Temperatures are rising across the country and heat officers may be able to help

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For most of his career, David Hondula worked as a professor and environmental researcher at Arizona State University, studying the impact of the changing climate.

Now he is on the front lines for Phoenix to put what he knows into practice.

Nearly a year ago, Hondula was hired by the city to become its first director of heat control and mitigation. His job: to direct the city’s efforts to deal with the impact of increasingly extreme heat on the sprawling desert metropolis.

Hondula, one of only a handful of heat directors in cities across the country, is part of a growing movement of municipal governments confronting the risks of rising temperatures.

Hondula came on board just months after Miami-Dade County in Florida became the first municipality in the nation to hire a heat officer. Earlier this year, Los Angeles followed suit and became the third city to create such a position.

As local leaders look to a dramatically warmer future, some say these committed positions are a necessary step in tackling the impact of climate change on their communities. In many municipal governments, extreme heat is the responsibility of a broader emergency department, but with a heat-specific position there could be more focus on the problem, experts say, especially in large cities with warm climates.

“Having a heat officer is a really smart move because they can think really hard about what the forecasts are for extreme heat, what are the measures that can be taken both in the long term and in the short term so you can respond, said Catherine McKenna, Canada’s former environment and climate change minister. “They can also look at the inequality and the impact and come up with policies to address that.”

All heat deaths are preventable

Phoenix is ​​one of the hottest cities in America, with temperatures often soaring above 100 degrees. Maricopa County, where Phoenix is ​​located, has had 66 confirmed heat-related deaths since the beginning of the year and a further 268 are under investigation. Hondula said they should all have been prevented.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego called Hondula’s appointment “an investment that reflects Phoenix’s continued commitment to developing innovative solutions to ensure the health and liveability of our city.”

Hondula’s new role has allowed the city to centralize its response to extreme heat, he said. His team takes a two-pronged approach, combining short-term solutions, such as cooling centers and immediate relief, with long-term projects, such as more greenery and shade.

With an office focused on addressing extreme heat, Hondula said, he can coordinate multiple city departments to better address the root problems that exacerbate the risks of extreme heat.

“There are a lot of good ideas that are half baked or quartered, and part of our job is to convert that potential energy into kinetic energy, into programs and policies that can make a difference on the ground,” he said.

Extreme heat, extreme risks

While extreme heat is dangerous in any situation, large urban areas often pose a greater risk than surrounding suburban and rural areas, according to Professor Ben Zaitchik of Johns Hopkins University.

Zaitchik, who studies extreme heat, said cities are consistently warmer than their surrounding suburbs, with temperature differences often greater than 10 degrees. A lack of shade and high proportions of impervious surfaces such as concrete can raise temperatures in cities, known as the urban heat island effect.

High temperatures can cause serious health problems, including heat stroke. and in some cases death. As temperatures continue to climb and 2022 is on track to be one of the hottest summers on record, extreme heat solutions have only become more necessary.

Zaitchik said local officials should consider system changes, such as changes to existing power grids and traditional city services. In many places, maintaining the status quo will not be enough, he said.

“The past is not a blueprint for the future,” Zaitchik said. “Cities really need to be ready to detect the disruption to people’s daily lives.”

When local governments draft these policies, he said it is essential to recognize the disproportionate effects of extreme heat on marginalized communities.

Many marginalized Los Angeles residents are already facing higher rates from pre-existing conditions and greater barriers to accessing services, said the city’s chief heat officer, Marta Segura. These factors can magnify the potential damage caused by extreme heat, she said.

Segura, who was appointed in June, hopes to be the first to target these vulnerable communities. So far, she has launched a multilingual awareness campaign to explain the risks of extreme heat, working with the University of California, Los Angeles’ school of public health to identify high-risk areas and lead the community to target are on local nonprofits, businesses, and religious organizations.

“How do we come together to make sure we tackle the extreme heat problems in our communities together?” said Segura. “It’s super important to mobilize and educate community members and include them in the engagement communication process if you’re really interested in resilience.”

The future of heat prevention

While municipal roles targeting extreme heat are relatively new, Segura said environmental justice organizers have been calling for more attention to the issue for decades. However, under the Biden administration, climate policy has received more attention, leading to greater changes at the local level, according to Segura.

As they look to the future, heat officials see their role as an investment in limiting extreme heat. Rising temperatures will continue to affect residents across the country as more than 100 million Americans will live in an extreme heat belt in the next 30 years, according to a new report from the First Street Foundation.

In California, the state legislature is considering creating a similar role at the state level. Meanwhile, Segura said she is working on a long-term plan that fits the city’s budget.

For Hondula, his first year in the Phoenix role was one of experimentation and cross-department collaboration. While it’s too early to know the impact of his team, he said heat officers can foster understanding for needed changes.

“I don’t know if our approach or the Miami or LA approach will be the optimal ones,” Hondula said. “But we’ve taken an important step forward in resolving the ambiguity that has prevented cities from dealing with this danger as effectively as possible.”


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