So it has come to this. A nation on its knees, struggling to breathe under extreme heat and choking smoke.
For millions of Americans this morning if you go outside, you will be be hit by a wall of smoke or unrelenting heat.
Both issues are dominating the news. Take the New York Times. Our climate crisis is splashed across the paper’s webpage. The paper is running live forecast maps of predicted “dangerous heat” and live maps of smoke and air quality.
The air quality in Pittsburgh right now is “very unhealthy”, and Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore are all “unhealthy”. With an AQI – or air quality Index – over 201 deemed very unhealthy, Pittsburgh’s is at 238. Chicago hovers just under the threshold at 199.
They are not alone. Air quality alerts have been issued for New York, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Delaware and Maryland, and parts of Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina. A third of the US population, from the Midwest to the East Coast, covering a dozen states, is under some air quality alert.
As millions breathe in air that can cause immediate or long-term health issues, it is especially pertinent if you are at risk from air pollution, be it pregnant, elderly, asthmatic, or very young.
The toxic smog caused by Canada’s catastrophic wildfires is due to spread today and tomorrow. It could linger over the weekend affecting the plans of millions of families heading off for the July 4th celebrations.
On Twitter, people express concern, shock and outrage:
Good morning from the climate crisis, where the AQI is currently in the 240s. ?? pic.twitter.com/uYDEkVhCIi
— Amy Turner (@amyturner) June 28, 2023
This. My nose-throat-lungs burn from 2 days of ~300 AQI on the Prairie, even with N95/indoors, but the toll on Canada, the Boreal Forest, nesting warblers, all birds & wildlife here & there, all life on Earth—this is anthropogenic ecocide. And as a Californian, it's also NOT new. https://t.co/b6WlJFX2xw
— Dr Red Bison, PhD ?? ???? ???? (@RedBison) June 29, 2023
Today's smoke from the wildfires in Canada. Worst air quality in the world in the midwest and eastern US. We are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and the last generation to do anything about it. pic.twitter.com/KMd6jaLFRg
— Dr. William J. Ripple (@WilliamJRipple) June 29, 2023
Smoke that traveled into Ohio is going to backwash into Michigan AGAIN tomorrow. Air quality will likely be worse than it was today. pic.twitter.com/aMay95SJvW
— Ellen Bacca (@ellenbacca) June 29, 2023
Meanwhile, temperatures in the South and South West remain in triple digits, with some 40 million Americans under an excessive heat warning. The heat is killing the vulnerable. At least 11 people in Texas and two others in Louisiana have died from dangerous heat this month
It is worth remembering that we are only in June. Canada’s fires are the worst ever seen. A staggering 31,000 square miles have burned this year, an area larger than South Carolina.
The reason for the fires is extreme heat. Alberta, the home of the dirty tar sands, saw average temperatures over 12 degrees higher last month than normal. There is nothing ordinary about that.
Experts predict it will only get hotter, and the Canadian wildfires could burn through the summer. The baking temperatures look set to continue too. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s seasonal outlook is predicting hot temperatures.
This is climate change in action. We know that human-caused climate change is making the near-record heat forecast in large parts of the Southern US, five times more likely. Climate change is “the elephant in the room”, worsening wildfires and their effects on air quality, John C. Lin, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Utah, tells today’s New York Times.
Climate change is both an ecological crisis.
Record heat waves – 62 million in the US under heat advisories.
Siberia: Hottest day in history.
Canada: worst wildfire season in history.
Antarctic: Sea ice extent lowest on record.
Japan: 100 rainfall records broken.
— Mike Hudema (@MikeHudema) June 29, 2023
But also a public health crisis.
Record-breaking heat wave in Texas.
NYC & Chicago recording the worst air quality of major cities in the world due to wildfire smoke.
First US cases of malaria in decades.
Climate change is the biggest public health threat humanity faces, and it's happening now. pic.twitter.com/GFMy3IpsDr
— Dr. Lucky Tran (@luckytran) June 27, 2023
Once again, it is the poor and impoverished who suffer the most. Workers in Texas are not even allowed water breaks working outside. Prisoners are passing out and dying in prisons.
There are signs of hope. Renewable power can provide the electricity to meet surging electricity demand during a crisis. Look at Texas. We know that as the heat dome circling Texas continues, and millions of residents increase air conditioning, its renewables are taking up the slack and providing power, with wind and solar hitting record levels yesterday.
And there are blueprints for how to cope with the heat and to protect the poor and vulnerable. In the summer of 2021, Oregon experienced a record heat wave, killing at least 96 people from the state. Countless others suffered without access to life-saving cooling devices. The state now has a “smoke season” every summer. It has become a “fact of life.”
So last year, in a pioneering act, health professionals, energy advocates, and environmental justice organizations came together for the Emergency Heat Relief Bill to help protect families from extreme weather.
The Bill provided millions for emergency heat relief solutions, like energy efficiency, as well as helping meet demand for air conditioning, heating and cooling pumps for people in need and portable air conditioners for renters. The Bill also gave money to local and tribal governments to host cooling and smoke shelters too.
This year Oregon went further and introduced “community resilience hubs” too. These community-led organizations and volunteer centres are being designed by the communities they serve. And they are now supporting people of color, low-income, rural, and disabled communities, who are always the hardest hit in times of disaster.
“The key to building resilience to a disaster is actually thinking about preparedness beforehand,” argues Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, who was one of the chief sponsors of the Community bill in the state. “Organized communities that have relationships are more resilient in the face of wildfires, heat domes, or whatever comes.”
Finally, Oregon has adopted some of the nation’s most protective smoke and heat rules for workers, which gives permanent rules to protect workers laboring in excessive heat or wildfire smoke. Texas and other states suffering under the heat down could watch and learn. Those suffering under choking skies could too. They could all learn from Oregon. Our climate crisis demands that we protect those in need the most. And empowering community resilience is a real start.