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As extreme heat becomes the new normal, how should we adapt?

As we think about a warming planet, there’s one threat we don’t think about enough.

“There’s drought, there’s sea level rise … these extreme events. Heat is the thing that will kill you. Heat kills far more people than any other weather event,” says Jeff Goodell.

That’s why cities around the world from Athens, Greece to Phoenix, Arizona are hiring “chief heat officers.”

“It was the cost burdens and health burdens, workers exposed to heat day in and day out. It was people having to walk and wait at a bus stop and end up in an emergency department,” Jane Gilbert, Chief Heat Officer for Miami-Dade County, says.

Today, On Point: Adapting to survive life on a hotter planet.

Guests

Julian Aguilar, El Paso-based reporter covering politics for public radio station KERA.

Jeff Goodell, Journalist covering climate change. Author of the book The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet.

Eleni Myrivili, Global Chief Heat Officer for UN-Habitat and the Arsht-Rock Resilience Center. Former Chief Heat Officer for the city of Athens, Greece.

Also Featured

David Broyles, Foreman electrician with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Austin, Texas.

Jane Gilbert, Chief Heat Officer for Miami-Dade County.

Book Excerpt

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: The Southwest is sweltering. Phoenix, Arizona just broke its own record for deadly heat. There have now been more than 18 consecutive days there where the thermometer peaked at 110 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Highs in Phoenix for the rest of this week are forecasted at 115 degrees or higher, and at night it barely cools off — to 99 degrees.

The entire Southwest is at the mercy of an historic heat wave from the southern half of California all the way east to Louisiana and even parts of Mississippi and South Florida, 100 million Americans are enduring life under an intense heat dome. And the United States is just one of many spots across the Earth’s northern hemisphere that are smashing high temperature records.

And with ongoing climate change, even these new records are likely to quickly fall.

DAVID BROYLES: I hate to say it’s becoming normal, but it feels normal now. We are taking as many breaks as possible. I have water iced down at all times. We’re going through 10 to 20 bottles of water per man a day.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Folks with access to indoor air conditioning may be able to ride out this weeks-long heat wave in safety. But some workers in cities across the southern U.S. have no choice but to labor outdoors. David Broyles is an electrician foreman and a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Austin, Texas.

BROYLES: I mean, it’s obviously exhausting. We are sweating from start at seven o’clock until half the way home. It’s just constant sweating, constant heat, the physical exhaustion. Of course we’re using sunscreen, but still it just — it completely draining all day. And of course, you’re not just standing around outside. It’s working outside. So you’re physically exerting yourself all the time, having to be conscious of safety, make sure no one gets hurt, not just from heat exhaustion, but from normal construction things. And the more exhausted you get from the heat, the more your judgment will slip and things can go awry.

CHAKRABARTI: Broyles says that for construction workers, the very nature of the job means some of their biggest contracts and workloads come in the summer, such as upgrading electrical in schools when students aren’t there. But the workers are — inside a baking building with no AC because they’re the ones swapping it out.

BROYLES: We really have to be our coworkers’ keepers. We watch out for our brothers and sisters. If anyone is showing any signs of any kind of heat stress of any kind, we immediately will stop work, get them into a shaded or cool location, water, those type of things, immediately. We can get busy, “Oh, we just want to get this done real quick.” Well, 30 minutes later, no one’s taken a break, no one’s drank any water, and now we’re exhausted. Me being the foreman, it is my due diligence to make sure my men are constantly taking a break, drinking water, making sure water is on hand. It’s right there next to them.

CHAKRABARTI: And as foreman, Broyles is constantly watching his teams to make sure no one is getting sick from the heat.

BROYLES: First of all, you’ll see them either turn pale or stop sweating. Usually there should be sweat on your body at all times. And if I notice someone is not sweating anymore, then I can immediately tell they are not hydrated. And then you’ll get pale skin. And then when it goes a little further, then people will be visibly confused. Once someone starts getting kind of hazy and confused, then that’s really a sign that heat stress is setting in.

CHAKRABARTI: As it so often is, Texas is a huge and very particular example of the clash between climate realities, political agendas, and the everyday people trapped between the two.

Union workers in Texas, like Broyles and his team, often have water breaks written into their contracts. But the vast majority of workers in the state are non-union. So back in 2010, the city of Austin passed an ordinance that required 10 minute breaks every four hours so that construction workers can hydrate and shelter from the sun. Dallas has a similar local law. San Antonio has been considering one.

However, this June, Republican Governor Greg Abbott promptly signed House Bill 2127. The new law allows state government to override certain local rules and regulations. Its scope is very broad. But it contains a section specifically targeting local ordinances dealing with breaks, benefits, and scheduling practices. Meaning come September, the state of Texas has given itself the power to end Austin’s mandatory water breaks for construction workers.

Again, David Broyles, electrician foreman and member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers:

BROYLES: After it came out, I sent a company-wide email that I thought that move was, I think I used the word ghastly. Because it’s so — it’s just so in the face of anyone that works that the leadership could not care any less. And when you thought they couldn’t care less, then they move like this to say, “Oh, actually, you don’t even need water, actually. Your business owner doesn’t even need to provide you water breaks, actually. It’s so dehumanizing, honestly.

CHAKRABARTI: The new law’s proponents, including Governor Abbott, say that it will allow Texas to streamline its patchwork of local ordinances. The statute is formally known as the Texas Regulatory Consistency Act. That streamlining, supporters say, is better for Texas businesses. But why specifically target things like the number of breaks construction workers can take? Even as state officials are now advising Texans on how to stay safe in the record-breaking heat?

Julian Aguilar covers Texas politics for the Texas Public Radio Station, KERA and he joins us now. Julian, welcome.

JULIAN AGUILAR: Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so as I just mentioned, the Texas Regulatory Consistency Act — that’s its formal name.  But it’s also being called something else in Texas. And that is…?

AGUILAR: The Death Star Bill.

CHAKRABARTI: The Death Star Bill. Why?

AGUILAR: Well, A, I mean, it’s a catchy name that people are familiar with. But, you know, more importantly is that because as you said, it’s very, very broad.  So it could just wipe out several ordinances that not only deal with water breaks and hiring practices, but predatory lending, environmental regulations.

So yeah, it’s pretty sweeping. And the trickle-down effect is that a lot of these city officials are worried that the ordinances that they have in place, which they thought was best for their local community — which Texas is supposed to be about local control — that those would go away now. Because the state has decided that they know better than these local municipalities and these local governments, and they decided to override these come September 1, as you mentioned.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And so can you just tell us a little bit more about why the Texas State legislature and Governor Abbott so enthusiastically signed this bill, which as you said gives the state power to override a whole swath of local regulations? What was their reasoning for the need for this bill?

AGUILAR: Sure, yeah. I mean, you said it perfectly, is that just generally speaking, they’re saying that it’s hard to grow small business and the economy in general when investors or folks that might want to invest in a certain place in Texas have to deal with these quote unquote patchwork of ordinances.

You mentioned Austin passed the mandatory water breaks in 2010. Dallas followed suit five years later. And what the opponents of the bill say, you know, “Look at how much the state has grown regardless. This is not handicapping construction or it’s not handicapping business at all.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a magazine article about the economy of Texas that doesn’t mention how quickly municipalities are growing, how many companies are relocating. So this is not really an issue other than the fact that some folks think that the Texas Republicans in charge of the legislature want to override local control in large cities that are predominantly run by Democrat leaders.

CHAKRABARTI: So we’re talking Austin, Houston, Dallas, and the like?

AGUILAR: Correct.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And today, are you in El Paso today?

AGUILAR: I am in El Paso.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Can you just give us a quick take on what the weather is like for you right now?

AGUILAR: Of course, of course. You mentioned Phoenix and my heart goes out to those folks out there. We haven’t gotten that hot yet. But we are, I think, approaching our 32nd or 33rd day that’s gonna be above a hundred degrees. We’re looking at about 109, 110 degrees for Tuesday. And that’s just gonna remain through the rest of the week.

We’ll probably hit 40 consecutive days with temperatures of a hundred degrees or warmer. And that breaks a 30-year-old record that was set in 1993, which was a runoff. But as you mentioned earlier, people are saying, you know, “Get ready for this to be the new normal.” So this is where we are in El Paso, right here out in Far West Texas.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Okay. Well, I just wanna play a little clip here from Dustin Burrows, who’s the Republican state legislature —  legislator, I should say —  representing Lubbock. And he introduced House Bill 2027 dubbed the, as you said earlier, the Death Star Bill by its opponents. And here he is explaining a little bit more about why he thinks state government should have the power to override local laws passed by municipalities.

DUSTIN BURROWS: We want those small business owners creating new jobs and providing for their families, not trying to navigate a Byzantine array of local regulations that twist and turn every time they cross city limits signs.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So I wanted to play that because that was back when the legislature was debating the bill and Governor Abbott signed it in June as mentioned. But now, since Texas is also in the grip of this massive heat wave, there’s been a lot of attention within the state on specifically the attempt to — or the possibility of overturning these breaks and water ordinances for workers in different cities. Do you have any read on whether state officials might be stepping back from any desire to do that come September?

AGUILAR: No, I don’t think they will. I mean, even when this was brought up as a concern during testimony and committee hearings — about the water breaks, specifically — the proponents of the bill, the Republican author and the co-author said, “Well, you know, OSHA, the federal branch under the Department of Labor, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, they already govern that.”

It’s important to note that Texas is notorious for fighting the federal government, but when it works to their advantage, they’ll look to the federal government to sort of defend something that they’re doing at the state level. But yeah, so they’re saying, “Look, there’s gonna be protections in place. And which contractor, which employer is gonna be so cruel as to not allow their folks water breaks?”

Listening to Mr. Broyles it was encouraging that he obviously cares very much for the men and women on his team, and for the folks that work for him and for his subcontractors. But you know, it’s not guaranteed that every employer is gonna be like that. And we’ve already seen a lot of heat related incidents in Texas, whether it’s related to the construction industry or not. Moving forward, September 1, it’s still pretty hot in Texas. So we’re gonna have to see it, what this looks like when it’s put into practice.

CHAKRABARTI: And Julian, just five seconds, quickly: Has Governor Abbott offered any legislation to replace city rules and ensure workers get breaks and water?

AGUILAR: No, not currently. I mean, they gaveled out and there’s not another special session planned until October and that’s for a separate issue. \

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Well, Julian Aguilar, El Paso-based reporter who covers Texas politics for public radio station KERA. Julian, thank you very much for joining us, and I hope you and everyone around you in El Paso is able to stay cool and safe.

AGUILAR: Appreciate it. Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: Back in a moment.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: On today’s show we started with the example of construction workers in the state of Texas and how they’re looking at a near future where the state government may take away their right in certain municipalities to take breaks, water breaks, specifically, to cope with the high heat.

Now, much of the northern hemisphere right now is under various forms of record-breaking heat. And so today what we want to do is take a close look at why this is happening, what impact it’s having, particularly on both cities and rural areas, and whether or not we recognize enough that heat may be the biggest killer around the world as climate change continues on.

So I’d like to bring in Jeff Goodell. His new book is called “The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet.” And he joins us from Austin, Texas. Jeff, welcome to the show.

JEFF GOODELL: Hi, Meghna. Happy to be here.

CHAKRABARTI:  And how are you doing today in Austin?

GOODELL: (LAUGHS) I’m okay. I’m in an air conditioned studio, so I’m okay. But it’s gonna be hot again today as it has been for several weeks now.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So I wanted to get your thoughts on the confluence of local ordinances from cities that recognize that workers have been and will continue to be subjected to just terrible amounts of heat and the state of Texas’s decision to give itself the power to override those local ordinances. You’ve been a climate journalist for quite some time. I mean, what’s your read on this particular tension?

GOODELL: Well, I mean, the first thing to say is it’s obviously just barbaric. I mean, the idea that, you know, taking water breaks and shade rest for workers is gonna somehow impede the economy of Texas is just insane, frankly.

What this is really about, whether it’s just about asserting control or, as another writer has described a lot of conservative Republican policies right now, that “the cruelty is the point.” I don’t know \what is the motivation here, but it is going to get people killed.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Well, even if workers who have to be outdoors or in high heat settings — because sometimes those are also indoors as well — even if they get adequate breaks and water, in your book you lay out clearly that that will not be enough to adapt to the ongoing heat crisis that we’re very likely to have every year now for the foreseeable future. I mean, what are some of the other big changes — sticking with construction for a second — that you think cities will need to make?

GOODELL: Well, I mean, I think one of the points of my book is that we just simply don’t understand the risks of heat very well. You know, there’s a lot of talk about global warming, a lot of talk about temperatures raising two or three degrees. And it all sounds just like better beach weather to a lot of people. And my book is about trying to articulate that heat is this active force that, as we move into these higher temperature ranges, can hurt you and kill you very quickly. And that understanding the risks of this kind of extreme heat is really important to thriving in the 21st century as temperatures get hotter and hotter.

So I mean, the simple thing is dealing with heat with construction workers or anybody else is keeping your body temperature down. And that means getting out of the heat, taking breaks, getting into air conditioned spaces, getting into cool spaces, drinking plenty of water. Although, I will point out that a lot of people think water cools them off and can save them from extreme temperatures and it doesn’t. It does not cool you off. All it does is allow you to sweat, which is how you cool off. And you can still die of heat stroke and have plenty of hydration. So water itself is not a panacea. But we also have to rethink about how we design cities: shade, urban trees, things like that.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, so I wanna come back to just overall redesign of urban spaces.  But construction is just such a vivid example of how small adaptations aren’t going to be enough. I know you’ve talked about before that look, we’re already doing more and more construction at night. Perhaps maybe most construction in the future will have to be done at night. Is that the kind of like large-scale, industry-wide change that we might see coming?

GOODELL: Absolutely. A city official in Houston suggested that to me when we were talking a few months ago, that, you know, they’re thinking about having to shift a lot of construction projects to nighttime because it’s so hot.

And when you start thinking about — I mean, putting aside the health implications and just thinking about the economic implications — as these extreme heat waves get hotter and hotter, as these temperatures rise, summertime in cities like Austin and Phoenix and Houston are going to become times when you can’t go outside, more or less. And so that means that what are the  economic implications of essentially shutting down construction and outdoor work except for nighttime for these cities? I mean, the economic cost of that is going to be enormous, just simply looking at it from that lens. And there’s an inevitability about this because there is a threshold of heat that humans cannot tolerate. And we’re approaching that very quickly in these hot southwestern cities.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. So we have a lot of listeners right now who are living in these places and they don’t necessarily need us to describe what it feels like to be in that much heat. But for those of us who aren’t living with 99 degree nights as it is in Phoenix right now, I mean, I think it was a visit to Phoenix that inspired you to write this book called “The Heat Will Kill You First,” Jeff?

GOODELL: Yeah, it was. I had been writing about climate change for a decade or so, and I was obviously familiar with heat. I mean, we all talk about global warming. It’s part of the conversation. But I’d never really thought about it as anything but this sort of gentle kind of warming that will eventually have changes in our climate and in our world.

And I happened to be visiting Phoenix on a 115 degree day, similar to what it will be like today and has been for the last week or so. And I was staying downtown and I had to walk 12 blocks to a meeting. And I just kind of blithely walked out onto the street and headed towards my meeting. And by the time I was halfway there, I could feel my heart pounding. By the time I went a few more blocks, I was feeling dizzy. And I realized that heat was this force, this thing that, you know, was really dangerous. And I realized that I had never thought about it that way before.

I had never realized that heat could kill me or that heat was an immediate risk. Not a long-term risk, not something that is just, you know, melting icebergs up in the North Pole. It is something that can kill you. And that is where my book began. And I began thinking more about heat and I realized I knew what temperature was, but I didn’t even know what heat was. I couldn’t describe what heat is to anyone. And I thought “This is something that is widely misunderstood and worth spending a couple years exploring,” as I did.

CHAKRABARTI: Right. So heat is, in my view, radiative energy that’s both essential to life on Earth. But also, you know, as you write, we as human beings are evolutionarily adapted to live in a pretty narrow band of tolerable heat, right? That Goldilocks zone. So, can you take a second to describe, Jeff, what happens to a human body as core body temperature rises dangerously?

GOODELL: Sure. I mean, as you just mentioned,  we have evolved and not just us, but all living things around us have have evolved in a pretty stable temperature range over the last several hundred thousand years and even longer.

And our regulating of our body temperature is really important to all of the functions of our body, all the chemical reactions and everything need this stable body temperature. And everyone knows it’s 98.6, 99, something in there. And everyone knows the first thing a doctor asks you if you’re not feeling well: “Do you have a fever?” And so if your body temperature even gets up to 100, 101, you’re calling the doctor. If he gets up to a 102, 103, 104, you’re thinking about going to the hospital. And it just shows how sensitive our bodies are.

And so what happens when we get out into extreme heat and when our body starts to overheat is our heart starts pounding very fast. Because the mechanism that we have to cool off is sweat. It’s the only mechanism that we have to cool off and it’s very effective in certain situations. So when it gets hot, your heart starts pounding and it starts pushing your blood towards your skin. And then, as you sweat, your skin cools off. The cooler blood captures that cooling and it cools off your entire body as it circulates around.

But what happens if you don’t have enough water and you can’t sweat, or if the temperature rises too fast, then your body starts heating up. And it starts heating up faster and faster. Your body pulls your blood away from your brain, which is one reason why you feel dizzy and sometimes faint or hallucinate, which is a big problem for construction workers because then there’s an increase in accidents and things like that.

And if your body temperature hits to 104, 105 and it’s still heating up, what actually happens is that the cells in your body, the walls of your cells actually begin to melt. And the proteins that control the basic functions of our bodies begin to unfold and you literally kind of melt from within. It’s a very kind of horrific way to go.

And most people who have trouble from heat stroke and extreme heat don’t get that far. It’s usually heart problems, heart attacks, circulatory problems that kind of does people in. And that’s one reason why heat deaths are so difficult to attribute because they’re often — people die of heart attacks.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. So this was one of the series of facts that you connect throughout the book, which I think is really important to highlight. That one, heat kills more people than some of the more, let’s say television-friendly or emotionally capturing types of disasters: hurricanes, tornadoes, that kind of thing. Heat kills more people than that. I mean, not just in the United States, worldwide, right? I mean, we can remember that terrible heatwave in Paris several summers ago where 15,000 people died. And of course the effects are felt even more dramatically by all of humanity in the global south.

But then coming back to the United States, you also talk about how there have been assessments done that worker productivity losses — returning back to that sweat economy you talked about — from heat in the U.S. totaled a hundred billion dollars in 2020 and could grow to a half a trillion dollars by 2050. But that in the United States, there are no federal rules regulated to heat exposure for workers either indoors or outdoors. All of this is a collective sort of expose of how we do not formally recognize what a powerful force or danger heat is. Why do you think that is?

GOODELL: Well, I think a couple of reasons. One is I think that we in the media and generally in our culture have done a kind of poor job of communicating those risks. And when you see media stories about heat waves and things like that, often illustrated with people at the beach or playing in sprinklers and that kind of idea that that heat is just a kind of playful summer force, a playful summer thing that allows us to go outside. And we haven’t really registered it as this — we haven’t thought about the risks of what it does to our body.

And partly that’s because, you know, these extreme heat events and things that we’re dealing with now are a manifestation of our warming climate and these kinds of risks, these kinds of extreme heat risks are relatively new. I mean, obviously there have been heat waves for a long time. But now, like in the summer of 2021, you know, we had that heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, which is a place that never gets heat waves. And it got to be 121 degrees in British Columbia. I mean, that was like snow in the Sahara. Nobody predicted that kind of thing.

So these risks are increasing exponentially as temperatures go up and as we reach these thresholds of what our bodies can tolerate. I mean, a 110 degree heat wave is very different than a 120 degree heat wave.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm.

GOODELL: And a heat wave in a humid place is very different than a heat wave in a dry place. So, you know, our understanding of these risks are lagging way behind.

CHAKRABARTI:  Yeah. You know, you have this very revealing sentence in your chapter about the sweat economy, where you’re speaking with one of the sources for your book and you pull out your iPhone and it won’t turn on because you got that message that, “iPhone needs to cool down before you can use it.” I know exactly what you’re talking about. On some days where it’s so hot that, you know, Apple has programmed that the iPhone gets to take a break from the heat. But the workers all around you, all around us, do not get that same treatment. It’s kind of amazing.

GOODELL: Yeah. And it also points out that it’s not just, you know, us humans that have a problem when the temperatures rise. It’s all living things. Everything from butterflies to hummingbirds to polar bears, to pine trees, you know, everything. Our food: corn, wheat, all these kinds of things. Everything has a temperature threshold.

But also our infrastructure that runs our lives. The steel on bridges begins to get more fragile as heat rises, asphalt begins to turn to mush. Planes can’t land. iPhones don’t work. I was on a plane just the day before yesterday going to Washington, DC for a book event and the plane couldn’t take off because the heat sensors had been overridden in the plane and we had to sit on the runway for an hour and a half until that was fixed.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow.

GOODELL: I mean the very infrastructure of our lives —  of everything about our world is very, very heat sensitive and we are not prepared for these kinds of temperatures that we’re moving into.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So speaking of infrastructure, look, I think what a lot of people would say, or might say, “Well, maybe we just have to make air conditioning easier to access.” Right? Because you have a really striking story in your book — speaking of that Pacific Northwest heat wave from a couple of years ago — where there was a professor who drove to different parts of Portland, Oregon and measured the temperature on the same day. And the difference between the shaded affluent neighborhoods and the not-so-shaded, poorer neighborhoods in the city of Portland was a 25 degree difference outdoors, let alone indoors.

But you point out in the book that you do not think at all that increasing access to air conditioning is how we’re gonna solve ourselves out of the heat problem. We’ve just got about a minute until the next break. So can you just start telling me why you think that is?

GOODELL: Sure. I could go on about air conditioning for a very long time. (LAUGHS) But I wouldn’t say that improving access to air conditioning is not important. It is very important. But the fact is there are billions of people on this planet who do not have access to air conditioning. And the idea that air conditioning is some kind of magic bullet that’s gonna solve this problem is very naive and a kind of big myth in the whole story about heat.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Jeff Goodell is joining us today. He’s author of the new book “The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet.” When we come back, we’re gonna talk about what several cities across the world are trying to do to create more adaptive responses to a world with higher heat, including hiring chief heat officers.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Jeff Goodell joins us today. He’s author of the new book, “The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet.” And we’re talking about whether we recognize adequately that of all the ways we know and can see climate change having an impact on Earth, are we coming to terms with the fact that heat is the one that everyone will feel and that could transform how we live the most? That’s what we’re trying to explore today.

And we’ve got some calls from some listeners with personal experience on this. Paula called us from Zurich, Switzerland. So she lives in Europe now, but her parents live in Florida and they didn’t used to have air conditioning but now it’s a must.

PAULA: I’ve been going to Florida now for the past 10, 15 years to visit my parents who retired there. And I always thought it was so odd that people moved to Florida for good weather but whenever I walked around the neighborhoods, all of the windows were closed in the houses in order to keep the air conditioning in. My aging parents now have air conditioning, the protection that they need in regards to the heat. It’s no longer about comfort. It’s about their health. And it’s just sad, as a person who always looked forward to this summer, I now am scared of it and the heat that it brings.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s Paula, an On Point listener talking about her worries regarding her parents who live in Florida.

Well, Miami-Dade County is one of several municipalities worldwide who recognize that heat is such an urgent issue. They have actually created a new position in city government: a Chief Heat Officer.  We spoke with Jane Gilbert, who is the Chief Heat Officer for Miami-Dade County, and she says the research shows the threat of extreme heat really varies depending on where in the county you live.

JANE GILBERT: When I first came on board, we found that certain zip codes in Miami-Dade County were having over four times the number of emergency department visits and hospitalizations related to heat than other zip codes. And we looked at what the strongest correlating factors were. It was high poverty, high land surface temperatures, high percentage of outdoor workers. It was a high percentage of families with children.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, I’d like to bring in Eleni Myrivili now. She’s joining us from Athens, Greece, and she’s currently Global Chief Heat Officer for UN-Habitat and the Arsht-Rock Resilience Center. Until recently, she was the Chief Heat Officer for the city of Athens, Greece. Eleni, welcome to you.

MYRIVILI: Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Can you please describe what the duty of a Chief Heat Officer is now for the cities that have one?

MYRIVILI: It’s basically to try to make sure that the most vulnerable populations can be offered some ways to be safe from extreme heat. So it’s helping cities protect their most vulnerable populations. But also it’s helping cities redesign themselves and change the way that they’re building themselves so that they are less heat traps and they become actually cooler spaces for people to live in.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm. Now we were delighted when you said you could come on the show because Athens provides us with a very powerful global example. Because we remember from last year, possibly the year before, how Greece was basically on fire, so much of the country.

MYRIVILI: Right. Right.

CHAKRABARTI: Those pictures of the flames burning behind the Parthenon. There’s a similar heat wave going on this summer in Greece?

MYRIVILI: Yes. We just had one. It peaked last weekend and we are expecting a second one on starting in the next couple of days. It’s gonna peak around 44 degrees around Friday, Saturday. And 44 degrees is about 111 degrees, which it’s very high temperatures for Athens.

CHAKRABARTI: So 44 degrees Centigrade and —

MYRIVILI: Yes. Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: And 111 Fahrenheit. No, go ahead. Go ahead.

MYRIVILI: Yes. No, we just have again a lot of fires surrounding Athens. And this is a really big problem with heat around the world. We have long periods of heat, which mean that we have long periods of drying the atmosphere and drying all of our forests materials, and then they burn very, very easily. And that’s another terrible thing because it becomes a vicious circle because forests are cooling us. So, yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: Yes. So I have to first of all apologize for a mistake I made just a minute ago. I mentioned the Parthenon. I’m getting my ancient civilizations mixed up here. I meant to say the Acropolis. And I understand that it’s been so hot in Greece that the Acropolis had to be closed to tourists just last week?

MYRIVILI: Yes, it’s true. We had to close the Acropolis for several hours every day to make sure that people don’t — they’re not in danger.

We have a strategic collaboration between the city of Athens and the Hellenic Red Cross. So we always have the last couple of years a little special unit of the Red Cross there, giving water to people and giving them pamphlets about how to keep safe. But it’s not enough when the temperatures sore so high.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I keep making mistakes. The Acropolis is in Athens. I can’t even blame the heat. (LAUGHS)

MYRIVILI: (LAUGHS) You’re right. There’s a lot of Acropolises all around. It’s fine. It’s a fair mistake.

CHAKRABARTI: Now I’m gonna bring Jeff back into the conversation in just a second, but I did wanna ask you, Eleni, so you mentioned the job of a chief heat officer is to really try to move a city towards a more resilient, heat resilient infrastructure, especially for vulnerable populations. So that could be things like planting more trees, changing rooftops to be, I guess more reflective rather than absorbent, things like that. How hard was that to do, given that you also have to navigate the complexities of local government?

MYRIVILI: Well, that’s an interesting question. It’s usually quite hard. It’s really — we call it like radically bringing nature into the city, which means like really investing in what we call nature-based solutions or blue-green infrastructure. And this kind of needs a shift on many, many levels from the people that have to know how to design them, to procuring them, to making sure that the politicians, the people in charge, actually understand that these are worth it and all of the co-benefits that you get by doing that, instead of just doing a gray infrastructure, meaning like just using concrete to solve all the problems of the city. It takes a lot. It takes a big effort.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So Jeff Goodell, thank you so much for patiently listening along with me. I just wanna hear your thoughts on like, what do you think the significance is that even in just a tiny handful of cities so far, they’ve seen heat as such a danger that they’ve appointed a city official to think about how it impacts every aspect of life?

GOODELL: Well, I think it’s really important because, you know, as I mentioned earlier, I think that we so profoundly misunderstand the risks and implications of these more extreme temperatures. And one of the central roles of these chief heat officers is to help educate people — not just the populace, but also politicians and local officials and things — to really understand what the risks are and that there are solutions, there are these nature-based solutions: planting trees, bringing water, green spaces into urban areas, that they can really have a big impact on this. But, you know, the ignorance is very profound on this issue. And there’s also just a lot of inertia in doing things the same old way and “Why should we change?” and all of that. And these chief heat officers, I think, really help in the beginning to shift that conversation.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. So Eleni, both of you have now said that one of the main challenges is getting lawmakers or politicians to understand that crafting more resilient cities is worth it. I wonder if one of the major obstacles to that is, quite frankly, an old one and that is, I’m just gonna guess that most lawmakers, given the position that they have, are living lives of more comfort most of the time, right? They’re the ones in a community who probably definitely do have air conditioning, so it’s hard to perhaps get them to really see the reality of how deadly the heat is for other people. I mean, could it be something as simple as that that’s preventing the recognition needed?

MYRIVILI: Yes. And I think, I think you’re right. Part of it is putting the head in the sand, right? And pretending that there is no problem. Also in poorer countries there’s always other issues that tend to be more pressing. So economic issues or  wars or all these other things that are more directly recognizable and you can persuade people that they are more important in a way. Because again, as Jeff said, it’s incredible how little awareness we have about how deadly this thing is.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. Okay. So Jeff, this is —

MYRIVILI: And —

CHAKRABARTI: No, go ahead.

MYRIVILI: And also the other thing is, which was implied in your question, that there is a great inequity in the way that heat attacks people. So it’s true that people,  it brings to the surface the most vulnerable population and they are the ones that bear the brunt. So yes, you’re right. I mean, we have to have really visionary and democratic leaders in order to tackle these issues.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So here’s where some of these threads start coming together because Jeff, as Eleni pointed out, first of all, the vast majority of the global population does not have air conditioning. And even in places where there is AC — I didn’t give you enough time to describe why you think that expanding air conditioning is not the answer at all. But I know that one of them, one of the reasons why, is in a place like Austin or Dallas or Houston or any place in the United States where it’s hot right now, all it would take is what? One 24, 36 hour power outage and thousands of people could die when their AC goes away?

Do you see a possible future where, given the threat of these disasters, that we begin changing or shaping cities to do better with things like passive cooling, Jeff?

GOODELL: Well, I hope so. I mean, in my book I describe air conditioning as a technology of forgetting. And by that I mean, we — meaning architects, builders — understood how to build for heat and for hot places before air conditioning came along, right? I mean, the Middle East, the cradle of civilization, Iran, Iraq, they knew how to use wind towers to move wind and cooling around over water services.

And they basically knew how to build sort of natural air conditioning 400 years ago. Here in Texas, where I live, it’s not like this was empty land until air conditioning came along. A lot of people lived here. And you see these what are called dogtrot houses, where they have these big open passageways between rooms that allow breezes to come through.

Just a couple of months ago, I talked to one of the world’s top architects and I told him about my love-hate relationship with air conditioning. And I said, “Can you build great new buildings without air conditioning?” He said, “Absolutely, we can do it. We know how to move air around. We know how to keep buildings cool without air conditioning. We don’t need to do this.” But people want it. They’re, you know, we have become addicted to 72 degrees. And we think that it’s our God-given right to have all of our spaces at 72 degrees and we’ve forgotten this natural variability and the sort of wonders of living with that.

And just to wrap this up, I just wanna underscore that, you know, this dependence upon air conditioning, like the caller from Switzerland pointed out earlier, people are living in these sealed-up buildings in this hot weather in Miami and Austin and Texas and things. And it’s all fine, but if we have a major blackout, these sealed buildings become convection ovens.

An infrastructure expert in my book from Phoenix predicted inevitably that we will have what he called a “heat Katrina.” In other words, a kind of catastrophe similar to Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans a decade or so ago, in which thousands of people die because we’re gonna have a blackout that will last, you know, 24 hours or longer. And that would be kind of catastrophic.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm. Well, as we wrap up this conversation, Eleni, I’d like to pose a question to you that was sparked by something quite, let’s say, challenging that Jeff wrote in his book. Because he wrote that when you look at what the world’s response was to the Covid pandemic, it showed just how much death a society — a global society, actually — can accept. And he writes that, “With heat being such an invisible killer, suffering and death will become part of what it means to live in the 21st century, something that we accept.” What’s your response to that?

MYRIVILI: (SIGHS) Oh. It’s a great writing. It’s some great writing. And deeply kind of thoughtful and provocative. Yeah, the fear is that, that we will — again, it has to do with inequity, right? I mean, how much are we just going to close ourselves up in towers that are air conditioning and leave the people that cannot afford it out?

How much are we going to turn our cities into gated communities that have backup energy systems just for the rich people? It’s not very sustainable, you know. Actually, it’s not gonna work. We know that it’s not gonna work. Because you always need the kind of diversity, social diversity, and social support to actually survive crisis. I hope that we realize how much social resilience is important for any kind of difficult scenarios that we’re gonna face in the future, and we really build on it instead of going towards really difficult — a difficult future.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Eleni Myrivili. She joins us from Athens, Greece. She’s Global Chief Heat Officer for UN-Habitat and the Arsht-Rock Resilience Center. Until recently, she was the Chief Heat Officer for Athens. Eleni, thank you so much for being with us today.

MYRIVILI: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: And Jeff Goodell, author of “The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet.” Jeff, thank you for a great book and for really getting us thinking about this invisible killer.

GOODELL: Thank you for having me on.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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