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UN Global Heat Officer

The United Nations appointed a new global heat officer, Eleni Myrivili, in July 2023 to support the world’s cities in adapting to extreme heat conditions. In this novel position, Myrivili expressed her shock at the lack of awareness among the global population about the dangers of hot weather, especially in cities across the northern hemisphere.

The UN’s move came following a recent European study that stated the death of 61,000 people in 2022 (women and older people) as a consequence of extreme heat and climate change. Further, the report suggested the rise of heart and lung disease and its aggravating effects as an additional impact. At the UN’s Human Settlement Programme, Myrivili stated, “It’s total cognitive dissonance that this information is not common knowledge or part of our collective subconscious.” Her analytical statement addressed the popular misconception amongst people in the Mediterranean and the Middle East that they are capable of “adapting to the heat and being accustomed to it.”

In partnership with the US non-profit organization, Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Centre, the aim is to prepare the world for rising temperatures and equip it for a response. Myrivili said, “There are three key ways in which a city can keep people safe from heat. The first is being aware, so people and institutions make hot weather a priority. The second is being prepared, so vulnerable groups are quickly found and kept safe – for instance, by reducing hours for outdoor workers and checking in on older people who live alone. The third way is rebuilding cities to make them cooler by adding green spaces and water and taking away space from cars.”

The importance of the Paris Agreement was reiterated, given the rapid increase in global temperatures. On a personal note, Myrivili explained the stake that each individual partakes in this climate crisis. She is worried for her 24-year-old daughter, who lives in a world that is divided between air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned, survivable and non-survival.

Worsening impact on the world’s cities

The appointment of the UN Global Heat Officer is crucial to exemplifying the worsening impact on cities. Cities are warmer than the surrounding areas due to the “Urban Heat Island Effect,” wherein the increasing urban population will replace more natural land area and the construction of pavements, buildings, and other heat absorbing and retaining surfaces. This will increase the number of people impacted by climate change and heat-related illness and mortality.

Subsequently, this joint initiative will unify city governments’ responses to the impact of heat and related illnesses. “We work hand-in-hand with the CHOs to identify, develop, and implement strategies and priorities, accelerating heat resilience in the short term and laying a foundation for sustained resilience in the medium, and long term” stated the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Centre. The Center also issued data stating that about 20% of the most populated cities could warm by more than 4 degrees Celsius by 2050 and about 25% could warm by more than 7 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Therefore, one responsible individual, the Chief Heat Officer, will enable a unified response, preparedness, and recovery strategy for cities.

Political Coordination for the Chief Heat Officer

Earlier in 2023, Myrivili called for political leaders to make firm commitments at the COP28 Conference. The coordination efforts with national governments will pertain to funding requirements, particularly for urban residents, and nature-based solutions and adaptation plans. One key example is Pheonix, Arizona, where white reflecting asphalt was used to mitigate the effects of the heat.

Particularly, the Chief Heat Officer is concerned about poorer countries that do not have the capacity, the architectural expertise, or the funds to make the required significant changes. “That's the thing I'm really worried about. There are a lot of countries that have a lot of informal housing, a lot of informal labour and a lot of poverty, and that's where heat becomes the real killer”.

A political milestone was achieved at the COP28 Conference with the launch of the Global Cooling Pledge, encouraging countries to reduce cooling-related emissions, under Myrivili’s expertise.

In her interactions with the media, Myrivili expressed optimism for her work. “And media attention brought a lot of power and possibilities for financing these positions. Chief heat officers now attracted a lot of attention, and both cities and politicians started paying more attention. Also, the private sector and philanthropy got more interested.”

At present, cities including Athens, Dhaka, Freetown, Melbourne, Santiago, and Miami have heat officers, some of whom were mentored by Myrivili.

Furthermore, the plans for risk communication have been significant since the start of the Heat Officer’s tenure. An early warning system, depending on the category, sends differentiated warnings to social services personnel. These messages, implemented in a few cities, explain what needs to be done to protect oneself from the heat. The current systems also include vulnerability hotlines, enabling people to seek support when needed.

However, strategic long-term plans are essential to mitigate these concerns. Construction guidelines for streets, squares, and parks were issued, incorporating plants, water, and different materials. Limiting cars and asphalt is also crucial for this.

At present, only economically stronger countries in Europe have incorporated such strategies, leaving Myrivili’s concern for poorer countries more prominent than ever. 


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