Dallas Urgently Needs a Chief Heat Officer
by Rose Jones, Ph.D.

In this commentary Jones ponders why Dallas, which sits on one of the worst urban heat islands in the country, does not have a Chief heat Officer. Cities are on the frontline of the climate crisis and are increasingly challenged to address an expanding array of complex, tangled, and difficult-to-solve problems. Climate problems involve great scientific and economic complexities, deep uncertainties, thorny ethical issues, and lack consensus for solutions and interventions. They are the type of problems that cannot be addressed with business-as-usual practices or on a piecemeal, ad hoc basis. Climate problems require new visions, new ways of doing things, and new types of relationships and engagement. And for this, Dallas is going to need a new position in city government. Dallas urgently needs a “Chief Heat Officer” to lead the charge against extreme heat.

This past summer was a harbinger for what’s coming – more intense, more frequent, and prolonged bouts of extreme heat. Situated in the middle of one of the worst urban heat islands in the country, Dallas saw temperatures that hovered at, or in some cases, broke long-standing meteorological records. The summer of 2023 will officially go down as the third hottest on record in the Metroplex; the second most number of 105 degree days; and the driest ever recorded. It will also go down as one of the worst summers for air quality. The American Lung Association recently gave Dallas an “F” for its ozone problem and ranked the metro area as the 18th most polluted in the country. This dismal air quality was further exacerbated and compromised by extreme heat and smoke from wildfires. Scientists warn that next summer will be even hotter as the effects of climate change intensify.

The impact of extreme heat is staggering, touching virtually every aspect of human life. Economists estimate that this summer’s heat cost Texas $9.5 billion and project that if temperatures increase by only one degree, this cost will skyrocket even higher. The summer’s brutal temperatures forced small businesses to close, crops to fail, roads to buckle, public rails to melt, tarmacs to implode, and schools to close. Although the toll on human life is still being assessed, it’s clear that temperatures were not the only records broken this summer. Heat-related hospital admissions spiked, ED visits increased, and the types of medical conditions treated were atypical, including new food and water borne illnesses spawned by heat-loving bacteria. Research shows that extreme heat increases rates of depression, anxiety, crime, domestic violence, substance abuse, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory conditions, and pregnancy complications, the sum of which have not yet been fully tallied.

Extreme heat is also a barometer for equity. Although heat affects us all, it does not affect us all equally. People of color and poor people are disproportionately impacted by heat, as are the elderly, children, outdoor workers, people who are pregnant, and people with underlying health conditions. Extreme heat is also a humanitarian issue. This summer, Texas prisoners, housed in unairconditioned units, fell ill and died in record numbers; mandatory water breaks were withdrawn from construction workers throughout the state, including Dallas; and medics were instructed to withhold water from those crossing the Texas/Mexican Border.

It’s clear that Dallas is at an extreme heat crossroads. The decisions made today will determine whether the city is livable, the air breathable, the streets walkable, and the quality of life desirable in the years to come. Struggling with similar challenges a handful of other extreme heat cities, including Miami, Phoenix, and LA, have created Chief Heat Officer positions to develop and coordinate heat action plans that are systemic, holistic, and human-centered. It’s time for Dallas to do the same.

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