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Q&A with Jane Gilbert: The rise of the 'Chief Heat Officer' and why it matters

As global temperatures rise, the role of the Chief Heat Officer is becoming increasingly important.

As global temperatures rise, the role of the Chief Heat Officer is becoming increasingly important. Image: Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Linda Lacina
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Jane Gilbert became the world’s first Chief Heat Officer in May 2021, and there are now more than half a dozen people with the same job title.
  • As global temperatures rise, it’s becoming an increasingly important role.
  • Here she explains what the role of 'Chief Heat Officer' involves and how it's changed her as a leader.

In May 2021, Jane Gilbert took up a new role as Chief Heat Officer, based in Miami-Dade County, America. She was the first person in the world to have that job title.

Two years on, there are now at least six Chief Heat Officers all over the world, from Sierra Leone to Australia, including a Global Chief Heat Officer.

But what exactly does a Chief Heat Officer do and why is it an important role? The World Economic Forum spoke to Jane Gilbert to find out.

How did the Chief Heat Officer role come about?

When Mayor Daniella Levine Cava appointed me Chief Heat Officer, she charged me with improving coordination and accelerating action on health to address the increasing health and economic risks associated with extreme heat.

First, I had to understand the challenge. In Miami, we are the tip of the spear in terms of impacts related to sea-level rise and hurricane risk, and we're known internationally for those risks. We did a series of focus groups and interviews in our most low-income communities about what their biggest concerns were related to climate change. And it wasn't sea level rise, it wasn't hurricanes. Extreme heat was at the top of their list.

We partnered with an international think tank, the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, who'd been doing a lot of work on extreme heat, so [the role] was born out of a conversation between our mayor and Arsht-Rock.

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What does your role as Chief Heat Officer involve?

It’s having a point person who wakes up every day and really thinks, what are the impacts that are facing people? We did a series of studies to understand which populations are most vulnerable and which geographies in the county are most vulnerable. What does it look like now, and what is it going to look like 30 years from now? Under what conditions are we seeing the most mortalities? Do we have the right advisory systems in place for when we hit those conditions?

Then we put together the different multiple stakeholders that need to be involved to address the solutions. We put together a task force and did a series of public workshops with involvement from the state health department, the National Weather Service, and partners in our 34 municipalities across the county, from our university sector, our community-based organizations, and we did an open call for people with lived experience in communities that were paid a stipend to participate.

I work very closely with our overall Office of Resilience which has people looking at sea-level rise and hurricane risk, carbon mitigation, water quality management and our mayor has a Chief of Equity and Inclusion. Her four main priorities are environment, equity, economy and engagement. So anything that we do has to integrate all of those four into its solutions.

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Who does extreme heat impact most?

Heat has been a silent killer. It hasn't been visible. I was surprised to see that we don't have as many hospitalizations and deaths coming from our elderly. We have it from outdoor workers. We have it from young school-age children, who are out there doing sports and camps, our homeless population and people on very low incomes at all age levels.

Outdoor workers can be up to 35 times more likely to have a heat-related illness than your average person, so they are a huge priority for our work in terms of education. In our heat season awareness campaign, we did specific videos and gave them access to resources.

We’re planning a series of round tables with employers, in the agricultural and construction industries, landscaping and property maintenance. We want to understand, particularly for the smaller companies, what resources they need to provide for accommodation.

Arsht-Rock commissioned a series of reports on the economic impact of lost worker productivity in different communities. For Miami-Dade County, it's an annual loss of $10 billion and it's expected to double by mid-century. So that is something we need to address.

A heat map of Miami-Dade County before its Chief Heat Officer was appointed.
A heat map of Miami-Dade County before its Chief Heat Officer was appointed. Image: Miami-Dade County.

What should cities be prioritizing to manage extreme heat?

Three main buckets of work need to be focused on: urban heat island mitigation, which is looking at tree canopy, vegetative cover, pervious surfaces, cool pavements and cool roofs.

A second big bucket is protecting our homes and building safer homes and shelters. So it's identifying residences that need energy efficiency retrofits and more efficient cooling systems.

The third bucket is public education, preparing and protecting people. We have a heat season campaign: from 1 May to 31 October. We reached our whole population multiple times through radio and television and outdoor media, specifically in the zip codes with the highest heat-related illnesses, with posters in all our public facilities.

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How have you changed as a leader?

I think taking on this role can be pretty humbling and I know I can't solve the problems myself. There's very little I'll be able to solve myself. So it's challenged me to think: how do I change minds, systems and hearts? That's the only way to scale some of the solutions we're looking towards.

How do I bring along different government departments and so they see this as part of their job? How do I integrate this and make it a part of everybody's job, not my job?

How does your background help you in the role?

Environmental science and urban community development are both systems-thinking disciplines. You have to bring in all the different sciences, economics, policy and think through things in a systems way. That's prepared me immeasurably for this role.

I've also worked in the corporate sector, in environmental responsibility. I've worked with non-profits and now, in the last five years, I've worked in the public sector. Having that sensitivity and understanding of what drives a non-profit or what drives a corporate person to act is valuable.

When I'm trying to come to the table and build these partnerships, I can understand what makes someone move towards action and what their pain points are, and what they might hold close to their chest before they can collaborate.

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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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