How ‘chief heat officers’ keep cities cool as the world warms

  • A handful of officials have been tasked with tackling urban heat
  • Extreme heat weighs more on women and the elderly
  • Naming and classifying heat waves could help raise awareness

BOGOTA, Nov 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As leaders gather at the UN climate summit COP27 in Egypt to discuss how to stem global warming, a handful of officials are working on the ground to battling the effects of extreme heat in cities around the world after taking on a role that didn’t exist until last year: director of heat.

From heat waves in Athens, Greece, to drought in Monterrey, Mexico, heat officials (CHO) are trying to mitigate the effects of hotter and more dangerous summers that threaten the health and livelihoods of billions of townspeople.

The position was created through an initiative of the US-based Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation (Arsht-Rock) Resilience Center at the Atlantic Council think tank, beginning with the appointment of the first Global Director of heat in Miami-Dade County, Florida. April 2021.

The group has since grown to eight heat officers, all of whom happen to be women, focused on protecting vulnerable residents – mostly women, the elderly and low-income communities – from rising temperatures.

“This is not just happening in one city,” said Eugenia Kargbo, Africa’s first heating manager, who was appointed last year to Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, as part of the Arsht- Rock.

“And it’s not just affecting women. But we’re mainly focused on supporting the most vulnerable, and in our case, women are the most vulnerable,” she said in an interview.

In Europe alone, at least 15,000 people have died from hot weather in 2022 so far, according to data released this week by the World Health Organization.

By 2050, heat waves will affect more than 3.5 billion people worldwide — half of them in urban centers — as they increase in frequency, duration and intensity, according to Arsht-Rock.

Health experts say this means billions of people are at risk of preventable death and disease from exposure to extreme heat, which can lead to heat stroke or kidney failure and exacerbate heart disease. or respiratory, among other health problems.


Climate change amplifies the “heat island effect”, where urban areas are often several degrees warmer than neighboring rural areas, as materials prevalent in cities – such as concrete and metal – absorb and radiate later the heat, according to the scientists.

Today, more than 350 cities experience high summer temperatures of over 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) – by 2050, around 970 cities will be at least as hot during the summer, according to the C40 Cities network of major cities. cities working to slow the currency climate.

In Freetown, home to more than a million people, residents are “dying silently” from the extreme heat, Kargbo said.

Spending most of their time outdoors with little shade, traders in Freetown’s market are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of rising temperatures – and most of them are women, he said. she noted.

“Women are exposed to the health risks but also the economic risk of extreme heat because most of what they sell are vegetables and fruits which, when exposed to the sun, spoil easily,” said said Kargbo.

Kargbo said she was co-designing a project with traders from three of Freetown’s biggest street markets to install heat-reflecting panels to provide shade cover, directly benefiting around 2,000 women.

She is also leading a heat mapping initiative ahead of Sierra Leone’s driest and hottest season from January, to collect data that will help her team and local officials imagine the impact of the unseen threat on communities. urban residents.


In the industrial city of Monterrey, in northern Mexico, Surella Segú is also on a mission to educate the city’s 5 million inhabitants about the dangers of oppressive heat.

Residents received a wake-up call in June and July when they grappled with a severe drought that caused record water shortages, said Segú, who was named Monterrey’s CHO in April.

“People say, ‘Well, it’s just another hot summer. But the reality is that every year it gets hotter and hotter,” she said in a phone interview.

About 70% of Monterrey experiences the heat island effect, Segú said, noting that a lack of green public spaces and parks, especially in low-income neighborhoods with often unair-conditioned homes, means that the poorest in the city are the most exposed to extreme heat.

An architect and urban planner, Segú works on projects to build urban parks and green corridors to help refresh public spaces and also lobbies to improve the city’s water management systems, such as groundwater recharge. and water harvesting, to avoid water shortages.

For these projects to succeed, the city must convince residents of the importance of lifestyle changes, she said, such as using less water and driving less to help reduce pollution levels in the city. air, which are exacerbated by high temperatures.

“If we don’t change the culture, we can’t really transform the city…it will take time,” Segú said.


Eleni Myrivili, who became CHO for Athens last year, said the combination of a series of heat waves and recent wildfires near the Greek capital this year has drawn attention to the issue of extreme heat.

During heat waves, residents stay indoors, putting economic pressure on local businesses due to lost income and lower productivity, Myrivili said.

“When it’s really hot, cities empty out… they’re more like ghost towns and people retreat to their homes and that’s how the heat affects the economies in the cities because there’s less trade,” Myrivili said.

And while heatwaves are one of the greatest climate-related threats to human health, they rarely receive the same attention as more visibly devastating disasters, such as hurricanes, in part because heatwaves don’t are neither named nor classified, according to climate experts.

Arsht-Rock recently launched the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, which brings together global experts and scientists – from groups such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the World Meteorological Organization – to develop a standard practice for naming and classifying waves heat.

In July, the Spanish city of Seville became the first in the world to name a severe heatwave – Heatwave Zoe – as daytime temperatures soared above 42 degrees Celsius.

Last year, Myrivili worked with Greek meteorologists and the Red Cross to lead a similar pilot project in Athens to classify heat waves from Category 1 to Category 3.

This allows citizens to take precautions, such as staying indoors, and canceling outdoor sporting events, helping the most vulnerable groups – such as migrants, pregnant and breastfeeding women and the elderly – to stay safe, Myrivili said.

Meteorologists have created an algorithm to predict the next heat wave and categorize it based on how dangerous it is to human health, she said.

“We will continue to use it. We really think it’s a game-changer…(it) will be part of how people understand different types of heat,” Myrivili said.

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Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Kieran Guilbert. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit

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