News From a Changing Planet: Under a Yellow Sky

Posted inCreative Voices

How I’m thinking about the Canadian wildfires and the smoke that came to New York City.

I took this freaky picture from inside Whole Foods at 2pm on June 7, possibly at peak smoke.

As I write this, the air in New York is finally starting to clear; today, for the first time in several days, the sky was not dark at noon.

It has also been a little cooler these last few days. The ashes and smoke that have drifted here from hundreds of miles away reflect the light and the heat of the sun back to space, making it cooler, setting the sky to amber.

Taken alone, these passing phenomena might go uninterpreted. Unlike seers in Ancient Rome, we do not generally look to the sky for meaning or signs of the future.

There have been lots of articles and essays about how the smoke that swept across the Northeast from early, fierce Canadian wildfires is an indication of what the future will be like. Or no, actually, they’re a sign that the future is already here. It’s “the new normal.”

As with most things, it’s more complicated than that. (From now on, please refer to me by my middle name, “Actually”.)

A map of just how much hotter than normal it was across Canada in May. Credit Zack Lane via Twitter. Data via Copernicus.
A map of just how much hotter than normal it was across Canada in May. Credit Zack Lane via Twitter. Data via Copernicus.

It’s possible that there will be more wildfires in Canada – more frequent, more intense, earlier in the year – and winds will blow the smoke and ash towards the Northeast, and weather systems will trap that polluted air here for a few days. But there are usually wildfires in eastern Canada during the summer months. This year, they started earlier because of a combination of factors: May was, in much of Canada, about 8ºC warmer than average. It was also much drier, creating the perfect conditions for wildfire when lightning did strike or people did stupid things in the woods with fire. 

And there are more threats to northern forests, though they, too, are due to a warming climate. One of the first stories I wrote about climate change and the environment was the arrival of southern pine beetles in New York. Later, I wrote about when they made it to New England. One of the most haunting sentences a scientist has ever said to me was when Matthew P. Ayres, a Dartmouth College biologist who studies the southern pine beetle, described a future in which winters got so warm that southern pine beetles made their way up the East Coast into Canada and starting moving west, and met mountain pine beetles, which had worked their way through the American Rockies through the Canadian Rockies and eastward, leaving “a ring of dead trees around the continent,” which would be perfect kindling for more of these fires.

And it’s hot everywhere: there are wildfires in Siberia right now, and Puerto Rico is sweltering underneath a heat dome, just as El Niño, which exacerbates warming trends, arrived on Thursday. In April, NOAA scientists found that the surface temperature of the global ocean had hit an all-time high, beating this previous record set in 2016. And this is after three years of La Niña, which generally has a cooling effect.

But what I found disturbing (apart from the general condition of things) were the refrains of “New York has the worst air quality in the world right now,” said with surprise. I don’t think anyone was saying this with malice, but behind that phrase is the lurking assumption that it’s okay for other places on earth to have really bad air quality – we just take it as a given that Delhi or Beijing have really bad air, or we accept it because it’s their fault somehow, but when it’s in New York?! That’s climate change. 

And there are people, including those right here at home, who are always breathing in unsafe levels of PM 2.5, the main pollutant in wildfire haze. There is no safe amount of exposure to PM 2.5; in 2019, around 4.5 million people worldwide died prematurely from outdoor air pollution, primarily ground-level ozone and PM 2.5.

Around the country, Black and Latino children, and children living in high poverty areas, are diagnosed with asthma at higher rates than White children and children in wealthier neighborhoods. This is a result of the siting of highways, warehouses, and other polluting facilities in formerly redlined neighborhoods. 

In Mott Haven and Melrose in the Bronx, levels of PM2.5 were, on average, 10.0 micrograms per cubic meter, compared with 9.1 in the Bronx and 8.6 across the city. (The national limit on acceptable annual levels is 12 micrograms.) In 2017, about 17 percent of kids under 13 were found to have asthma in the Bronx, compared with 11 percent of kids in the rest of the city.

In 2014, the city of New York gave FreshDirect over $100 million to open a warehouse in Mott Haven, over objections from the community that they were already severely burdened by air pollution – from highways, Hunts Point market, two waste transfer stations – and that diesel truck traffic would add significantly to this. A collaborative study between South Bronx Unite and Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that the grocery delivery service added between 10 and 40% more traffic. In 2018, Amazon opened a “fulfillment center” in Mott Haven; it currently has six warehouses in the Bronx.

So when we order things from Amazon or Fresh Direct, not only are we contributing carbon dioxide emissions from the production of those goods and their delivery to us, but we are also adding to the pollution experienced by the people who live next to these mushrooming warehouses and “fulfillment centers,” who may be less likely to consume these goods and use these services. It’s worth keeping in mind that we are all connected, all the time, whether we’re aware of it or not.

And those connections exist all over the world. In my book, I wrote about the impacts of fashion. One of the stories that was especially profound to me was the impact of cheap cashmere production: demand for cheap cashmere in the US and elsewhere has meant a huge increase in the population of cashmere goats in China and Mongolia (which has warmed by more than 4ºF, compared to a global average of about 1.1ºF of warming). The growing goat population has put additional stress on the grasslands of China and Mongolia, destabilizing the drying-out soil and grazing on the moisture-absorbing plants. 

That has increased the size of the Gobi Desert by about 1,500 square miles each year (about the size of Rhode Island). More of the plains turn to dust, which then gets blown away by the winds which cross the country from West to East, bringing more dust to coastal cities and towns, which are home to factories and power plants that spew out pollutants like coal dust and particulate matter and other hazards.

A few days later, particularly when spring winds blow, that dust makes its way to the West Coast of the U.S., adding to the pollution burden there, from cars and trucks and electricity generation and airplanes and oil wells and everything else. A 2010 study  found that about 29 percent of particulate air pollution in the San Francisco Bay Area could be attributed to industrial activity in Asia — almost all of it from China, though some pollution also came from Vietnam and Japan. 

And much of what they are making in those factories in China or Vietnam – cheap cashmere included – they are sending to us in the US. By producing so many of our goods overseas, we have effectively outsourced our carbon emissions and the worst of our air pollution, but we still can’t be isolated from their effects, whether in the form of Canadian wildfires (ultimately a result of GHG emissions) or bad air quality in San Francisco (PM 2.5). 

What I’m trying to say is that it’s always all been climate change. As long as we have been burning fossil fuels, there have been greenhouse gases warming the atmosphere, drying out the forests in Canada, heating up the oceans, intensifying the existing extreme weather events – hurricanes, forest fires, typhoons, monsoons, droughts, floods. There have been impacts for us, both directly (though we may not have been able to see them) or indirectly, because what happens on one part of the planet doesn’t stay there. 

How the ocean is warming graph. In April 2023, the global ocean surface temperature hit a record high.

It’s not possible to always pay attention to the environmental justice issues in the U.S. and around the world. It’s completely reasonable and expected to be concerned and scared when you actually can’t breathe. The fires were far away from New York, and they were making things bad! At least when there’s a hurricane or a heat wave, we know what’s going on and we’ve seen it before. This was completely new, even as we’ve seen terrifying fires and toxic air benight the Western skies every year, for fire seasons that grow longer and more devastating. 

It’s just that…we shouldn’t be okay with dirty air and smog and toxic pollution anywhere! Ever! The more fossil fuels we burn and the more cars we drive the more PM 2.5 there is that gets into our lungs and brains and blood streams and the more our planet warms to unsafe levels. 

We are (indirectly) (collectively) responsible for the Canadian wildfires. That shouldn’t make us feel guilty – it should make us feel a sense of urgency. There is already a certain amount of instability and consequence that is inevitable because of how much carbon dioxide we’ve released into the atmosphere, but we should feel energized to do something because we know what happens if we do nothing: it doesn’t stay the same, it gets worse. 

And not just for me in New York, but for everyone, everywhere. 


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