Miami-Dade County now has an official “chief heat officer.” That may sound like a gimmick — we live in Florida, of course it’s hot — but it’s deadly serious, and climate change is making it worse.
A heat officer is a good start but it’s not going to be enough.
Heat isn’t just an inconvenience or uncomfortable. It complicates health conditions — heart problems, asthma. It adversely affects outdoor workers, children, pregnant women, the elderly and those without access to air conditioning. It disproportionately impacts communities of color and low-income residents who have fewer resources to manage it.
And it can kill, especially after a hurricane, when the power is out for extended periods. In the days following Hurricane Irma in 2017, 12 people in a Broward County nursing home suffered and died in the sweltering temperatures when workers failed to move them to a hospital.
Those are some of the terrible human costs, but heat also can exacerbate environmental problems. It creates conditions that can fuel deadlier hurricanes, breed more warm-water parasites — yes, we’re talking flesh-eating bacteria — and produce longer mosquito seasons.
This isn’t a future crisis, either. It’s happening now. The last decade was the hottest on record. When Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced the new heat officer last month — part of a countywide plan to craft ways to handle the accelerating climate threat of extreme heat — she noted then that the number of days in the county with a heat index above 105 degrees is predicted to rise by seven days a year to 88 by the year 2050. Last year, Miami-Dade had about 41 days over that threshold.
Heat’s a killer
That’s almost three months a year when the temperature will feel like 105 degrees or more. Three months of heat that feels like 105 degrees? Try doing that without air conditioning. Try working outside for a living under those conditions.
“In the U.S., heat kills more people every year than any other climate disaster, and climate change, of course, is only making this worse and more urgent,” Levine Cava said.
So the announcement April 30 that Jane Gilbert, the former chief resilience officer for the city of Miami, will tackle the job of chief heat officer — the first of its kind in the world, according to Levine Cava — is welcome news.
“I’ve been in Miami for 26 years and I feel the change here,” Gilbert said. “And we know it’s going to increase exponentially over the next 30 years.”
Gilbert — and co-chair Dr. Cheryl Holder, interim associate dean at Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine — will head up a heat health task force with partners including municipalities, county departments, healthcare and community-based organizations and universities.
The task force will collaborate with the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center and The Miami Foundation. The initiative will fall under the broader Resilient305 program, a countywide effort launched a little over a year ago to help address the shocks and stresses of the warming climate.
Goals for the task force’s first six to 10 months include creating the county’s first comprehensive heat plan, educating the public about higher temperatures, planning for “cool” pavement installation and setting up a framework for “cooling centers,” to be used during long power outages. Another item: adding shade structures at bus stops — a long overdue measure in a subtropical climate.
The new effort will also build on existing programs, such as Adopt-A-Tree, to help create an urban canopy that can reduce heat naturally; and there’s a month-long “Heat Season” campaign starting this month to raise awareness of the issue.
A strong message
Gilbert, who is managing partner of Resilience Consulting LLC, is in the job on an interim basis. Right now, the work is being funded by a combination of county dollars and grants. Levine Cava told the Editorial Board she’ll look for money in the budget next year to more permanently fund the position.
When it comes to climate change, rising seas have — finally — been getting serious attention in South Florida. In February, Miami-Dade released its first plan for how the county can survive the two feet of sea-level rise expected by 2060. That’s an important step — for environmental reasons and because the potential economic impact from damages has been estimated to be in the billions of dollars.
But dealing with the heat has to be on the agenda, too.
As Yoca Arditi-Rocha, executive director of The CLEO Institute, a Florida-based climate action advocacy group, told the Editorial Board, “Chronic flooding and sea rise get attention. … Extreme heat isn’t talked about as much. “
Miami-Dade has waited far too long to squarely face the issue of extreme heat and, with it, climate change. Resilient305 and the sea-level-rise plan released last month are positive signs. Much more remains to be done.
During her campaign for mayor last year, Levine Cava donned a blue superhero cape with the words “Water Warrior” on it as part of a YouTube ad declaring a climate emergency. We applaud her focus on the issue now.
By designating a chief heat officer and a public “heat season” campaign, she’s sending a strong message that Miami-Dade’s leaders know combating climate change is central to a viable future for the county and the region.
That’s heartening because a long-term strategy for managing heat — and climate change overall — will require more than cooling centers and shade coverings and plans for sea rise.
Miami-Dade will need a sustained commitment to combat this existential threat. That means political will, educating the public and coming up with the money — lots of it. We’ll need to identify who is most at risk and figure out ways to help them.
We now have a chief heat officer and a mayor who see heat and climate change as urgent.
There’s no time to lose.