Make It

Miami's First-Ever Chief Heat Officer on the Climate Issues That Scare Her the Most—and What Gives Her Hope

Photo courtesy Jane Gilbert

When Miami-Dade County appointed Jane Gilbert as its first ever chief heat officer earlier this year, the Miami Herald noted its importance: Heat is "deadly serious, and climate change is making it worse," the editorial board wrote.

"As the impacts of heat grow, they are further compounded by hurricanes, floods, and sea level rise," Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said when the chief heat officer position was announced. Gilbert's role is to "help expand, accelerate, and coordinate our efforts to protect people from heat and save lives," Cava said.

In particular, "we know extreme heat does not impact people equally — poorer communities and Black and Hispanic people bear the brunt of the public health impacts," Cava said, according to a written statement.

To help protect vulnerable populations from the effects of heat, Gilbert has done things like set a goal to increase tree canopy to 30% (from 20%) throughout the county, "concentrating in those areas that have the highest urban heat island," Gilbert tells CNBC Make It. She's also looking into updating the country guidelines for cool and green roofs and pavement, she says.

The addition of such a position is timely: Over the last week in June, at least 90 people died in Washington and Oregon, thanks to a record heat wave. In about the last two decades, more than 166,000 have been killed by heatwaves around the globe, according to the World Health Organization.

Gilbert shared with CNBC Make It what she sees now that is scaring her the most and what is giving her hope.

What is terrifying to a chief heat officer right now

"The heat dome over the Pacific Northwest is pretty scary," Gilbert says referring to the atmospheric event that caused the extreme hot weather there. She wonders, too, if it will be "a repeated event."

But before the latest heat waves, fear about rising temperatures had been growing, even among the public.

In her previous role as Miami's chief resilience officer (where she was in charge of improving the city's ability to mange through disasters and chronic stressors, like sea level rise and climate change), when she went into the community to discuss with residents the impact climate change could have on their neighborhoods, "heat came up a lot" as an area of concern, Gilbert says, as did the compounded risks of heat with a hurricane that might cause a widespread power outage.

Miami temperatures are rising. Compared with when Gilbert moved to Miami in 1995, there are now 27 more days a year with temperatures over 90 degrees, she says.

"If we stay on our current emissions trajectory, we're going to go from seven days a year with a heat index [what the temperature feels like to the human body, a combination of heat and humidity] of 105 or more, which is very dangerous, to 88 days — almost three months — a year by mid century," Gilbert says. "So that gets very dangerous."

Exposure to extreme heat can cause heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat stroke and death, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). Extreme heat can also "exacerbate preexisting chronic conditions, such as various respiratory, cerebral and cardiovascular diseases," the NIEHS says.

Rising heat is particularly dangerous for people who have to work outside, like agricultural and construction workers, landscapers and park employees, Gilbert says. Also, rising heat is dangerous for the elderly and otherwise infirm, Gilbert says.

Another top concern for Gilbert is the impact of climate change on the safety of buildings, in light of the deadly collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, which is in Miami/Dade County.

It is scary, Gilbert says, because, "in part, the cause of that could have been salt water flooding onto its foundation for too long." Such increased flooding could be a consequence of changing sea levels due to climate change.

That means "there could be more buildings at risk than we know," Gilbert says.

To be clear, the official cause or causes of the building collapse have not yet been determined. But questions are being asked about a connection to climate change.

We're living "in unknown territory to a certain extent, in terms of seeing [physical] demands on buildings that we didn't expect, whether it is climate change-induced ... flooding once a year where we would have expected no floods, or more frequent, higher-speed windstorms occurring," structural engineer Benjamin W. Schafer, a professor of civil and systems engineering and director of the Ralph S. O'Connor Sustainable Energy Institute at Johns Hopkins University, told the Scientific American.

"We have bigger hurricanes. We have longer heat waves. It's a challenge for us, as structural engineers, to keep up with those changing demands," Schafer said.

What makes a CFO optimistic

"In terms of what gives me hope, [it's] the momentum of concern, willingness to collaborate, the level of leadership from all sectors that I'm seeing, both locally and nationally," Gilbert says.

"People are realizing that this is the only way we're going to get out of this ... We need a great turning in how we function," Gilbert says.

For example, in recent years, Miami built up a "disaster volunteer network," which is a group of trained citizen emergency response volunteers, "who know how to handle not only heat stress, but other disaster-related injuries," Gilbert says. The citizen disaster volunteers "serve as first responders in the event of a widespread disaster and our professional responders can't get to the neighborhood," Gilbert says.

"There's just a groundswell of people across sectors willing to do what it takes to work on this."

Being responsive to climate change is not the same for all localities.

"Here, in Miami, certainly, sea level rise, hurricanes and heat are some of our impacts. In California, it might be heat, drought and wildfires," Gilbert says.

That said, via the Resilient Cities Network, municipal leaders are sharing learnings and resources as they figure out how to prepare their own city for climate change, according too Gilbert.

Miami is partnering with Athens, Greece, for instance, to share intelligence about how to prepare for and respond to extreme heat, she says, adding that, "internationally, I visited Amsterdam and the Hague, Rotterdam a couple years ago, to see what the Netherlands is doing. They've been working on water issues for over 1,000 years. There's a lot to learn there."

See also:

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