‘An invisible hazard’: Warming cities hire chief heat officers to tackle growing threat

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In early November, Los Angeles City Council members voted unanimously to create the city’s first chief heat officer position.

It’s an indication that in a city familiar with natural disasters, heat is emerging as a major threat.

“We need to at least have planning at the level of our response to earthquakes,” said council member Paul Koretz, who helped lead efforts to create the city’s Climate Emergency Mobilization Office and supported the creation of the heat officer position.

Los Angeles becomes the third local government to have carved out a role to deal specifically with heat. Miami-Dade County in Florida and Phoenix filled similar positions this year. The jobs are designed to put the risks of heat — hidden, underestimated and intensifying with climate change — at the center as local governments prepare for a fast-warming world.

Cities can be at particular risk of heat waves as their infrastructure absorbs more heat, and it is a particular concern in rapidly urbanizing areas.

“We know extreme heat days are happening more and more. We now have the occasional day where invariably somebody or multiple people will die from the heat,” Koretz said.

The position is one of several initiatives to mitigate the worsening effects of climate change and to protect the city’s most vulnerable residents — often people of color and lower-income people. The heat officer will work with city departments and community organizations to increase public awareness of heat danger and set goals toward tackling the threats.

The council voted just two days before California officials announced, on the last day of the COP26 climate talks in Scotland, a new statewide ranking system for heat waves similar to what is already used for hurricanes and air quality.

“It signals people are waking up to the growing threat,” said Sara Meerow, an assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University. In comparison to strategies to deal with flooding and other climate hazards, she said, heat planning among local governments is poorly developed.

Climate change, spurred by fossil fuel use and other polluting human activities, intensifies heat waves and makes them more frequent, according to a recent U.N. report on climate change.

Global heat exposure increased by nearly 200 percent from 1983 to 2016 because of temperature increases and population shifts toward cities, according to a recent study.

Climate scientists have said a heat wave that struck the Pacific Northwest in the summer — which sent temperatures in Portland, Oregon, up to 116 degrees Fahrenheit and killed hundreds of people — would have been virtually impossible if not for human-caused climate change.

“Heat waves [are] how climate change kills us today,” Friederike Otto, a scientist at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, said this summer when she announced the research findings.

Although it’s the leading weather-related killer in the U.S., heat is often underestimated.

“An invisible hazard,” Meerow said. “It is deadly, but it doesn’t have the same visible destruction flooding has or a hurricane or wildfire.”

Each year from 2004 to 2018, the U.S. recorded an average of about 702 heat-related deaths, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. That’s almost certainly an undercount of heat’s yearly impact because of how death data are compiled across the country, said Jane Gilbert, who as the heat officer for Miami-Dade County is the first person to serve in a role of its kind in the U.S.

Heat can kill when people’s bodies overheat and can’t cope. It can also worsen underlying ailments, such as cardiac disease, diabetes or kidney problems. The pre-existing health complications can cloud researchers’ views. Other factors, such as acclimation, humidity and the nearby environment, also play roles.

“Heat-related illnesses and deaths are underreported because there are often complicating factors,” Gilbert said. “The data is not great, to be honest.”

In Miami-Dade County, body temperature must be taken within an hour of death for a death to be recorded as heat-related, Gilbert said, leaving gaps in the county’s understanding of heat’s harms.

Among Gilbert’s priorities since she was hired in the spring has been to hire a researcher to identify where heat-related illnesses, emergency room visits and deaths aren’t being captured in the county’s numbers.

The data gap could prove to be substantial: An analysis of death records from 297 U.S. counties — covering about two-thirds of the nation’s population — estimated that 5,608 deaths were attributable to heat every year from 1997 to 2006 on average, according to a study published in the journal Environmental Epidemiology.

When extreme heat threatens, it’s hard to know who is accountable.

“In most cities, it’s not entirely clear who is ultimately responsible for addressing heat risk right now,” Meerow said.

Gilbert said that part of her job as heat officer is to ensure that emergency management agencies and parks and health departments, among others, work together to prepare and address heat risk holistically.

Gilbert also leads social media campaigns, community focus groups and a climate and heat health task force. The heat officer title helps draw attention to the work.

Heat deaths are almost always preventable.

“Any heat-related death is one too many,” Meerow said. “We have the technologies to provide cooling to people, and it’s about making sure everyone has access.”

The burden of extreme heat is unequal. A recent investigation by the Los Angeles Times found that heat was likely to have contributed to nearly 4,000 deaths in California over the past decade, six times higher than the official state tally.

Low-income neighborhoods with little to no tree canopy, aging homes and apartments without air conditioning, and dense housing near freeways bear the brunt of extreme heat, according to researchers at the University of California, Davis.

In a report published in January, researchers found that on average the poorest 10 percent of neighborhoods in urban regions across the Southwest were 4 degrees hotter than the wealthiest 10 percent. The inequities were most stark in Southern California metro areas, including Palm Springs and the Inland Empire, where temperatures were up to 7 degrees hotter. Latino, Asian and Black residents were more likely to be negatively affected by what researchers called thermal inequities.

In Miami-Dade County, Gilbert is concerned about similar demographic patterns for heat risk. And while most people have air conditioning there, utility costs, inefficient housing and broken units leave many poorer households “air conditioning insecure,” she said.

More than 300,000 workers in the county spend the majority of their working hours outside, which could put them at greater risk.

Most hurricane shelters have backup power for lights but not for cooling, which Gilbert seeks to rectify. It’s a proven threat: After Hurricane Irma in 2017, 12 people died in a Miami nursing home where the air conditioning had broken down.