Athens has just appointed a Chief Heat Officer to lower summer temperatures in the Greek capital.
Eleni Myrivili’s job doesn’t require any superpowers, rather, a studied approach to make cooling solutions available to residents struggling with extreme weather conditions of up to 43 degrees.
The climate crisis is injecting a new sense of urgency to Myrivili’s role.
Scientists are warning rising temperatures will have a devastating effect on cities much more than on rural areas. The thick urban network of asphalt roads, cement buildings and other similar infrastructures captures and releases large quantities of heat, creating the so-called ‘urban heat island effect’.
“It will be crucial to reshape our cities to minimise the urban heat island effect,” the Joint Research Center, the European Commission’s science and knowledge service, recommends in a 2020 report.
The Athens emergency
Following in the footsteps of Miami-Dade County which appointed a chief heat officer in late April, the Greek capital is the first in Europe to create a position dedicated to heat action.
It’s not by chance that such a pioneering move comes from the continent’s southernmost point.
“A 2018 study by the Newcastle Polytechnic shows that among 571 cities Athens will be one of the hardest hit by heatwaves and drought,” says Eleni Myrivili, Chief Heat Officer at the City of Athens.
“Climate scientists predict that in the Eastern Mediterranean area we will have a two-degree rise in temperatures by the middle of the 21st century; some 5.5 million citizens living in Greece’s 25 largest cities will be most exposed to the consequences of extreme heat conditions”, she adds.
“Cities are most challenged by heatwaves. They are the most dangerous places to be because of the high density of the built environment, full of grey and non-permeable surfaces that absorb heat during the day and release it at night so the human body doesn’t have the time to cool down. Cities have a higher concentration of residents, and more and more people are moving to cities. With the rise in temperatures, heat-related sickness and deaths are also set to increase, hitting older people the hardest”, the Athens Chief Heat Officer warns.
“No show for the cameras”
For years the focus has been elsewhere and the fight against rising temperatures hasn’t been made a priority, laments Myrivili.
“We’ve been talking about global warming for decades. There’s a lot of discussions about sea level rise but not much about extreme heat. Part of it is because it doesn’t create a big show, it doesn’t really take roofs off buildings. Heatwaves are a weird, silent and invisible monster that is very dangerous to humans,” says Myrivili.
Yet, if climate scientist predictions prove correct, it won’t be long before the cameras will start rolling on the dramatic effects of rising temperatures.
Above 34 degrees, mortality is set to increase by 3% for every 1-degree Celsius temperature, a 2017 report published by the Dianeosis research and policy institute in Greece warns, with crushing effects on the most vulnerable urban residents.
Risk groups include different sectors of the population, says Myrivili: “It’s not just those above 65 years of age. It’s also pregnant women, babies and small children who have trouble regulating their body temperatures. It’s all those residents living in informal settlements without any type of insulation against heat, so migrants living in camps or containers, but also anyone living in a crowded apartment without air conditioning as well as workers in menial jobs, both indoors and outdoors. More generally, we consider vulnerable anyone living in poor neighbourhoods with low-quality buildings and those living in socio-economic depressed areas, which overwhelmingly tend to have fewer green spaces.”
Rising costs and land erosion
It’s precisely on the poorest that the Athens Chief Heat Officer will need to concentrate her efforts. As temperatures will rise, the city’s upper and middle classes will be able to afford holidays in cooler areas or escape to their second homes. However, those struggling financially will be left in the city with air conditioning as the only available option.
“Heatwaves will increase the need for air conditioning and energy consumption with dire consequences on poorer communities because they won’t be able to afford to pay expensive electric bills. In Athens we already have high energy poverty levels,” Myrivili says.
The 2017 Dianeosis report also predicts that rainfall will decrease by 12% per year by the middle of this century.
“With climate change come flash floods that bring large amounts of rain over a short period of time. The rain falls so quickly that the soil isn’t able to absorb it. This phenomenon contributes to land erosion and depletes the soil where trees stand. These factors increase the risk of fires both in the city and in the pine tree hills around Athens,” Myrivili says.
One problem, three solutions
Against this backdrop, the Chief Heat Officer plans to embrace a multifaceted approach, bringing urgent heat-fighting solutions at different stages.
“The first and most important goal is to make the city greener and to create an infrastructure that would bring more nature and water into the city. This is a long-term project. We need to increase the number of parks in Athens that already provide shelter to vulnerable residents. Parks can help a great deal to bring down temperatures in the city; they absorb CO2 emission and retain water, they increase biodiversity, create oxygen, clean the air from microparticles so they also help to fight pollution,” Myrivili explains.
“The second solution will be carried out in the short-term. The plan is to give wider access to air conditioning to the most vulnerable groups and help them to lower temperatures in their homes during heatwaves. Air conditioning will play a role in this case. We know it increases outdoor heat and CO2 emissions, but it will be necessary to protect people from getting sick or dying. The third goal is to raise awareness among the local population and decision-makers. Heat is called ‘the silent killer’ because nobody sees it. It is a vague phenomenon so we’ll need to create awareness campaigns,” the Chief Heat Officer explains.
Heatwaves like hurricanes
One way to attract public attention will be to start treating heatwaves much like hurricanes.
“Together with meteorologists and climate scientists, we are considering naming heatwaves and categorising them like hurricanes. This will make events more prominent in people’s minds, turning weather phenomena into an entity. People are able to think of an event more clearly if they can call it by a name and media can more easily communicate it to their audiences. Categorising heatwaves will help authorities to set up risk management protocols,” Myrivili says.
A former Athens deputy-mayor, Myrivili comes equipped with hands-on experience in environmental issues. In 2014, she was responsible for the urban sustainability and climate change portfolio.
Today she remains an adviser to the Athens municipality and splits her time as a member of the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance of the Adrienne Arsht Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center in Washington, whose mission includes increasing people’s resilience to heat.
As an external advisor to the Athens municipality, Myrivili says she’s only assuming the role as Chief Heat Officer for a short period of time, but long enough to bring much-needed answers.
“There will be many challenges in my role, but what’s clear is that change will need to come in both directions: from the top down, with the government offering solutions to citizens, and from the bottom up. Residents will need to start applying pressure on city officials and demand change. They will also need to be better educated in order to protect themselves,” Myrivili says. “We all need to understand that this is a matter of survival: with climate change, many cities will no longer be liveable in the future, especially for poorer people.”
You can listen to the interview with Eleni Myrivili in our podcast: