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The challenge of extreme heat: The world’s first Chief Heat Officers take action in the face of climate change’s most lethal phenomenon.

When the governor of Santiago, Chile, Claudio Orrego, received an invitation from the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center to participate in an alliance of cities, extreme heat was not on his radar, he said. “Our focus was on other components of climate change: droughts, floods,” he said.  Once he understood the enormous and lethal effect of the phenomenon, he decided not only to join the alliance, but to have a visible and active commitment. That is why he appointed the first Chief Heat Officer in South America.

Extreme heat kills more people than any other climate phenomenon. It is perhaps less notorious than forest fires, hurricanes or floods, but it claims more lives.

Santiago’s Chief Heat Officer is in charge of leading the planning and execution process in the face of the phenomenon. She will try, for example, to coordinate an inter-sectoral roundtable with the ministries of labor and health and with the national emergency agency, to generate reaction protocols, indicators and to categorize heat waves, as is already being done in Miami and Athens, two pioneering cities in the field.

The Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. has a clear strategy to help cities counteract the negative effects of extreme heat. It will promote the exchange of experiences between cities, and the appointment of Chief Heat Officers in key locations, said Kathy Baughman McLeod, vice president and director of the Center. Monterrey and Athens, for example, have already appointed Chief Heat Officers and the Center would like to see a few more appointed around the world.

However, the Center’s most important action will be to name and categorize heat waves in the same way as hurricanes. In June, they began tracking and categorizing heat waves in Athens. Seville is working with Arsht-Rock to pilot naming and categorizing heat waves.  This method will be very useful in increasing awareness of the problem, predicting its occurrence and saving lives, said Kathy Baughman McLeod. She hopes that within five years all heat waves in the world will have names.

Another front of action for the Center will be to understand and promote investments and interventions that cool cities. This would have a huge return for Latin America because the problem disproportionately affects more cities in less developed countries. “It’s more serious because we don’t have the air conditioning, the health systems, the green areas and the shade,” Orrego illustrated. Worse still. In cities, “it affects rich and poor in a dramatically unequal way.”

The initial task for the Heat Officers of the cities is similar to the one designed by Claudio Orrego for his region. They must design protocols to anticipate heat waves and to protect those most exposed, such as children, the elderly, the chronically ill and people who work outdoors. In addition, for example, they should establish norms for outdoor work, before there are victims that force them to invent them.


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