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Facing rising temperatures, Miami appoints chief heat officer

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/12/2021 Craig Pittman
a group of people walking down the street: With Miami reporting its hottest temperatures on record, the county created a first-of-its-kind position — chief heat officer. © Saul Martinez/Getty Images With Miami reporting its hottest temperatures on record, the county created a first-of-its-kind position — chief heat officer.

Last June, Miami reported its hottest temperatures on record. The daytime sun was brutal and there was little respite even at night. Dozens of heat-related deaths were reported that year.

As the Earth warms, the city by the ocean says its heat problem is poised to become even deadlier.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava (D) recently announced the county was creating a first-of-its-kind position — chief heat officer.

“We know extreme heat does not impact people equally — poorer communities and Black and Hispanic people bear the brunt of the public health impacts,” the mayor said in a statement. A chief heat officer will “coordinate our efforts to protect people from heat and save lives.”

It’s a position that other communities, including Athens and Freetown, Sierra Leone, also battling rising temperatures, are expected to create, according to the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, a nonprofit organization.

There are an average of 1,500 heat-related deaths per year nationwide, according to bioclimatologist Laurence S. Kalkstein of the University of Miami. But that will grow as communities continue to endure the effects of climate change, he said. A 2015 report from a climate-change study group led by Mike Bloomberg predicted that over the next five to 25 years, as temperatures increase, Florida would see an additional 1,840 heat-related deaths per year.

In Miami, Jane Gilbert, 57, says she has taken on the temporary position, funded by several nonprofit groups and not the county, as chief heat officer to find ways to focus on one important aspect of climate change. Gilbert grew up in the Northeast but moved to Miami a quarter-century ago after falling in love with the culture and the ocean. She served as Miami’s chief resilience officer from 2016 to 2020.

Jane Gilbert et al. standing next to a window: Then-Miami's Chief Resilience Officer Jane Gilbert, left, watches as Miami Mayor Francis Suarez signs a document committing the city to carbon neutrality by 2050 at City Hall in Miami, Fla., in January 2020. © Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/AP Then-Miami's Chief Resilience Officer Jane Gilbert, left, watches as Miami Mayor Francis Suarez signs a document committing the city to carbon neutrality by 2050 at City Hall in Miami, Fla., in January 2020.

This interview is edited for clarity.

Q: How hot is it there today (April 30)?

A: We’re supposed to get over 100 this weekend on the heat index. It’s 85 today.

Q: What’s your background for this position?

A: I’ve been in Miami for 26 years. My work has been primarily centered around various sustainability and climate-resilient work as well as urban community development work. I’ve started two nonprofits here as well as running corporate philanthropy. I was the city of Miami’s first chief resilience officer for four years.

Q: Why is it important to have someone designated as the chief heat officer?

A: While I was chief resilience officer, we did our own climate adaptation strategy. As part of that, we went out to various neighborhoods sharing maps and data on the impact of sea level rise, storm surge and heat, and then just spent time getting people in small groups talking about what their biggest concerns were. Heat came up a lot.

Q: But heat is such a fact of life in Miami. What makes that deserving of a chief officer?

A: Miami knows heat — we’re hot and humid a good part of the year. A heat index of 105 degrees is about when you’ve hit dangerous levels, when people could really suffer from heatstroke.

We currently have an average of seven days where we get over that heat index for a couple of hours. By mid-century, we’re going to have 88 of those days — that’s more than 10 times as many days.

Q: Who’s affected by this?

A: We have a lot of construction workers, agricultural workers, we have people walking to bus stops — to unshaded bus stops. There are people in some of our public housing or in substandard housing who do not have air conditioning or inadequate cooling or they can’t afford the utility costs.

Q: What can you do to help those folks cope with increased heat without contributing further to the warming of the atmosphere?

A: You can have a difference of 35 degrees between sitting under a tree in Miami and sitting in a paved area. There are things we can do to design cooler rights of way, cooler parks. There are also things we can do to ensure that people have access to cooling. We don’t want to just contribute more greenhouse gases to solve this problem, but we do want to look at how do we build more efficient buildings and get low-cost AC to those people.

Q: How is this job different from your job as chief resilience officer?

A: The county has a sea level rise strategy, they have an infrastructure strategy — what they don’t have is a comprehensive heat strategy. I see this as complementing that work and using that structure for this specific issue.

Q: What exactly does a chief heat officer do?

A: I see my role as a coordinator, putting together a key task force of experts, people who can understand what’s most at risk and what we need. We need to look at our affordable housing and weatherization programs, hopefully with some infrastructure funding from our federal government. We need to look at questions like, how do you integrate solar and shade? We need a land-use policy. We need a policy on the way we design our streets and parks and our housing stock. We need to change our habits because this is not just business as usual.

Q: When you talk about this new position, do people think it’s somehow related to the Miami Heat basketball team?

A: (Laughs.) We’re definitely going to have to hit them up for a sponsorship.

Q: How can you answer someone who challenges the existence of climate change?

A: We don’t have many of them in Miami-Dade County.

I’ve felt the change in the heat in the 26 years I’ve been here. It’s hard to argue that heat can’t be a risk when you’ve seen people die. It’s the number one climate- and weather-related killer in the United States.

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