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The Climate 202

Crushed by heatwaves, more cities are hiring ‘Chief Heat Officers’

The Climate 202

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Good morning! Brady Dennis, a national climate reporter for The Washington Post, wrote the top of The Climate 202. 

Today we're wishing a speedy recovery to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who broke her leg while hiking in Shenandoah National Park on Sunday. But first:

🚨: “President Biden is considering declaring a national climate emergency as soon as this week as he seeks to salvage his environmental agenda in the wake of stalled talks on Capitol Hill, according to three people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private deliberations,” our colleagues Tony Romm and Jeff Stein scooped last night. (More on that below.)

Crushed by heatwaves, more cities are hiring ‘Chief Heat Officers’

This week, another heat wave is scorching parts of the South and the southern Plains. Across the Atlantic, the United Kingdom is bracing for dangerously high temperatures as a crippling heat sweeps across Europe. Drought and wildfires have again battered parts of the West, even as much of the summer lies ahead.

The relentless heat in some parts of the nation and abroad are in line with what scientists have said humans can expect in a warming world: more intense and frequent weather extremes. Searing heat is one of the most common, and deadly, manifestations of those changes.

Given that reality, a growing number of cities now employ a “chief heat officer” to focus on the risks posed by sweltering temperatures — and to seek opportunities for how to adapt. Miami, Phoenix and Athens are among the prominent places to hire for such a role.

Last month, Los Angeles followed suit, naming environmental and public health expert Marta Segura as the city’s first heat officer. She spoke with The Post about her new role, what changes are in store and how the main goal is to save lives.

The Climate 202: You were named the chief heat officer for Los Angeles last month, joining other folks who have that same title in Miami and Phoenix. It seems to be a growing job field in parts of this country. I wonder why you think that is and why it’s an important person to have.

Marta Segura: Extreme heat is the primary climate hazard for L.A. It’s having tremendous public health impacts. We’re having more hospitalizations and premature deaths when we have heat waves. And that’s been documented by UCLA. They just came out with a heat risk map that demonstrates where we have excessive hospitalizations and premature deaths correlated to heat waves.

Those are preventable deaths and preventable hospitalizations. The city of L.A. wanted to do everything that it could to ensure we prevented those deaths and hospitalizations. Number two, we want to ensure our infrastructure is safe. Roads can buckle as a result of extreme heat. Rails can buckle. We’ve made a lot of investments into our transportation system. So we want to make sure that our investments are long term.

And we wanted FEMA and the federal government to recognize that when extreme heat devastates not just the public health but the infrastructure, that we need those resources in order to make the city of L.A. safe for everyone. It’s gaining, I think, momentum and traction because we are now just beginning to document its health effects and its effects on infrastructure.

The Climate 202: What precisely does a chief heat officer do? What are the main priorities for you right now?

Segura: We’re in the process of creating a strategic plan, a key action plan … to bring to the radar what specifically we can do to create resilient, modernized, heat-resilient infrastructure. And what we can do to build awareness through community engagement — both with private businesses, nonprofits, hospitals and clinics, but with the departments across the region like the city of Los Angeles and L.A. County, too — to go to the root cause of these social vulnerabilities that create inequities, that make the pollution-burdened areas more vulnerable to extreme heat and these hospitalizations.

So it’s a multifaceted, multilayered approach to ensuring that we’re not just dealing with the Band-Aid, but we’re dealing with the symptoms.

The Climate 202: Who is most affected by heat? Who’s most at risk and in what ways?

Segura: It’s no surprise, but low-income communities across Los Angeles that live in pollution-burdened areas where there are preexisting health conditions like asthma, heart and kidney disease, autoimmune diseases — they are less resistant to extreme heat because their organs just don’t work at full capacity.

Where you have the combination of those factors, you have less resilience and more hospitalizations. You also have less awareness because traditionally these kinds of public health issues aren’t well communicated and conveyed by our medical system, our hospitals. They’re working more reactively than proactively. And public health is the opposite. Public health wants to be proactive, wants to prevent, wants to educate, to help people become aware of what tools they have at their disposal to plan and prepare in advance.

The Climate 202: One obvious response to extreme heat, and an understandable one, is to find ways to get people at risk to air conditioning, to cooling places. But are you also looking at solutions that don’t require using more electricity, like natural solutions that either help cool the city down or help people find relief from the heat that’s out there?

Segura: Oh, absolutely. We’re looking at our external landscaping, particularly our quality shade trees. And we have an equity tree canopy study where we’ve identified the lack of urban forest and the lack of shade trees. Instead of going for quantity, we’re going for quality and strategic targets, the areas that most need shade trees. We’re also investing more in street structures like sheet structures or shade arcades, as they are called. So more of our bus stops will have these shade structures that are combined with hydration stations.

Our Department of Water and Power at the city of Los Angeles, for example, has a program where if you commit as either a school or a city department or even a private facility to maintain hydration stations, they will place them there for you as long as your organization agrees to maintain hydration stations. So that’s another strategy that is just beginning to emerge so that water is accessible to everyone, publicly, everywhere.

The Climate 202: What keeps a heat officer up at night, especially now that we are into the summer months?

Segura: I think what keeps me up at night is those most vulnerable communities, especially our unhoused population — and knowing that there are never enough resources to provide. Not just housing, but emergency response to the needs of that community. 

The Climate 202: When you think about the ways that heat impacts Los Angeles or even California today, how do you think that’s going to change over time?

Segura: I think it’s a problem that if we don’t address it and don’t address climate change, it’s going to get probably exponentially worse. Heat waves are now six times more frequent than in the early 2000s. And if we have more heat, there is more drought. And if we have more drought, there’s less vegetation. And if we have less vegetation … it’s just a vicious circle. L.A., like other cities, is going to be less habitable than it once was.

Pressure points

Biden administration considering declaring climate emergency this week

President Biden is considering declaring a national climate emergency as soon as this week as he seeks to salvage his environmental agenda in the wake of stalled talks on Capitol Hill, according to three people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private deliberations,” our colleagues Tony Romm and Jeff Stein write.

The potential move comes days after Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said he wasn’t willing to support the passage of clean-energy spending ahead of the August recess because of concerns about record inflation. Since then, some members have called for another round of engagement with the senator, citing the fact that executive action alone may not be enough.

"While I strongly support additional executive action by President Biden, we know a flood of Republican lawsuits will follow," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said. "Legislation continues to be the best option here."

If an emergency is invoked, it could empower the Biden administration in its efforts to reduce carbon emissions and foster cleaner energy.

“Two of the individuals with knowledge of the discussions said also they expect the president to announce a slew of additional actions aimed at curbing planet-warming emissions," Tony and Jeff report. "The exact scope and timing of any announcements remain in flux."

Exclusive: Biden administration's slow pace to repair BLM has delayed climate goals, PEER report says

In falling behind on its promise to fix Trump-era systemic issues at the Bureau of Land Management, the Biden administration has derailed many of its own climate goals, according to a new report from the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility shared exclusively with The Climate 202. 

The report argues that in order for the agency to take ambitious action on climate change and biodiversity loss — such as sunsetting new fossil fuel leases on federal lands — the Biden administration must first address longstanding internal issues such as staff or resource shortages, company culture, and any legal or political shortcomings. 

According to PEER, the administration must follow five steps to boost the agency so that it can better help serve President Biden’s core climate agenda, including developing a long-term strategy to boosts staffing levels and adding state-level leadership positions dedicated to climate and land conservation.

“We hope that the agency will be fearless and push through the difficult politics to address the impacts of oil and gas leasing and livestock grazing,” Chandra Rosenthal, Rocky Mountain office director at PEER, told The Climate 202. “ BLM needs to staff up — even strong leadership cannot be effective if the agency doesn’t have the capacity to make the policy changes on the ground.”

Climate-focused start-ups launch coalition to boost responsible carbon removal

A group of more than 40 leading carbon management start-ups on Tuesday launched the Carbon Business Council to create an ethical standard for the growing carbon removal industry that focuses on tackling climate change. The Oath to Restore the Earth hopes to encourage companies to not only work to remove emissions, but also to mitigate pollution. 

“I believe in the crucial role that carbon management has in restoring the climate, but also recognize that carbon management alone cannot solve climate change,” the groups write in the oath, which other companies can sign onto. “I support efforts to reduce climate pollution, along with initiatives to protect communities from the impacts of climate change.” 

The new council comes just one day before the Energy Department’s Carbon Negative Shot Summit, which will explore low-cost, clean and innovative ways to store huge amounts of carbon as the nation races to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. 

Some of the founding members of the council, representing over $100 million in assets, include Aether, CarbonCapture, Nori and Vesta.

On the Hill

Donna Edwards hails climate record in House race

Former Maryland congresswoman Donna Edwards is touting her record on climate change and environmental policy in her Democratic bid to return to the U.S. House. On Tuesday, she is set to go head-to-head with Glenn Ivey, Prince George's County's former top prosecutor. 

As a congresswoman for the 4th District from 2008 to 2017, Edwards helped bring clean-energy spending to the transportation sector and advocated for sweeping action to cut greenhouse gas emissions and address environmental injustice. 

While Edwards has gained the endorsement of notable green groups and progressive advocates such as the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund and Friends of the Earth Action, Ivey is seen as more of a centrist, gripping the support of the New Democrat Coalition. However, Ivey's campaign spokesperson told E&E News' Timothy Cama in an email that “Glenn Ivey knows that climate change is the most pressing crisis facing humankind, and he knows it will be necessary to call for and mandate difficult sacrifices.”

International climate

Climate aid takes center stage at talks in Berlin

Leaders from more than 40 nations convened on Monday in Berlin to discuss the growing effects of climate change on the global economy ahead of the next United Nations climate summit, COP27, in November, Frank Jordans and Geir Moulson report for the Associated Press. 

In a video played during the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged countries to take swift collective action, warning that the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to avert catastrophic climate change was moving out of reach. 

“We need a concrete global response that addresses the needs of the world’s most vulnerable people, communities and nations,” he said. “We have a choice. Collective action or collective suicide.” 

In the atmosphere

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