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Athens just named a chief heat officer. Should your city do the same?

August 28, 2021, 10:00 AM UTC

Eleni Myrivili has always disliked air conditioners. For years she avoided installing one in her Athens home, located near the Acropolis, preferring to cool down with fans instead. She doesn’t like the chilled air they produce, she says, and the impact they have on the environment.

But a few weeks ago, Myrivili, the recently appointed chief heat officer at the Athens city council, wilted in the Greek summer, one of the hottest on record. “My husband and I caved in, and we bought an air conditioner for the bedroom. It got too hot and I couldn’t sleep at night.”

As heatwaves pick up in the Greek capital, testing the limits of the ancient city of 3.7 million, residents are adopting new behaviors to beat the scorching heat, and authorities are hunting for fresh tactics to keep the populace from overheating.

Climate change is sending temperatures soaring across the globe, making the unbearably hot summer a new reality in cities like Athens. At the same time, officials are scrambling for ways to manage extreme weather conditions to minimize the impact in communities. More and more, they’re turning to specialists for help.

In July, Athens mayor Kostas Bakoyannis mandated Myrivili with the task of focusing on just about everything related to heat and the city.

A first for Europe

An expert on rising temperatures and urban resilience issues, she had served as deputy Athens mayor under the former administration. An Atlantic Council Senior Fellow and a consultant for the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundaton Resilience Center, Myrivili is now Europe’s first chief heat officer.

A key part of her work will include raising awareness for the problems associated with extremely weather, and coordinating with all levels of government on how to best use natural means, such as trees, to complete cooler urban projects. She has plenty of experience in that. When she was deputy mayor she focused her efforts on expanding the city’s green spaces and protecting its most vulnerable populations—the elderly and poor—from the ravages of a changing climate.

This time around, the idea is to help avoid a meltdown in Athens when alarm bells ring. Soaring heat often prompts construction work to stop and archeological sites to close in summer periods, though the city generally limps along—up until now, that is.

A tourist walks through a mist of water sprayed outside a café in Athens in July 2021. This summer was a brutal one for residents and tourists as temperatures regularly climbed above 40 degrees centigrade.
Angelos Tzortzinis—picture alliance/Getty Images

Public health officials have increasingly been sounding the alarm around the impact extended bouts of heat can have on people’s health and well-being. Apart from triggering cardiovascular and respiratory disorders, brutal heat spells can also lead to increased anxiety, depression, suicides and drug abuse.

“Heatwaves are now kind of vague, and they just loom,” says Myrivili. “We need to be clear and plan for what happens when the temperature hits 30 degrees (Celsius), when it hits 35 degrees, when it hits 40 degrees. This way, everybody will know what they are supposed to do,” she adds.

2021: a summer like no other

Myrivili’s appointment came on the heels of a memorably scorching hot summer in Athens.

Temperatures throughout June and July regularly hovered around 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit), while on August 3, the thermometer in northern Greece hit 47.1 degrees Celsius, one of the highest ever seen in the country.

The hot weather created nightmare conditions for fire fighters, as wildfires destroyed more than 200,000 acres of forest land around the country—another negative record set this summer.

In early August, fires to the north and west of Athens created a massive cloud of grey smoke that covered the city with ash, and residents were advised to stay indoors. Dozens of people sought medical aid at hospitals for breathing problems.

Experts say this is a taste of things to come. 

“It doesn’t mean that every summer will be like this, but we are seeing what summers will look like in the future,” Kostas Lagouvardos, research director at the National Observatory of Athens, tells Fortune.

“It doesn’t mean that every summer will be like this, but we are seeing what summers will look like in the future,” says Kostas Lagouvardos, research director at the National Observatory of Athens.
Andreas Solaro—AFP/Getty Images

Athens is not alone in experiencing this new reality. In Sicily, it reached 48.8 degrees in mid-August, an unofficial record for the hottest day ever recorded in Europe. Around the Mediterranean basin, wild fires broke out across Italy, Greece and Turkey. Meanwhile, fatal flooding socked large parts of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Heat risk = credit risk

The Greek capital is particularly poorly equipped to handle a rapidly changing climate. According to Moody’s, Athens has the highest risk of extreme heat among all European cities, posing a risk to its credit ratings. The country is also still reeling from a ten-year economic crisis that was just ending when the pandemic hit early last year.

The severe economic downturn is over, but has left deep scars. Nearly one in four homes in Greece suffer from energy poverty, which means people cannot afford to sufficiently heat or cool their homes. That is one of the highest rates in Europe.

Meanwhile, the average age of the trucks and buses stuck in Athens’ notorious traffic is around 20-years-old, severely worsening air quality, the latest data from the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association says.

In July, the European Commission, decided to take Greece to court for failing to do enough to improve Athens air quality. The big culprit: the elevated levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) produced mainly by diesel vehicles and industry.

Mixed reactions

The scientific community has largely welcomed Myrivili’s appointment, but there are plenty of critics, too.

Nasos Ilioupoulos, the mayor’s main political rival from the left wing Syriza party, fears that the appointment of a chief heat officer is little more than a communications exercise. 

He argues that more weight should be given to fighting the root of Athen’s climatic problems, such as introducing more bike paths and stepping up the city’s recycling methods. “We are heading in the wrong direction,” he tells Fortune.

One area everyone can agree: more needs to be done to heat-proof the city. Efforts so far to make Athens a greener city aren’t keeping up with the environmental crisis. 

Athens faces a bleak future unless it can mitigate its climate problem. If air quality were to deteriorate further, the fear is a future with fewer tourists and an exodus of Greeks to live and work elsewhere.

Myrivili understands the odds. “We need bigger, more ambitious plans. We are just at the beginning,” she says.

Meanwhile, experts say that the climate crisis is entering a fragile new phase. And that makes the creation of a position like a chief heat officer so important, they say, particularly if it’s accompanied by a public education program on how to survive a changing climate and minimize the risks.

In recent years, a number of US cities, such as Los Angeles and Houston, have also hired experts to help combat the impact of extreme weather.

“From now on, it is not enough to just provide weather forecasts. There is a need to provide forecasts and information on what the impact of this weather will be,” says Lagouvardos.

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