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From Miami to Melbourne, a quiet revolution is underway to fend off a silent and invisible killer

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Firefighters work on the area of ​​a forest fire in the hills of the municipality of Quilpue, Valparaiso region, Chile, February 3, 2024.

Javier Torres | Afp | Getty Images

A quiet revolution is underway to address a largely underestimated climate challenge: extreme heat.

Local authorities have appointed several chief heating officers (CHOs) in cities around the world in recent years to prepare residents for increasingly frequent and severe episodes of excessive heat.

“They call it the silent killer,” said Eleni Myrivili, who serves as global CHO for the U.N. human settlements program and previously worked in a similar role for the Greek capital of Athens.

Myrivili believes that extreme heat is often overlooked. because it lacks the visible drama of roofs torn off houses or streets transformed into rivers.

“Heat, I believe in my heart, will be the number one public health challenge we face over the next decade. And we need to prepare for it now,” Myrivili told CNBC via video conference. “We can do it, but we really have to make it a priority.”

Heat is the leading cause of weather-related mortality in the United States. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that more than 1,700 deaths were due to heat-related causes in 2022, about double the toll from five years earlier. The researchers said these were likely conservative estimates.

Most people don’t know that in Australia, extreme heat kills more people than bushfires, floods and storms. There is a reason for this, and that is the lag in the data.

Tiffany Crawford

Co-Director of Heating Melbourne, Australia

The CDC defines extreme heat as summer temperatures that are significantly hotter and/or more humid than average.

Older adults, young children, and people with chronic illnesses are known to be among those most at risk for heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke. The CDC warns that even young, healthy people can be affected.

Miami, United States

The first person in the world to be named CHO was Jane Gilbert, who was appointed in 2021 to oversee Florida’s most populous county, Miami-Dade.

“We have relatively high (air conditioning) penetration, but with rising temperatures, electricity bills are skyrocketing. We have also seen electricity rates increase. Air conditioning can account for more than 50% of electricity bill, so people are choosing between air conditioning and putting food on the table for their families,” Gilbert told CNBC.

A coastal metropolis in the southern United States, Miami is internationally known for its vulnerability to sea level rise and hurricanes. Still, Gilbert said community-led surveys have identified chronic heat as the most pressing climate problem.

View of the Miami Bay Entrance Channel in Miami, Florida during a heat wave on June 26, 2023.

Giorgio Viera | Afp | Getty Images

For six months of the year, Gilbert said temperatures in Miami exceeded 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 degrees Celsius) almost daily, posing a particularly big problem for outdoor workers.

To help reduce risks for the county’s population of 2.7 million, Gilbert said his team’s action plan focused on informing and preparing people for extreme heat, helping cooling homes affordably and working to cool community neighborhoods to combat what is known as the “heat island effect.” ” – whereby a city experiences much warmer temperatures than neighboring rural areas.

In practice, Gilbert said measures included large-scale marketing campaigns targeting ZIP codes and demographics known to be most at risk, working with the National Weather Service and emergency management teams to implement update the advisory and alert levels. They also included installing 1,700 efficient air conditioning units in social housing and ensuring that new affordable housing requires the most efficient cooling systems, such as cool, solar-ready roofs, to reduce costs. utility costs.

“We want to address the root cause of this problem while helping people adapt,” Gilbert said.

Dhaka, Bangladesh

“We all grew up here in a typically hot and humid environment. We are used to the heat, which makes it very difficult to distinguish between normal heat and dangerous heat,” said Bushra Afreen, CHO for Dhaka North in Bangladesh, at CNBC. by videoconference.

Afreen, who became CHO of Dhaka North in May last year, said stark income inequality in the country’s largest city meant excessive heat was not a universally similar experience.

“When you combine that with fragile urban systems like drainage and power outages, poor health management, poor healthcare and education systems, you get a really bad stew.”

Right now the two reactions we see the most are “good job, keep it up, we need more awareness”. And the other guy is, “Oh, are you going to turn the heat down? Good luck.

Bushra Afren

Heating Director for Dhaka North in Bangladesh

In addition to planting thousands of trees in Dhaka North’s informal settlements and reintroducing a water fountain culture to the city, Afreen said his team would launch a pilot project in an urban neighborhood to create water fountains and green corners to rest.

Afreen said it would be important to consider what type of trees to plant, such as citrus or neem, to ward off mosquitoes in the event of a dengue outbreak. Sufficient lighting, a bench, CCTV cameras, a water fountain and signs indicating priority to women and children would also be needed, she added.

A rickshaw puller splashes water on his face to relieve himself during a heatwave in Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 10, 2023.

Nuphoto | Nuphoto | Getty Images

“Right now the two reactions we see the most are ‘good job, keep it up, we need more awareness,’” Afreen said.

“And the other guy is, ‘oh, are you going to turn down the heat? Good luck.'”

Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne co-CHO Tiffany Crawford told CNBC that extreme heat kills more people in Australia than bushfires, floods and storms.

“There’s a reason for that, and that’s the lag in the data,” she explained.

Crawford, who works alongside Krista Milne as Melbourne’s CHO, said the true scale of heat-related deaths and illnesses often only becomes clear when health authorities look at admissions to the hospital and ambulance data.

With a population of around 5 million, the city of Melbourne in southeastern Australia is known for its mild, temperate climate, but Crawford says it is prone to surges of waves summer heat that lasts several days and offers little respite at night.

Environmental activists gather at the intersection of Flinders Street Station on December 9, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia. Australia’s east coast is facing a severe heatwave, with temperatures expected to exceed 40 degrees Celsius in many places. Hot weather could spark devastating bushfires.

Diego Fedele | Getty Images News | Getty Images

“There’s an extreme north wind that’s blowing just fierce. I liken it to going outside and it’s like someone left the oven door open or the heater on all night and forgot to turn it off “Crawford said.

Some of the short-term interventions that have been put in place in Melbourne include extending the opening hours of public libraries and swimming pools and rolling out so-called cool kits, which contain bottles of water, towels for neck and old-fashioned fans.

Looking ahead, Crawford said the city is in conversation with Google to provide voters with so-called “cool routes” mapped online, which help users navigate the city while taking advantage of the shade or the existing canopy.

“In countries like Europe, the dialogue in the media is a little different, the heat is shocking. Whereas in Australia, the heat is something that we have constantly lived with, and we will continue to live with, but “These are the variables that are at issue. Like any climate response, they are becoming more and more pronounced,” Crawford said.

“We have to plan around that.”

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