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Arsht Resilience Center Wants Heat Waves Classified Like Hurricanes

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The Adrienne Arsht Rockefeller Resilience Center wants to categorize heat waves like hurricanes to provide better planning and management.

To fight dangerous heat waves expected to drive up the number of days with extreme temperatures in Miami and across the planet, the Adrienne Arsht Rockefeller Resilience Center has a novel plan: classify them like hurricanes.

The center said Tuesday, during a press briefing to unveil a new collaboration to address heat, that it’s working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and World Meteorological Organization.

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“It's often known as the silent killer, and this threat particularly preys on the growing number of vulnerable people around the world,” said center director Kathy Baughman McLeod. “By the turn of next century, without preventative measures, protections, projections suggest that heat waves may affect 75 percent of people on the planet.”

The partnership teams up cities and experts from around the globe, with expertise in public health, finance, disaster management and climate science. Miami Mayor Frances Suarez is also part of the collaboration.

“We don't have a shared understanding of the threat we face,” said Ari Bernstein, a pediatrician and acting director of the Center for Climate Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University. “It is critical to better define that if we're really going to take the measures that need to be done to protect not only ourselves.”

In recent years, heat has set new records. Globally, 2019 was the second hottest year on record and ended the hottest decade on record. And in 2017, Miami tied for the hottest year.  By 2050, the more than 3.5 billion people around the globe are forecast to be faced with dangerously high temperatures.

Without air conditioning, some places could become uninhabitable. In Miami and other Florida cities — including Tampa, Naples and Vero Beach — the number of days with heat-index temperatures topping 104 degrees is expected to climb to more than 100, up from just a couple of dozen in Miami now.

Creating categories for heat waves, like the kinds used to measure wind speeds in hurricanes, would provide a global standard for planning and emergency management, the group said.

Improved climate models now have the capability to look globally as well as locally, from cities to urban canyons crowded with heat-packing highrises, said Caspar Amman, a climate scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

“We can help to identify the real range of the hazards,” he said. “They vary drastically in nature, depending on socioeconomic setting, location, time of year and so on.”

Heat, in particular, is a threat that could widen inequities in places, since it affects the workforce and health. By 2090, the International Labor Organization estimates the U.S. alone could see $160 billion in lost wages. Putting a value on health-related impacts driven by climate change — not unlike pricing carbon — could lead to better planning, Bernstein said.

“The exposure to heat is a wedge that drives inequity and that will compound all the other threats: Climate change writ large, the emergence of infectious diseases, national security concerns,” he said. “So solving heat is really fundamental to addressing inequity, which is essentially kindling for all of the other crises that we can see unfold before us.”