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Fast Thinking July 21, 2022

How to beat the extreme heat

By Atlantic Council


It’s the new, broiling normal. Europe’s brutal heat wave this week—which notched the highest temperature ever recorded in the United Kingdom at 104 degrees Fahrenheit—has buckled airport runways and fueled scorching wildfires. It’s also racking up a death toll in the thousands. This is the reality of the changing climate—and it will only get worse from here. Even as they work to reduce carbon emissions, how can societies and individuals adapt to this extreme heat? Our climate-resilience experts bring the light rather than the heat.


  • Kathy Baughman McLeod (@KBMcLeodFLA): Director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock)
  • Eleni Myrivili (@leniomyrivili): Global chief heat officer for UN-Habitat and heat advisor for Athens, Greece
  • Larry Kalkstein: President of Applied Climatologists, Inc. and chief heat science advisor for Arsht-Rock

More than a hot day

  • The biggest hurdle for civic leaders trying to keep people safe is hammering home the dangers of these heat waves, Kathy says. “We have this nostalgia of summer that is long gone. It is not a hot day: It’s a health crisis, it’s an infrastructure crisis, it’s an economic crisis, it’s an equity crisis. And there are solutions, but we have to acknowledge it for what it is: deadly.”
  • Research by Arsht-Rock published last year found that heat kills more Americans than any other natural disaster and costs the economy $100 billion per year. And Europe is experiencing many of those same impacts, even though Eleni sees evidence of complacency in Greece. “In the south of Europe we have people who have been used to being in a hot climate so they don’t take heat very seriously,” she says.“It’s hard for them to recognize that right now we are talking about a different type of heat.”
  • But measuring the hazards of these heat waves, Larry notes, is about more than just numbers on a thermometer. He has been working on categorizing heat waves—as is commonly done now for hurricanes. Factors such as humidity come into play, but also the relative change in temperature. “Heat waves that follow cool periods are more dangerous than those that follow hot periods where we’re acclimatized,” he says. That means you are likely to see more deaths in heat waves that arise in May or June than those that occur in August or September.

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How to stay (relatively) cool now

  • Athens is part of the pilot program for heat-wave categorization. Eleni is anticipating highs around 100 degrees tomorrow, which is borderline but just short of a Category 1 heat wave because it is mitigated by wind and low humidity. “We are going to open the cool [air-conditioned] spaces but not do much more than that,” she says. 
  • Larry was quick to note that Category 1 heat waves are still “dangerous” while the highest level, Category 3, is “catastrophic.” And the best advice is to avoid prolonged exposure. “Most people consider themselves too healthy to be affected by heat,” he says, but that’s a faulty and perilous assumption. 
  • For Athens and Seville, Spain, which are participating in the pilot program, more severe heat waves result in stronger warnings from the government about the need to avoid working outdoors or other kinds of prolonged exposure, along with additional actions to check on the most vulnerable communities. In Athens, Eleni says she works closely with the Red Cross to serve those most at risk.

How to build for a hotter future

  • “Gray” infrastructure such as roads and buildings currently dominates cities. But city planners should more fully integrate “green” infrastructure, such as parks and forests, and “blue” infrastructure, such as canals and ponds, into urban design. “There’s so much infrastructure being built right now, especially in the Global South,” Eleni says. It needs to be “the right type of infrastructure for our new temperatures.”
  • The solutions can be surprisingly low-tech and low-cost. Consider Freetown, Sierra Leone, where Chief Heat Officer Eugenia Kargbo is installing reflective shade covers over three open-air markets to protect vulnerable women selling fruits and vegetables in the heat.
  • In the United States, President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced $2.3 billion in funding for local communities to prepare for heat waves and other natural disasters. And there’s bipartisan support for a heat-wave categorization system in California. “There’s some small evidence that this is transcending the politics” around climate change, Kathy says. “It’s hot. You can’t deny that the pavement is buckling and that airplanes can’t fly starting at 120 degrees… People are living it.”

Watch the full briefing

Further reading

Related Experts: Eleni Myrivili

Image: A boy refreshes himself in a fountain during hot weather as a heatwave hits Europe, in Brussels, Belgium on July 19, 2022. Photo via REUTERS/Yves Herman.