Climate change effect: Meet the officers whose job is to battle the heat

Seven women chief heat officers from cities around the world were appointed three years ago to help cities cool down and spread awareness about the effects of extreme heat on our bodies

First Published20 May 2024
Heatwaves are expected to affect more than 3.5 billion people by 2050.
Heatwaves are expected to affect more than 3.5 billion people by 2050.(Pexels/Dziana Hasanbekava )

As the era of “global boiling” spawns ever deadlier heatwaves, a handful of heat tsars are working with officials in cities from Miami to Melbourne in a race against time to cool urban heat traps and prevent tens of thousands of deaths. Seven chief heat officers — who all happen to be women — are working in Miami, Melbourne, Dhaka, Freetown and Athens to plant trees, create “pocket parks”, install water fountains and teach people about the effects of extreme heat on the human body. 

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The role of chief heat officer (CHO) was created three years ago through an initiative by the U.S.-based Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock), which says that by 2050, heatwaves will affect more than 3.5 billion people globally – half of them in urban centres. But even in the short time since it has been set up, the task of the CHOs has become more urgent as planet-heating emissions — largely from the use of coal, oil and gas — are pushing temperatures into “uncharted territory”, according to scientists.

This year, heatwaves have already ravaged several countries in Asia, costing lives, disrupting education and damaging livelihoods. Despite this increased frequency, many people do not fully comprehend how dangerous extreme heat can be, said Krista Milne, co-chief heat officer for Melbourne. Extreme heat can cause heat stroke or kidney failure and exacerbate heart or respiratory diseases.

Children, older people, pregnant women, farmers and gig workers are among the most vulnerable, especially in poorer countries. An April report by the U.N.’s International Labour Organization said nearly 19,000 people die every year due to workplace injuries attributed to excessive heat. “The simple fact is that there is a point where the body can’t cool down,” said Milne. “Heat is the most deadly climate danger. It’s a silent killer,” said Elissavet Bargianni, who was appointed chief heat officer for Athens in May 2023. 

Cities are often several degrees warmer than nearby rural areas because heat trapped by dense clusters of concrete and dark-coloured roads and buildings creates a “heat island” effect, meaning nighttime temperatures also remain high. Nearly half of schools and hospitals in European cities are located in urban “heat islands” - areas that are at least 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the regional average, according to the European Union's environment agency. The chief heat officers aim to raise awareness of the risks of this extreme heat and coordinate actions to mitigate it. 

In Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, a crowded city with few green spaces and little shade, people are used to having hot and humid summers but this means it is even more challenging to raise awareness, said Bushra Afreen, the city’s heat officer. “There are still people who don’t understand the deadlier impacts of extreme heat,” Afreen said. “So now we have to convince people that in order to survive the heat, they need to slow down and rest, drink water and seek shade, and even stop working if they feel unwell. For people living in poverty, that is a very difficult choice to make.”

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