seven CHOs exist today. All happen to be women.

On Wednesday, March 22, five will take part in “Building Urban Resilience to Extreme Heat,” the first public event in this year’s Perry World House Global Shifts Colloquium. Participating in the hybrid discussion are Jane Gilbert of Miami-Dade County; Eugenia Kargbo of Freetown, Sierra Leone; Eleni “Lenio” Myrivili of U.N. Habitat; Surella Segú of Monterrey, Mexico; and Cristina Huidobro Tornvall of Santiago de Chile. Reporter Rebecca Leber of Vox will moderate.

To learn more about what falls under the purview of CHOs and some of the key extreme heat-related issues facing cities, municipalities, nations, and global agencies, Penn Today spoke with a few of the panelists. They shared brief reflections on the significance of the role, the complex challenges posed by extreme heat, and their top priorities for action.

Eleni Myrivili, U.N. Habitat global chief heat officer 

Heat is such a cross-cutting issue. Even though it’s under one thematic umbrella, it touches so many different sectors, so it’s important to have someone prioritize and coordinate what must be done about it. 

We want to help communities figure out how to transition to a more sustainable type of cooling. Of course, there are some places where air conditioning will be used, but we are asking, How can we reduce the associated emissions and think about how to cool buildings and outdoor spaces without AC? To a large extent that has to do with greening—planting trees and vegetation. That’s the best weapon we have. 

Other things we can do have to do with the types of building materials we use and their colors, their water permeability. There are already cities around the U.S. that have created a minimum of sun reflectivity for their roofing materials. We’re also thinking about a new type of landscape architecture, where architects and landscape architects actually train in thermodynamics studies before they design houses and outdoor spaces.

We can draw lessons from earlier styles of architecture, looking to our past. For centuries people in hot climates have created brilliant building techniques to lower temperatures naturally. Now we have amazing technologies, but we can combine that with this old knowledge to create brilliant stuff. We’re just at the beginning.

To raise awareness, we’ve piloted a project across a few cities where we created an algorithm to forecast the health and mortality effects of different categories of heat waves. It’s a really important tool for decision-makers and policymakers. Communicating about heat is hard. You can’t see extreme heat like you can see the devastation from an earthquake or hurricane. You need to capture people’s attention so they begin changing their behavior. 

Surella Segú, chief heat officer in Monterrey, Mexico

I’m different from the rest of the CHOs because I’m not a government official, but I do work directly with the mayor to help generate awareness of the situation with extreme heat both in and out of the municipality of Monterrey. 

I’m trying to generate awareness at the government level but also within organizations and companies. We’re preparing a communications campaign. Some of it will talk about planting trees and why that will be beneficial in the long term, but it will also highlight the dangers of extreme heat and how to protect yourself and others over the short term. 

By focusing on extreme heat, we can directly consider how climate change affects people’s health. There’s a gendered perspective also. Women are the most vulnerable to extreme heat, for several reasons. In the Global South, the majority of the jobs women can take are informal, and the majority of informal jobs take place outside. Women are usually the ones in charge of the house and taking care of their family, and sometimes houses are hotter inside than it is outside. And another way of looking at the vulnerabilities of women is that, in taking care of kids or elders, they sometimes commute a lot, not just to a job but to hospitals or schools or clinics.

The vulnerability to heat is also not shared equally across social class. In Mexico, about 70% of housing is self-built. And the most vulnerable people are generally located in places where there’s a lack of vegetation—trees and shade. So, the heat island effect is worse in those areas.

When you work in a city that, historically, is hot already, people are kind of used to that. The first time you go to them, they may say, “Well, Monterrey has always been hot.” And I say, “Yes, but it’s getting hotter, and we are making it hotter.” We’re trying to make a cultural shift, so they realize these dangers are real.

Cristina Huidobro Tornvall, chief heat officer in Santiago de Chile

I’m an architect and urban planner and have been involved in urban resilience for the past six years. I’ve been chief resilience officer for the regional government and still hold that role but now also hold the CHO position. And, of course, both roles are really related to climate change.

I focus not on mitigating extreme heat, but on adaptation. We think about how, in terms of infrastructure, we bring more green to the city through parks and urban forests. I’m working on an urban tree planting and reforestation project, designing pocket forests in several parts of the city. We’re also focusing on a code red, so every time the temperature goes above 34 degrees Celsius [93 degrees Fahrenheit], we launch a warning to the education, labor, health agencies, so they can take measures to educate and protect people.

In the U.S. you have cooling centers, with lots of air conditioning, but I always say, What are the Latin American solutions for heat? What are the climate-sensitive and cost-sensitive but also culturally sensitive strategies? Not everything that works in the Global North is going to work here.

We’re trying to think of other solutions. I’ve been speaking a lot with academics and professors. They’re raising new ideas and doing research, and they love to work with people in the public sector who can benefit from their ideas.

Extreme heat is a challenging topic; it can be concerning to think about, but I’m optimistic. One year ago, we didn’t have any heat agenda in place. I was appointed last March. Now we have a $2 million urban tree program being implemented, we have this code red, we have a heat task force group meeting, we have an awareness campaign. This is a topic on the minds of many people who weren’t thinking about it a year ago.

Registration information for “Building Urban Resilience to Extreme Heat” is on the Perry World House website.