Miami’s Chief Heat Officer knows the challenges of a climate-focused job in Florida

By | March 17, 2024

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – Jane Gilbert enjoyed the mild temperatures and gentle breezes of early March as she hurried between meetings.

She knows the heat will be there 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 has more than 2.6 million people in the southeastern tip of Florida. In 2021, she became the first person in the world to hold that title, and has since been joined by a handful of others in cities around the world dealing with the reality 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 each other and advocating for policy changes.

“I speak most often to the Chief Heat Officers in Phoenix and LA, but I’ve learned from Melbourne, Australia, I’ve learned from Santiago, Chile and from Athens, Greece,” she said. “Sharing that kind of resource is one of the greatest strengths and satisfying aspects of my job.”

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

Of particular concern are those who are most vulnerable as temperatures rise: children, the elderly, the homeless, people who work outdoors and lower-income communities.

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

Her efforts to reach those most at risk were crucial last year, when Miami experienced its hottest summer on record.

“In the 14 years leading up to 2023, we averaged a heat index of 105 degrees or higher six days a year,” Gilbert said. “Last summer we had more than 42 days, so seven times higher than the average.”

Many projections suggest that things will only get worse.

The planet as a whole experienced the hottest year on record in 2023. Climate scientists have said this year could be just as hot – if not hotter.

Gilbert recalled the kind of adversity she faced when she was appointed by people who saw heat as a way of life in this part of the country. Why would South Florida need someone to focus solely on heat?

“It’s always been warm here, but we’ve had 77 more days with temperatures over 90 degrees than we had 50 years ago,” she said. “That’s another level of hot.”

Often called the “silent killer,” heat kills more people in the U.S. each year than any other weather event, according to the National Weather Service. Gilbert said last summer, when temperatures peaked, heat-related emergency room visits also increased.

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

For Gilbert, the forecasts show that there is no time to lose.

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

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

Next month, her team’s outreach will focus on what employers can do to protect their workers. The effort has taken on new importance after the Florida Senate last week passed a bill that would ban cities and counties from adopting requirements for mandatory water breaks and other workplace protections against extreme heat that go beyond what is required by federal law.

Labor groups have said that banning local governments from setting heat standards in the workplace will endanger the health and safety of people who work in construction, agriculture and other industries where workers must be outdoors.

Gilbert said the legislation is a big deal because construction workers are up to 11 times more likely to suffer from heat-related illness during extreme heat compared to the average person, and farm workers are 35 times more likely. Educating these workers about their rights, even without local heat ordinances, will be a priority in the coming months, she said.

Despite the challenges, Gilbert says, she and her colleagues can still make progress in urging employers to follow the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s general rules. Part of that will involve educating employers on how a heat safety plan would improve productivity during the hottest months, boost employee retention, result in fewer workers’ compensation claims, and have other positive economic benefits.

“That’s really where we need to double down,” she said. “We are building our relationship with our OSHA office to highlight the good actors and perhaps expose the bad actors.”

Navigating the legislative challenges is familiar to Gilbert, who previously served as Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Miami. It is also not lost on her that this week’s climate change conference is being held in a city often referred to as ‘ground zero’ due to the country’s climate crisis.

“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?”

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