The Current·Q&A

Extreme heat could make Athens uninhabitable, warns city's chief heat officer

Athens first Chief Officer of Heat, Eleni Myrivili, has been given the task of keeping people cool, and saving lives, in the face of climate change and rising temperatures.

Heat waves, wildfires 'a really devastating aspect of climate change,' says Eleni Myrivili

A wildfire rages behind a statue of Greek goddess Athena, in a suburb north of Athens on Tuesday. (Giorgos Moutafis/Reuters)

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Athens' first chief officer of heat is worried that climate change and rising temperatures could one day make the Greek capital uninhabitable.

"This is a really devastating aspect of climate change, extreme heat … and we've done very little about it," said Eleni Myrivili, who was formally appointed on July 23. Her job is believed to be the second of its type in the world, after a similar position was established in Florida earlier this year.

"We've been talking about sea level rise or flooding or other extreme phenomena, but very little about how to deal with heat," she told The Current's guest host Rosemary Barton.

"This is the time to talk about it and start changing cities."

Athens has suffered successive heat waves all summer, with temperatures reaching 45 C this week. Tourist attractions like the Acropolis have closed, and Athenians were warned to avoid unnecessary travel or work.

In Canada, Lytton, B.C. broke national temperature records three days in a row in June, hitting 49.6 C at the peak. The very next day, a wildfire burned most of the village to the ground. Wildfires have affected several other provinces, and hundreds of deaths have been linked to a week of extreme heat in B.C.

LISTEN | B.C.'s seniors advocate on how to prevent deaths in future heat waves

Myrivili's new role was created by the city alongside the Resilience Center of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation, a program working on solutions to climate change. She spoke to Barton about what it's been like in Athens this summer, and the safeguards she hopes to put in place for summers to come. Here is part of their conversation.

What does it feel to live in Athens right now? 

It feels breathless. It feels a little bit post-apocalyptic because we also have these fires at the north of Athens. There's many fires all over Greece right now because we had a summer that was extraordinarily dry.

It's a historical series of heat waves that have started hitting Athens and the country since early June, which is very unusual. Usually heat waves go at the end of July and into August. So we've had a summer that felt like it was a continual heat wave with just a couple of weeks of respite in between.

The Acropolis was empty this week, closed to the public due to a heatwave in Athens, Greece. (Costas Baltas/Reuters)

The other thing complicating the breathing part of living there is the wildfires happening on the outside of the city. Thousands of people evacuated, hundreds of firefighters out there fighting the fires. How is that affecting living there?

Last night, I went outside and met a friend in a cafe. We decided to go after 8 [p.m.] ... hoping that the temperatures would be a little bit less pressing. It was still extremely hot. But as we sat there at the cafe and chatted, ash that was falling on us. 

The skies had these grey and red clouds. We've seen these images from Sydney and from California with this ash rain. And it feels really apocalyptic. It feels horrible.

That sort of explains why they've created this role of chief heat officer. But tell me more about what that job is.

One aspect has to do with protecting the vulnerable populations of the city.… Right now we open up specific cooling stations for people to go to, but that's not enough. 

There's very few people that actually go to these stations. There's a big issue about transportation, like how do we get people there? There's a big issue about making them attractive to people to go and stay there for hours and hours. There's a big issue about the night, the evenings. 

We don't have the capacity to have beds for people to sleep in. So we have to make a whole series of policies that actually go and find the people where they are and make sure that they have access to air conditioning and to cooling their bodies down.

What kind of changes would you want to see to help people deal with this? 

During COVID, we had this programme called Help at Home Plus, where we went to old people that had problems leaving their homes to go shopping because they were super vulnerable. So we have this whole mapping of older people and vulnerable people, and we need to extend that and make sure that we have people actually checking with older people.

Another vulnerable category is anybody who lives in informal housing, or too many people in one house. We have, for example, immigrants that live in apartments in Athens, and there's like a lot of people living in one apartment and often they live under energy poverty, which means they can't actually turn on air conditioning or they don't even have air conditioning.

Then we have workers.… The government has put in measures to actually limit the hours for fair work for industrial workers. We know that there's a lot of injuries related to industrial and manual work. So all of this needs really good planning for next year, figuring out how we really are ready to move fast before the heat wave rolls in. 

During June's heat dome in B.C., a Canadian Tire in Vancouver posted signs to tell customers they were sold out of air conditioning equipment. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Athens is usually hot. Greece is known for heat. But are you afraid that at some point Athens, for instance, might become uninhabitable? 

Yes, I am. And this is why for years now I've been really kind of fighting to make sure that Athens is one of the hubs that attracts attention, attracts funding, has strategies for adaptation that are ready for financial tools to kind of be linked to them.

Politicians really have to start changing the way cities look. Otherwise, I am afraid that cities will not be viable, like Athens. We're really going to suffer a lot.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Lindsay Rempel.

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