Cities hire chief heat officers to address an unequal impact of climate change

Heat action plans focus on bringing shade and air conditioning to low-income communities.

A man seeks out some shade during a recent heatwave in Montreal
A man seeks out some shade during a recent heat wave in Montreal. (Andrej Ivanov/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)
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With the arrival of beach weather, climate change threatens to turn summers into months to endure rather than enjoy. Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in May showed that 46% of the U.S. will be experiencing hotter than average temperatures between June and August of this year, with the most extreme increase in the Southwest.

Over the last three years, eight local governments around the world have appointed chief heat officers (CHOs) to prevent heat waves from turning deadly. The title is simple, catchy and a little vague. But the rise of this role has made one thing very clear: addressing heat vulnerability requires addressing inequality.

“The solutions that we need are there,” Los Angeles chief heat officer Marta Segura told Yahoo News. “We just have to connect them to the areas that most need them.”

Because heat is not typically recorded as an official cause of death — extreme heat is often a cause of fatal illnesses like heart attacks or strokes — attribution is tricky. In 2020, the Journal of Environmental Epidemiology found that in the 297 most populous U.S. counties, at least 5,600 deaths could be caused by heat annually. But studies suggest that the true number of heat-related deaths that occur each year in the United States is substantially larger than previously reported. Heat-related deaths in Arizona have more than doubled in the last decade, according to an investigation by the Center of Public Integrity.

Who’s suffering

Children in the South Central section of Los Angeles play in water from a fire hydrant during a heat wave in August 1997
Children in the South Central section of Los Angeles play in water from a fire hydrant during a heat wave in August 1997 (Reed Saxon/AP) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“If you wanted to be provocative, you could say that extreme heat is the greatest injustice of all, because no one dies from extreme heat unless they don’t have the resources to deal with it,” said V. Kelly Turner, associate professor of urban planning at UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation. “It’s the folks who can’t go indoors that are dying.”

Robin Line, a 62-year-old resident of South Los Angeles lives in an apartment building that has frequent power outages and water shutoffs. During a hot week in July 2022, when temperatures reached 90 degrees, she came home and found the water was off. She couldn’t afford to drive anywhere due to high gasoline prices, so she walked and used public transport.

L.A.’s bus stops are infamously lacking in shade. “Anywhere in South L.A., if you want to go sit at a bus stop with a shelter, good luck,” Line told LAist. Line said that heat waves force her to choose between paying for bottled water, the electricity costs for AC or gasoline for driving. And that week wasn’t even L.A.’s hottest last year. In September, L.A. hit 102 degrees Fahrenheit.

A 2021 study showed that areas with higher rates of poverty experienced temperatures 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in summer months compared to wealthier neighborhoods. These urbanized areas, often lower-income and more racially diverse, with fewer trees and less greenery, are referred to as “heat islands.” Trees and plants have been shown to reduce peak summer temperatures by 2 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit.

These neighborhoods are less equipped to handle higher temperatures. Homes are less likely to have air conditioning. Rental units in L.A. are required to have heating units but not AC. Even if they do have AC, they can’t necessarily use it: In 2020, 34 million American households said they couldn’t pay for their energy needs.

UCLA developed a mapping tool in 2021 to track extreme heat and heat-related emergency room visits. Experts found that heat is causing 1,510 emergency room visits per “heat day.” The rate of ER visits was highest in low-income parts of L.A.

What can be done

Heavy smoke from a wildfire burning north of Los Angeles darkens the skies in Pasadena, Calif., July 22, 2016
Heavy smoke from a wildfire burning north of Los Angeles darkens the skies in Pasadena, Calif., July 22, 2016. (John Antczak/AP) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Segura started her job promising to map the most vulnerable areas and create a “heat action plan.”

Since then, she has launched the “Heat Relief 4 L.A.” campaign to spread the word about extreme heat in communities that are majority Latino, Black, or Asian American and where household median income is below $27,000 per year.

With an annual budget of $1 million, Segura is working with community leaders to designate libraries and recreational facilities as cooling centers where L.A. residents can enjoy AC. She also developed an app called Cool Spots that provides a map of those spaces. She plans to work with the parks and infrastructure departments to plant more trees and build heat-resilient urban architecture.

Segura is only the latest addition to a CHO movement around the world. The movement was led by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock) at the Atlantic Council, for which Luskin is a member of the scientific advisory committee. The foundation worked with local governments to define the job description and create the first six CHO positions in Miami, Santiago, Chile; Freetown, Sierra Leone; Athens, Greece; Melbourne, Australia; and North Dhaka, Bangladesh. All of the first group appointed are women.

Segura and David Hondula in Phoenix, are the first two to be born entirely of city initiative. “David Hondula’s position is different because it was the first one to be bankrolled by a city,” Turner said. “And then came Marta Segura. It started a trend.”

While the CHO role is new, city heat action plans are not. Philadelphia launched a community-driven campaign called “Beat the Heat” in 2018 to plant trees, distribute water and bring people to cooling centers. Austin, Texas, developed so-called resilience action areas to locate existing spaces that could serve as cooling centers. Chicago sprung into action after a deadly heat wave in 1995, including requiring special training for first responders to handle heat-related illness.

In the past, experts say it has been difficult to communicate the seriousness of the issue. “Earthquakes, hurricanes and flooding are in your face and you can see them. With heat stress, we don’t necessarily have the public imagination for it, even though it’s much more deadly, said Kelly Sanders, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at USC.

Segura thinks that’s the benefit of this new simple and catchy title. “People latch on to it,” she said. “It’s easier and more tangible for people to visualize.”