In December 2018, Moody’s warned that, of all European cities, Athens had the highest risk of its extreme heat posing a threat to its credit rating. The company cautioned: “Athens’ credit strength will be sensitive to climate change … [particularly] if heat waves were to depress tourism activity [and] negatively impact the city’s overall economic strength.”
It makes sense, then, for the Greek capital to become the first in Europe to appoint a chief heat officer, following Miami, which announced the first person to hold the position in the world in May. In an announcement Friday, Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis will appoint former deputy mayor Eleni Myrivili to fill the new position. She’ll be taking on a leadership role in Europe in the battle against heat, a “silent killer” that reportedly led to the deaths of 104,000 elderly people across the E.U. in 2018.
Among other reasons, Athens was chosen simply because it’s the hottest city in mainland Europe—”with the worst prognosis,” Myrivili says. A 2018 study reported Athens would experience the biggest increases in heat waves in all of Europe by 2050. Heat wave days, classified as those above 35 degrees C (95 degrees F), will increase by 15 to 20 degrees by 2050, and rainfall is expected to decrease. Athens experiences about 200 deaths a year from the heat, and for every degree the temperature goes up, the mortality rate from heat among those aged 65 and older increases by 18%. But, for a city heavily dependent on tourism, it was the Moody’s caution and the economic risk that was “a big wake-up call,” says Kathy Baughman McLeod, senior vice president and director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center.
The foundation’s Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance (EHRA) is rolling out this European edition of the chief heat officer position now, as the continent reaches its hottest time of year. Myrivili, already a senior fellow at the foundation and co-chair of the policy-working group of the EHRA, was a “natural” fit, McLeod says. As deputy mayor, Myrivili focused on climate change adaptation, and her latest role has been as the city’s chief resilience officer, in which she spearheaded the creation of Athens’ climate action goals for 2030.
Still, that was a broader climate role, when Athens needed to laser-focus on heat. “This will give me a mandate that will allow me to be more hands-on,” Myrivili says. As in Miami, the officer will find and implement solutions for extreme heat, and bring together all the necessary stakeholders, from municipal and regional leaders to the private sector. She also expects to have to raise awareness, because a lot of people don’t realize they’re at risk, even as the heat has become more unbearable. “It’s almost like it doesn’t exist,” she says. “People are suffering through it and they think, ‘Oh it’s not a big deal.'”
But Athens is an ancient city, with outdated infrastructure, making it more difficult to simply bring in new features. As resilience officer, Myrivili says she tried twice to mimic the cool pavements developments taking place in Los Angeles and Phoenix. But, the pavements wouldn’t bond properly with the street material. “The devil is in the details,” she says of the unique difficulty in Athens. “You really have to be careful about how you do it, and where you do it…to make sure that you don’t have adverse effects.”
As they’re doing in Miami, Myrivili will focus on helping the most vulnerable: the poor, and in the case of Athens, immigrants and refugees, who live in neighborhoods that are extreme urban-heat islands. “The people who did the least to cause this are suffering the most,” McLeod says. Air-conditioning in homes isn’t as prevalent as in the U.S., and 20% of Athenians are energy-poor, or unable to run sustainable cooling in their homes. (Energy costs are also rising by year, Myrivili notes.) The new officer plans to close that gap but also to improve “cool spots” around the city: indoor public buildings, like schools and libraries, where people can go to cool off.
There are plans in place to increase green spaces that offer tree canopies. And, another priority, in a particularly dry city, is water. Existing water features like fountains “seem to me like a 1950s solution,” she says, and she instead envisions installing a number of sprinklers, similar to those found in New York’s playgrounds.
In many ways, Athens has already been leading the way, having long worked with EHRA; in fact, in 2020, Moody’s upgraded the city’s rating, noting it was already making long-term investments in battling heat. Myrivili will work closely in sharing guidance with other European mayors, who are also looking to update their older cities with heat-adapting strategies; with Miami; and soon, with Freetown, Sierra Leone—the next city on the list to appoint a chief heat officer, which will happen in November, when the southern hemisphere’s summer starts to kick in.