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City Heat is Worse if You’re Not Rich or White. The World’s First Heat Officer Wants to Change That

16 minute read

Jane Gilbert knows she doesn’t get the worst of the sticky heat and humidity that stifles Miami each summer. She lives in Morningside, a coastal suburb of historically preserved art deco and Mediterranean-style single-family homes. Abundant trees shade the streets and a bay breeze cools residents when they leave their air conditioned cars and homes. “I live in a place of privilege and it’s a beautiful area,” says Gilbert, 58, over Zoom in early June, shortly after beginning her job as the world’s first chief heat officer, in Miami Dade county. “But you don’t have to go far to see the disparity.”

A mile or two inland, in lower income, mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods like Little Haiti, Little Havana and Liberty City, tree cover can be as little as 10%, compared to around 40% in upscale coastal areas, according to Gilbert. Residents wait for buses on unshaded benches. Many can’t afford to buy or run an AC unit. “You can’t be outside for more than five minutes without feeling faint because there’s no shade. Then inside a lot of homes, the buildings haven’t been fixed up in a very long time, so you get holes in the wall and mold,” says Stibalys Gomez, a 24-year-old community organizer and amateur boxer. “We have a lot of older people here, older Hispanics with respiratory problems, including my grandmother. I’m really worried about them this summer.”

As the climate changes, everyone is feeling the heat. A historical heatwave continues to rage across the western U.S., while in Miami, the heat index—which accounts for heat and humidity—was higher in June than in any month since August 2015. It’s not just a nuisance. Extreme heat contributed to the deaths of around 12,000 people in the U.S. each year between 2010 and 2020, according to a study by the University of Washington—more than any other extreme weather event. By 2100, the annual toll could be as high as 97,000.

In cities, though, how you experience all of those impacts depends on your race and your zip code. According to a study published in the journal Nature in May, Black and Hispanic residents of U.S. cities are around twice as exposed as white people to the “urban heat island effect”—where paved streets and buildings absorb more heat than grass and trees would, driving the temperature up compared to surrounding areas. People living below the poverty line are 50% more exposed to the heat island effect than wealthier people.

Gilbert’s job is to redress those imbalances in Miami and get all areas of the local government working towards a cooler county. Working under Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, she’ll plant new trees, create better infrastructure for heat emergencies, and inform people about their needs and rights during the heat.

The heat officer role—which will also be adopted soon by Athens, Greece and Freetown, Sierra Leone—reflects a reckoning on heat unfolding in cities across the world. Local leaders are trying to escape reliance on AC—responsible for a significant share of cities’ greenhouse gas emissions—and find fairer, more sustainable solutions. Paris is ripping up rock and asphalt surfaces in the city center to replace them with urban forests. Montreal is campaigning for residents to check in on neighbors during heatwaves. Cities in India are taking part in a national competition to drive the construction of thousands of heat-reflecting cool roofs on buildings in informal neighborhoods. “Before, heat was something many of these cities had to deal with once or twice a year and now it’s something they have to be able to manage regularly,” says Laurian Farrel, North America director at the Resilient Cities Network .“Most cities are reaching a tipping point.”

Gilbert says the lessons of the pandemic are shaping the way governments deal with climate threats like heat. “During the pandemic we’ve seen that our most vulnerable are the most at risk from COVID—elderly people, outdoor workers, minority populations, low income areas,” Gilbert says. “And it’s the same with heat: they’re the ones that we need to double down on protecting.”

Florida, Miami, Legion Park, family friends circle picnic
Miamians spend time in Legion Park. One of Gilbert's goals is to increase green space and tree cover across the county.Jeffrey Greenberg—Universal Image/Getty Images

Oppressive heat rising

When Gilbert relocated to Miami from the northeast in 1995, the tropical heat was “a big part of the draw,” she says. She grew up in Connecticut and studied environmental science at Barnard College in New York. But after graduating in 1987, she quickly realized her “system just does better” in warmer climes, and spent several years doing work around Central and South America, first as an assistant producer on a documentary series about solutions to deforestation, and later as a consultant assessing environmental health risks. She made her home in Miami, and spent two decades working in human rights and community development, before becoming the city of Miami’s first chief resilience officer in 2016, overseeing efforts to adapt the county to climate change.

Over that time, the heat has become a bigger and bigger problem. “I have felt the shift: the summers are longer and there are more oppressive high heat days,” Gilbert says. Per a 2018 study by a group of climate researchers, Miami now experiences 133 high heat days each year on average—27 more than it did in 1995. By 2075, the number is projected to hit 162.

Yet heat has failed to compete for media and government attention with Miami’s other major climate challenge: sea level rise. That may be due to the fact that the coastal communities most exposed to rising waters are wealthier and whiter, with more influence, says Mayra Cruz, climate justice director at Catalyst, a local nonprofit. During 2020, Catalyst ran a series of focus groups with members of low-income communities in the city on climate change and health, and found that heat was one of their two main concerns (the other was the gentrification of areas that are safer from sea level rise). Despite that, Cruz says, “until very recently, we haven’t gotten the cue from the city or county governments that heat is a priority for them.”

For decades, heat was seen as a problem with a simple solution: switching on the AC. Florida lays claim to the “father of air conditioning,” John Gorrie, a physician who in the 1840’s used basins of ice suspended from the ceiling to cool yellow fever patients, paving the way for the invention of mechanical cooling devices. After AC started to become more widely available in the 1950’s, the number of people living in Florida and the rest of the sunbelt region rose rapidly, with their share of the U.S. population jumping from 28% in 1950 to 40% in 2000. A 2015 government survey found that 87% of U.S. households have some form of AC, rising to 94% in regions with hot and humid climates.

But AC is expensive. When a household buys an AC unit, its annual electricity spend goes up by between 35% and 42%, according to a 2020 study of eight wealthy countries. In Miami, Cruz says, some low-income residents have stopped running their AC as much as they used to even as temperatures rise because of high electric bills. During the pandemic, she adds, many people said they were forced to risk COVID-19 infection in malls and other crowded public places to cool down.

City-wide dependence on AC is also risky. Not only do units give off heat as they run, raising the temperature in city streets and worsening the urban heat island effect, they put huge amounts of pressure on electricity grids. Research published in May found that the number of annual major “blackout” events doubled across five large U.S. cities between 2015 and 2020, and these were more likely to take place in summer. The researchers also found that when major blackouts coincide with heatwaves, at least 68% of people living in cities are exposed to indoor temperatures that can cause heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Perhaps worst of all, AC may be trapping the world in a vicious cycle: as the greenhouse effect warms the Earth, more people around the world are buying air conditioning units and using them more often; energy demand for cooling could triple by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency. There are ways to reduce the carbon emissions generated by AC—either by scaling up new low-carbon cooling technologies, or by transitioning the electrical grid to clean sources of energy like wind and solar. But with the tech far from being deployed at scale and a carbon-free grid 15 years away under optimistic plans from the Biden Administration, for now increasing AC use will continue to increase the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which will continue to raise the temperature.

Those long-term impacts of AC present a conundrum for people like Gilbert, who want to avoid worsening the situation for their most vulnerable residents down the line, but also need to protect them today. “We can’t mandate things that are going to be counter to people’s health,” Gilbert says. “But it’s critical that we create strategies that are win-win that are going to reduce our overall emissions, as well as protect people.”

A technician controls an electric switch board connecting homes to privately-owned electricity generators in a suburb of Iraq's capital Baghdad on June 30, 2021 as the national electric grid is experiencing outages amidst a severe heat wave.
A technician controls an electric switch board connecting homes to privately-owned electricity generators in a suburb of Iraq's capital Baghdad on June 30, 2021 as the national electric grid is experiencing outages amidst a severe heat wave.Ahmad Al-Rubaye—Getty Images/AFP

Solving the AC dilemma

Gilbert is now in charge of creating a plan to keep the county cool in a safer and more equitable way—she says it will be ready for review by the mayor and the county commission “probably in 10 months.” The heat plan will expand Miami Dade’s weatherization program, a multimillion-dollar fund that helps struggling residents make their homes more energy efficient and more able to withstand weather. It includes money for newer AC systems (which use less energy and contain less environmentally damaging substances than older units), but also home repairs and building improvements which are essential for keeping cool air inside. The plan will also look at strategies to discourage retail spaces from blasting AC while keeping their doors open, Gilbert says.

Another major priority is better educating people about the risks of heat. Advocates say that a lack of awareness about the health risks of extreme heat is a big reason that it’s so deadly. To some extent, it’s a failure of marketing; the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance—launched in 2020 by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center—argues that if we named heatwaves in the same way we name tropical storms, it would lead people to take heat seriously. Indeed, the group is launching pilot projects to categorize heatwaves, and assessing methods for naming them, in parts of the U.S. this summer.

In Miami, Gilbert will co-chair a Climate and Heat Health Task Force made up of local health experts, business figures and academics, among others, that will study the health impacts of heat across the county. Based on their work, the city will come up with campaigns to inform residents about the symptoms of heat-related illnesses. They will also reach out to outdoor workers and businesses to make sure they understand both the legal right to a safe workplace and solutions to heat: keeping drinking water available, taking shade breaks, or changing work schedules. Across the city, Gilbert will create “resilience centers” where residents can go to cool off and hydrate during heat waves, particularly when there are power blackouts at the same time.

But Miami also needs better data to address its heat problem. The county currently issues its heat warnings based on temperatures taken at the National Weather Service station at Miami International Airport. But because of the unequal distribution of the urban heat island effect, some parts of town are as much as 10°F warmer than those readings, Cruz says. “That means there are heat advisories that should be happening that aren’t.” In partnership with Florida International University, Catalyst is running a “citizen science project” to install heat and humidity sensors across town, which should soon allow authorities to warn people about heat risks on a more local level.

There will be more visible changes to the urban landscape, too. Miami Dade has a goal of increasing its tree canopy to 30% by 2030 from a little under 20% now, county wide. “It can be 30°F cooler outside under tree cover than in an open pavement area,” Gilbert says. “But trees also sequester carbon, absorb stormwater, and have mental health benefits.” The parks department is leading the charge, prioritizing low-income neighborhoods as well as sidewalks, footpaths and bus stops. (Shading them will be essential to convincing Miamians to walk, cycle and use public transit to reach the city’s emissions goals, Gilbert says). The iconic palm trees that line Miami Beach are slowly being replaced by shade-giving trees. Giveaways of fruit trees by the county’s Department of Environmental Resources Management—given to 200,000 residents so far—allow individuals to begin creating shade in their outside space.

Miami has plenty of ambitious examples to look to as it tries to adapt to the warming of our climate. In July 2020, Arnhem, a town of 150,000 people in the Netherlands, announced a plan to reduce the amount of asphalt and hard surfaces by 10% by 2030—including by ripping up roads on underused four-lane highways—and replace them with grass and trees. The local government is trying to get out ahead of a trend of more people in the town buying AC—far less ubiquitous in most of the E.U. than in the U.S.—after a series of unusually strong heat waves over the last three years, says Cathelijne Bouwkamp, the city alderman. “We are not accustomed to think about heat like this, so we didn’t make our city climate proof and heat proof. Now we need to.”

In India, cities are more used to a hot climate, but with summer temperatures now reaching increasingly dangerous heights, officials are urgently trying to create more comprehensive heat strategies, says Polash Mukherjee, lead on climate resilience at non-profit National Resource Defense Council’s India program. Ahmedabad, a city of 5.6 million in the west of the country, is one clear example: a 2010 heat wave there saw temperatures reaching 116°F, contributing to the deaths of more than 1,300 people. Afterwards, Ahmedabad created a “heat action plan,” a first among India’s large cities. It included policy changes, like programs to send SMS and Whatsapp messages to warn residents about high heat days, to distribute pamphlets on the symptoms of heat stress to reduce the number of hours that construction workers can legally work outside on high heat days; and to force hospitals to move critical care patients to lower floors less exposed to heat. The plan was credited with curbing the city’s loss of life in later heat waves and it has been used as a guideline by more than 100 Indian cities, Mukherjee says. “We’ve really seen a shift over the last two years.”

Men rest on a cart under a bridge near Sabarmati river during a hot day in Ahmedabad, India, on May 28, 2019.Sam Panthaky—Getty Images

Recognizing the link between equity and climate resilience

Climate experts have long warned that the impacts of climate change—driven by the high-emitting activities of wealthier people and countries—would fall most heavily on poorer people and countries that don’t have the resources to deal with them. In Miami, activists like Gomez and Cruz have fought to convince local authorities to pony up resources to adapt to the climate issues that most affect vulnerable groups. Their efforts finally appear to be paying off. “I think we’re starting to see that shift. I think Jane’s appointment probably starts to mark the change in the tides,” Cruz says. “Pun intended, I guess.”

Farrel, of the Resilient Cities network, says that a similar shift in attitude is taking place in many cities around the world in the wake of the pandemic. The spread of COVID-19 in lower-income neighborhoods, where people couldn’t afford to take time off work to isolate, or where housing was overcrowded or hygiene infrastructure lacking, showed local governments that at times of crisis, their failure to invest in the most vulnerable can put the entire city at risk. “Before, many people understood the idea of resilience, but the pandemic made them feel it,” Farrel says. “Without equity, cities cannot be resilient.”

On a global level, there’s a long way to go to achieve that equity and resilience. Since 2009, rich countries have repeatedly pledged to mobilize $100 billion each year in climate finance—money to help poorer countries adapt to climate change—every year from 2020 onwards. The latest figures on finance suggest wealthy countries are falling anywhere between $21 billion and $81 billion short of that goal, depending on what kinds of finance you count. And crucially, though the pledge was for a 50/50 split between funding to help countries reduce emissions and funding to adapt to climate change, the latter receives just 5% of tracked climate finance, according to research group the Climate Policy Initiative.

Only a handful of rich countries—including Germany, Canada, the U.K., New Zealand and Luxembourg—have announced significant increases to their climate finance pledges this year. “The finances committed so far are vastly inadequate,” says Sonam P. Wangdi, chair of the 46-member group of Least Developed Countries, who leads international climate negotiations on the group’s behalf. The need to scale up support for adaptation will be a major priority for the group at COP26, the U.N. climate conference due to take place in November in Glasgow, Scotland. “Climate change is a global problem just like the pandemic and without that solidarity there, we won’t be able to solve it.”

On a local level at least, Gilbert hopes the heat, which everyone can feel, even if they don’t experience its worst impact, will be an opportunity to build solidarity on climate. ‘We have many conservative-leaning residents as well as progressive, but [few] deny climate change, because it’s a real threat here,” she says. “We need to come into better relationships with our natural world, but also with each other.”

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Write to Ciara Nugent at ciara.nugent@time.com