By Lauren Anderson, Director of Programs, Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania

Extreme heat is among the deadliest of natural disasters, claiming upwards of a quarter million lives each year. It is also the tinder for mega droughts, wildfires, and storms, which present additional threats to public health and wellbeing. Although the international community has known this challenge to human security was coming for decades, we remain unprepared. Heatwaves are a public health crisis for which there is no coordinated global response – and that needs to change.

Recent headlines are illustrative. Last year, heatwaves crippled Argentina’s energy grid, nearly melted bridges in the UK, and dried up parts of the Yangtze, interrupting hydropower and shipping. India, the world’s second largest grain exporter, stopped exports of its heat-stunted wheat crops. France, Germany, Spain, and the UK are believed to have lost 20,000 people to heat-related deaths in 2022.

To keep the opening scene of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future from becoming reality, the global policy community must take steps to prepare for and protect people from the heatwaves of tomorrow. One path for action could be through a Multi-partner Trust Fund (MPTF). Housed within the UN Development Programme (UNDP), an MPTF could bring UN agencies, like UNDP, the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), among others, together with donors, Member States, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to advance global coordination and local action. An MPTF could finance urgent priorities, namely data collection, communications and awareness building, and knowledge sharing.

As a first priority, we need to fill an enormous data gap on heat. In the field of public health, heat-related illness and mortality are often not recorded. Industry as well as labor lack the information they need to make informed occupational health and safety decisions. The list of data needs is long, and even longer in disadvantaged communities and countries, which are often at higher risk of heat stress. Multilateral efforts are underway to close some data-related and knowledge gaps. For instance, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), with the Red Cross (IFRC), recently released reports on heat. UN-Habitat has appointed a Global Chief Heat Officer. The UN Climate Change Conference, an obvious platform for heat action, hosted several events at its margins in 2022. The Systematic Observations Financing Facility (SOFF), another MPTF, is financing improved climate observations.

The UN family of organizations needs to bring these initiatives together under a unified platform that collectively monitors and assesses heat impacts. This would provide a much-needed space to standardize data collection and analysis and help us understand how wet bulb measures (heat and humidity together), combined with cultural and labor norms, and many other factors, influence what, when, and where heatwaves will be dangerous. Policymakers at all levels can use this information to propel decision making and inform the public on what they need to do to stay safe. For instance, improved data might spur national governments to recognize heatwaves as a natural disaster on par with cyclones and release resources accordingly. It may also help underwrite efforts to name and categorize heatwaves or heat seasons, which the cities of Seville, Spain, and Miami-Dade, Florida, respectively, have undertaken.

Finally, a fund with global buy-in could be a hub for sharing successful initiatives and building partnerships and capacity. As an example, the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock) has developed a menu of heat resilience solutions, including an algorithm for naming heatwaves (i.e., Zoe in Seville), and a program placing Chief Heat Officers in seven municipalities. France has a heat-health warning system that works across municipal agencies. Phoenix, Arizona, US, is employing a variety of new technologies, like cool pavements, while cities in the Middle East have long used wind towers to create ventilation in cityscapes. It would be excellent to have a global forum to evaluate, finance, and share innovations and technologies that will spur heat action more broadly.

Ultimately, we cannot take our eye off the long game, which is the mitigation of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that drive planetary warming in the first place. At the same time, however, we need to put in place a global infrastructure to take down climate change’s most insidious hitman – extreme heat.

This piece builds on the Perry World House spring colloquium and workshop report, ‘Living with Extreme Heat: Our Shared Future.’