As the size and scope of government in America grows, cities are rapidly inventing new job titles. Recent examples: the algorithms management and policy officer, the director of digital equity, and the building decarbonization incentives manager—all real jobs. Now add to that list what is likely to be the hottest (pun intended) new job title at city hall: chief heat officer (CHO), also variously known as the extreme-weather coordinator or chief weather-resilience officer. If you’re surprised by these seemingly ludicrous titles, you haven’t been paying attention to the extent to which mainstream media run alarmist stories of soaring temperatures and their impact on urban life. They’ve helped turn the CHO, a job barely a year old, into a new staple of local government. These newly minted bureaucrats will make it their business to enumerate the impact of heat on the local population—an effect certain to increase now that government is counting it—and seek ways to mitigate it.
One phrase that you’re unlikely to hear much from these new bureaucrats: “air conditioning.” Warm-weather-related deaths dropped precipitously over the last century around much of the industrialized world largely because what we fondly term AC became widely available. But air conditioning demands electricity, most often powered by fossil fuels or nuclear energy, two increasingly unseemly phrases within government circles in places like California, where cities are rushing to hire CHOs. So instead, it seems, the job of these new bureaucrats will be to find carbon-neutral solutions to summer in the city.
The rise of the CHO has just reached a notable milestone: heat officers from cities around the world recently gathered for an Extreme Heat Resilience Conference in Washington, D.C.—a place that, before the invention of air conditioning, was so uncomfortable in the summer that British diplomats assigned there could draw tropical-assignment bonus pay. Much on the minds of the CHOs assembled in Washington was a new alarmist report on the impact of heat on cities, which begins, “The world is burning. Unfortunately, that’s not an exaggeration.” (Actually, it is.) Consumed by the report’s warnings, CHOs plan a series of initiatives, one of which revolves around a popular new phrase in urbanism: “tree canopy,” referring to how much tree shade exists in a neighborhood. CHOs are looking to expand their cities’ tree canopies, though they will have to do so judiciously—studies show that tree shade is not evenly distributed in many municipalities, where poorer neighborhoods have apparently been shortchanged. In fact, Syracuse is spending $2 million in federal grant money to survey its tree canopy and increase natural shade in underserved neighborhoods, with the apparent intent of righting past shading wrongs.
CHOs are looking at other natural interventions of this sort. To do so, they are returning to the past—“looking backwards,” as they call it—to the age before air conditioning, when humans had to fight the heat through means other than AC. Athens, for instance, may try to “tap into the ancient Hadrian Aqueduct built by Romans in 140 A.D., a 12-mile tunnel system that runs deep in the ground, and use the subterranean network to help cool the city.” Here in the U.S., with no Roman-like aqueduct systems to exploit, CHOs are exploring other interventions like linking up with municipal communications systems to “increase public awareness of heat danger” and getting city agencies to “work together to prepare and address heat risk holistically,” whatever that may mean.
As with much government policy having to do with climate change, there’s lots of foolishness in all of this, including a hefty contribution from a credulous media. For one thing, heat-related deaths make up only a small percentage of climate-induced fatalities each year, though CHOs will tell you that heat deaths are “undercounted,” and that their mission is to find the missing ones. For most of the past five decades, moreover, the heat-related death rate in the U.S. has been declining, thanks largely to air conditioning, which has become widely available since then.
Air conditioning is so widespread in America today that 91 percent of all households have it—and many of those who lack units don’t need them because they live in temperate areas. Though many news accounts on rising heat threats point out that the poor are at greatest risk, there’s not much inequity in the dispersion of AC, either. Among households in the lowest-income quintile in America, about 85 percent have air conditioning, including more than 60 percent who enjoy central air.
The rise of air conditioning has brought many benefits, including opening vast new areas once thought inhospitable because of temperature. Phoenix, one of the nation’s most rapidly growing metro areas, “owes its existence as a modern city to air conditioning; a relatively recent invention,” as a local real estate broker explains. Though it was settled in the late 1860s, Phoenix’s population was a mere 65,000 as late as 1940. As AC became widespread, the city blossomed, reaching a population today of more than 1.6 million.
The biggest threat that Americans face from heat is not a lack of shade or poor communications and coordination from government, but rather the prospect of losing their AC because of rising energy prices and increasing power interruptions. Those are real problems that bad government policy is making worse. Residents of California, where cities like Los Angeles have rushed to appoint CHOs, have seen their energy bills soar and the dependability of their power grid fade thanks to misguided energy initiatives that have emphasized a too-rapid conversion from fossil fuels and nuclear power to still-unreliable renewable-power sources.
As a result, rolling blackouts and brownouts have become more common. Just this summer, California energy companies and public officials pleaded with residents to raise the temperature in their homes to 78 degrees during a heat wave because the state has taken so many fossil-fuel and nuclear plants offline in the last ten years that the grid doesn’t have adequate backup for extreme weather conditions. That shortfall has also pushed Golden State energy bills up to 70 percent above the national average. California currently registers the nation’s highest level of poverty when cost of living is considered, and energy prices are a big part of that burden on the poor. Increasingly, lower- and moderate-income families may not be able to afford the modern technology that matters most in beating the heat.
Recent studies have found that poorer urban neighborhoods of high density tend to be the hottest. At the same time, however, climate warriors argue that we should make cities even denser to reduce emissions. Meantime, policies intended to decarbonize the grid make energy prices so high and power so scarce that the actual tools that humans use to endure periods of extreme weather grow ever more expensive. Such incoherence and inconsistency have become features of climate policy in many state and local governments, threatening real harm, especially to residents of fragile neighborhoods. Not to worry, though. Your local CHO is coming soon to plant more trees.
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