As Philadelphia celebrates Earth Day this weekend, much of the conversation about climate change at the local level has shifted from mitigation (preventing climate change) to adaptation (adapting to life with climate change). With temperatures hitting 90 degrees in April last week, imagine how much adapting we will have to do if we have a July that is as unseasonably warm as April was.
Philadelphia is often thought of as “safe” because it is not on the coast, not in the South, and not at risk of wildfires or earthquakes. And because Philadelphia gets cold in the winter, unlike Miami or Phoenix, many assume Philadelphia is not as at much risk of the ill effects of warmer weather. But that’s not so.
As the planet warms, Philadelphia is only going to get hotter. FEMA released a new holistic map, called the National Risk Index, earlier this month, which revealed that Philadelphia is actually very much at risk of extreme heat in the summer. According to FEMA, Philadelphia is in the 99.9 percentile of risk for a heat wave — even higher than Phoenix’s 99.8 percentile of risk.
In Philadelphia, we already know that extreme heat is worst in communities that are already vulnerable.
Extreme heat is responsible for more deaths in the U.S. than other natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes combined, and heat waves are a major drag on the economy. While Philadelphia does have an Office of Sustainability, the office covers a range of efforts, such as making our buildings more energy efficient.
We need a person with single-minded focus to respond to the extreme heat that frequently hits Philadelphia from June through August, and is bound to get much worse during those weeks.
A model from around the world
In at least seven cities across the globe, including Athens, Miami, Santiago, and Melbourne, Chief Heat Officers are the captains of the city’s prevention of and response to extreme heat. Funded by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Resilience Center, these CHOs “raise awareness of extreme heat risk and solutions with their constituents and peers, identify communities and neighborhoods which are most vulnerable to extreme heat, work to improve planning and response to heat waves, coordinate stakeholders, and implement long-term heat risk-reduction and cooling projects” according to Arsht-Rock’s website.
In practical terms, that means naming and ranking the severity of heat waves like hurricanes as Seville, Spain does, and thereby helping people prepare for extreme heat. In Freetown, Sierra Leone, the CHO oversaw the creation of a project to shade open-air markets. In Phoenix, under Mayor Kate Gallego, the city is deploying cool pavement that reduces the on-street temperature and cooling centers. All of the cities are focusing on planting trees to enhance the shade and cooling effects of a stronger tree canopy.
In Philadelphia, we already know that extreme heat is worst in communities that are already vulnerable — they have scarce tree canopies to provide shade, and their residents may not have air conditioning. We also know that crime, the scourge of our city’s progress, is higher in the summer when people are more irritable due to heat. Indeed, the FEMA map calculates its risk with a formula that multiplies the expected annual loss and social vulnerability, divided by community resilience. Our risk score would be lower if our community resilience were higher. A Chief Heat Officer would be critical therefore not only to addressing heat, but to addressing intertwined issues of equity, safety and resilience.
We shouldn’t have to wait until an extreme heat event kills people, weakens our economy, or plunges neighborhoods into even greater violence to take action.
The CHO would coordinate with neighborhoods to not only ensure they receive communications about extreme heat events and have cooling centers, but find funding for households that need assistance with greater electricity costs during extreme heat events. As in Miami’s heat action plan, a Philadelphia CHO could ensure that bus stops and pedestrian areas that are most susceptible to urban heat island effect get cooling or shading programs and trees first. They could ensure we prioritize our public schools getting the air conditioning they need to serve children during the hot beginning and end of the school year. This role could also advise the city as it constructs new public buildings and public spaces, ensuring that building materials and outdoor areas take extreme heat into consideration.
Creating a Chief Heat Officer role may seem more proactive than necessary in 2023, but we shouldn’t have to wait until an extreme heat event kills people, weakens our economy, or plunges neighborhoods into even greater violence to take action. Philadelphia’s next mayor should create this role.
To learn more about the work of a Chief Heat Officer, join the Penn Institute for Urban Research on April 21, 2023 as it honors Global Chief Heat Officer, Eleni Myrivili.
Diana Lind, a Citizen board member, is Communications & Publications Director of Penn’s Institute for Urban Research.
MORE CLIMATE CHANGE SOLUTIONS FROM THE CITIZENAn orange sunrise with the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, Philadelphia. Photo by Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash