Miami’s chief heat officer knows the challenges of a climate-focused job in Florida


MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Jane Gilbert was relishing the mild temperatures and gentle breeze of early March as she hurried between meetings.

She knows the heat will be here soon enough.

Here at the Miami Beach Convention Center, Gilbert and hundreds of scientists, policymakers, activists and business leaders have gathered for the Aspen Ideas: Climate conference, a three-day event to discuss solutions and adaptations to global warming.

Gilbert is the chief heat officer for Miami-Dade County, which counts more than 2.6 million people on Florida’s southeastern tip. In 2021, she became the first person in the world with that title, and she has since been joined by a handful of others in cities around the globe that are coping with the realities of extreme heat in a warming world.

Gilbert said the chief heat officers stay in touch through a group chat on WhatsApp, sharing tips with one another and advocating for changes in policy.

“I speak to the chief heat officers in Phoenix and L.A. the most, but I’ve learned from Melbourne, Australia, I’ve learned from Santiago, Chile, and from Athens, Greece,” she said. “That type of resource-sharing is one of the greatest strengths and satisfactory aspects of my job.”

In South Florida, a place known for tropical conditions, it’s Gilbert’s job to help protect residents from soaring heat and humidity and make the county more resilient to extreme heat worsened by climate change.

Of particular concern are those who are most vulnerable when temperatures spike: children, the elderly, homeless populations, people who work outside and lower-income communities.

“If you live and work in air conditioning and can afford a car with an air conditioner, you’re probably fine. We’re not really worried about you,” Gilbert said. “It’s that outdoor worker, it’s that person who can’t stay cool at home, it’s that person who has to wait at a bus stop for an hour that is not safe.”

Her work to reach those most at risk was critical last year, when Miami experienced its hottest summer on record.

“In the 14 years prior to 2023, we had an average of six days out of the year that reached at or above a heat index of 105 degrees,” Gilbert said. “Last summer, we had over 42 days, so it was seven times higher than the average.”

Many projections suggest things are only going to get worse.

The planet, as a whole, notched its warmest year in recorded history in 2023. Climate scientists have said this year could be just as hot — if not hotter.

Gilbert recalled the kind of pushback she faced when she was appointed from people who saw heat as a way of life in this part of the country. Why, of all places, would South Florida need someone focused solely on heat?

“It has always been hot here, but we’ve had 77 more days with a temperature over 90 degrees than we did 50 years ago,” she said. “That’s a different level of hot.”

Heat is often called the “silent killer,” and it kills more people in the U.S. every year than any other weather event, according to the National Weather Service. Gilbert said that last summer when temperatures peaked, emergency room visits related to heat also spiked.

Studies have shown that by midcentury, this part of Florida could experience 88 days of the year, or roughly three months, with heat index temperatures at or over 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat index values represent what a temperature feels like to the human body when humidity and air temperature are combined.

For Gilbert, the projections show there is no time to waste.

This month, ahead of the heat season, her team is reaching out to renters and owners about affordable ways to cool their homes. As was the case last year, there will also be training programs for health care practitioners, homeless outreach workers and summer camp providers.

Gilbert said the biggest priority is reaching those who are most vulnerable and tailoring the message for different communities. That’s why efforts to build awareness about the dangers of extreme heat and how people can prepare are disseminated on the radio, over social media and through community channels in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole, she said.

Next month, her team’s outreach will zero in on what employers can do to keep their workers safe. The efforts have taken on new importance after Florida’s Senate last week approved a bill that would ban cities and counties from adopting requirements for mandatory water breaks and other workplace protections against extreme heat beyond what is required by federal law.

Labor organizations have said prohibiting local governments from setting workplace heat standards risks the health and safety of people who work in construction, agriculture and other industries that require workers to be outside.

Gilbert said the legislation is a major concern because construction workers are up to 11 times more likely to suffer heat-related illnesses during extreme heat events compared to the average person, and farmworkers are 35 times more likely. Educating those workers about their rights even without local heat ordinances will be a priority in the coming months, she said.

Despite the challenges, Gilbert said, she and her colleagues can still make headway in pushing for employers to follow general rules set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Part of that will involve educating employers about how a heat safety plan would improve productivity during the warmest months, boost employee retention, result in fewer worker’s compensation claims and have other positive economic benefits.

“That’s really where we have to double down,” she said. “We’re building our relationship with our OSHA office to highlight the good actors and maybe call out the bad actors.”

Navigating the legislative challenges is familiar to Gilbert, who previously was the chief resilience officer for the city of Miami. It’s also not lost on her that this week’s climate change conference is being hosted in a city that is often referred to as “ground zero” for the climate crisis in the country.

“Florida is kind of a political hot potato, and I’m used to climate being a political issue,” she said. “But we do what we can, right?”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com



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