Climate problems scare me the most
When Miami-Dade County named Jane Gilbert as its first-ever heat manager earlier this year, the Miami Herald stressed its importance: the heat is “deadly serious, and climate change is making it worse”, the editorial board wrote.
“As heat impacts increase, they are further compounded by hurricanes, flooding and rising sea levels,” Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said when announcing the post of heat chief. Gilbert’s role is “to help expand, accelerate and coordinate our efforts to protect people from the heat and save lives,” Cava said.
In particular, “we know that extreme heat does not affect people equally – poorer communities and black and Hispanic people bear the brunt of the public health impacts,” Cava said, according to a written statement.
To help protect vulnerable populations from the effects of the heat, Gilbert has set a goal of increasing the tree canopy to 30 percent (from 20 percent) across the county, “focusing on the areas most more urban heat island“Gilbert tells CNBC Make It. She’s also considering updating the country’s guidelines for cool, green roofs and pavements,” she says.
The addition of such a position comes at just the right time: During the last week of June, at least 90 people died in Washington and Oregon, thanks to a record heat wave. Over the past two decades, more than 166,000 people have been killed by heat waves worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
Gilbert shared with CNBC Make It what she sees now that scares her the most and gives her hope.
“The heat dome over the Pacific Northwest is pretty scary,” Gilbert says, referring to the atmospheric event which caused the extremely hot weather there. She also wonders if it will be “a repeat event.”
But before the latest heat waves, fear of rising temperatures had grown, even among the public.
In his previous role as Miami Resilience Leader (where she was responsible for improving the city’s ability to deal with disasters and chronic stressors, such as sea level rise and climate change), when she visited the community to talk with residents about the impact climate change might have on their neighborhoods, “the heat often came up” as a concern, Gilbert says, as did the aggravated risks of heat with a hurricane which could cause a general power cut.
Temperatures in Miami are rising. Compared to when Gilbert moved to Miami in 1995, there are now 27 more days a year with temperatures over 90 degrees, she says.
“If we stay on our current emissions trajectory, we will go from seven days a year with a heat index [what the temperature feels like to the human body, a combination of heat and humidity] from 105 or more, which is very dangerous, to 88 days – almost three months – per year in the middle of the century,” Gilbert says. “Then it becomes very dangerous.
Exposure to extreme heat can cause heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat stroke and death, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). Extreme heat can also “exacerbate preexisting chronic conditions, such as various respiratory, brain, and cardiovascular diseases,” the NIEHS says.
Rising heat is especially dangerous for people who must work outdoors, such as farm and construction workers, landscapers and park workers, Gilbert says. Plus, the rising heat is dangerous for the elderly and otherwise infirm, Gilbert says.
Another big concern for Gilbert is the impact of climate change on building safety, in light of the deadly collapse from Champlain Towers South to Surfside, Florida, which is in Miami/Dade County.
It’s scary, Gilbert says, because, “part of the cause of this could have been salt water flooding on its foundations for too long.” Such an increase in flooding could be a consequence of the evolution of the sea level of theand climate change.
That means “there could be more buildings at risk than we know,” Gilbert says.
We live “in uncharted territory to some extent, in terms of vision [physical] requirements on buildings that we did not expect, whether induced by climate change…flooding once a year when we expected there to be no flooding, or more frequent and faster wind storms,” said the structural engineer Benjamin W. SchaeferProfessor of Civil and Systems Engineering and Director of the Ralph S. O’Connor Sustainable Energy Institute at Johns Hopkins University, told the Scientific American.
“We have bigger hurricanes. We have longer heat waves. It’s a challenge for us as structural engineers to keep up with these changing demands,” Schafer said.
“As for what gives me hope, [it’s] the momentum of concern, the willingness to collaborate, the level of leadership from all sectors that I see, both locally and nationally,” says Gilbert.
“People are realizing this is the only way out…We need a big change in how we operate,” Gilbert said.
For example, in recent years, Miami has established a “Disaster Volunteer Network,” which is a group of citizen volunteers trained in emergency response, “who know how to handle not only heat stress , but also other disaster-related injuries,” says Gilbert. Citizen Disaster Volunteers “serve as first responders in the event of a widespread disaster and our professional responders cannot travel to the neighborhood,” Gilbert says.
“There’s just a surge of people in all industries willing to do whatever it takes to work on this.”
Reactivity to climate change is not the same for all localities.
“Here in Miami, certainly sea level rise, hurricanes and heat are some of our impacts. In California, it could be heat, drought and wildfires,” Gilbert says.
That said, through the Resilient Cities Networkcity leaders are sharing their knowledge and resources as they figure out how to prepare their own city for climate change, according to Gilbert as well.
Miami is partnering with Athens, Greece, for example, to share information on how to prepare for and respond to extreme heat, she says, adding that, “internationally, I have visited Amsterdam and The Hague, Rotterdam a few years ago to see what the Netherlands are doing. They have been working on water issues for over 1,000 years. There is a lot to learn there.
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