Vast firestorms across a series of Canadian provinces sent huge plumes of smoke aloft, as I noted on Sunday. Those clouds have since drifted south, across the international boundary, and down across several American states, including the one where my family and I have been this week.
On Wednesday Ceredwyn and I were in Fredericksburg, Virginia to address the Reclaim Open conference (my blog post with all slides; full recording). That morning as we walked across campus the skies looked… wrong: extremely hazy, the sun dimmed as if behind layers of gauze.
When Reclaim ended, Ceredwyn and I headed out. We drove to the edge of town to eat a delicious meal at an Indian restaurant, then checked the skies. A kind of mist seemed to have enveloped us. You could stare at the sun, directly, for several seconds at a time.
My son took this photo Thursday morning, and if I zoom in a little you can see the haze right on the ground, blotting out the train tracks and sprawling across the horizon to the right:
Today blue has started returning to the cottony skies. AirNow.gov dropped the air quality status down to “Moderate.” I was able to eat lunch on our front porch, although an unusual headache has appeared in my skull since.
So much for the personal experience of myself and my family. Let me step back and consider what this might mean.
First, will this strange (to people east of the Mississippi) event get people thinking more ambitiously and seriously about air quality and public health? In a New York Times editorial Lindsey Marr offers this forecast:
If the pandemic was whispering to us about air quality, the wildfires are screaming to us about it. Add to that concerns about gas stoves and longer allergy seasons, and it’s clear we should be on the precipice of a new public health movement to improve the air we breathe.
Air pollution is bad for us, and we’ve known that for a long time…
Second, is this a story about climate change? There’s some debate about causality here, as a stretch of Canada reliably burns each spring, apparently. Michael Mann sees climate change worsening that pattern. Yet perhaps there’s a pedagogical benefit here, as Bill McKibben argues:
[W]e’re all lucky [in most of America]. Because this is what a huge percentage of the world’s people breathe every single day of their lives. In fact, we should probably—in our hearts if not our lungs—be grateful for a few days like this. They bring us much much closer to the lived experience of billions of our brothers and sisters.
Today in Vermont feels like a hundred days I’ve spent in New Delhi, in Shanghai, in Beijing, in Ahmedabad. Many of those were much worse: I’ve stood on Connaught Place and not been able to see the giant Indian flag flapping in Delhi’s Central Park, even though I knew if was a few hundred feet away at most.
That smoke doesn’t come from forest fires. It comes mostly from burning fossil fuels. But it’s all combustion, and it all does the same thing to your lungs. There are four and a half million children in New Delhi, and the estimate is that half of them have irreversible lung damage from breathing the air. Around the world, nine million deaths a year—one death in five—comes from breathing the combustion byproducts of fossil fuel. About a third of all deaths in Asia come from breathing fossil fuel pollution.
If the climate crisis is the great existential crisis on our earth, then smoke is the great daily crisis.
Elsewhere, David Wallace-Wells finds a similar pedagogical moment, based on comparing eastern and western American experiences:
Until now, if people in the green and leafy Northeast looked at arid Western cities covered in smoke from wildfires, they could say, that can’t happen here, thank God. On Tuesday, it did: For a moment, New York’s air quality was worse than it was in Delhi, the infamous pollution capital where average life spans are reduced more than nine years by particulates in the air. By evening, New York had registered the worst air quality in the world among major cities. And staying indoors may not provide perfect protection.
In such comparisons, Bill McKibben turns to hope:
Happily, they’re both [climate and smoke] caused by the same thing: burning coal and gas and oil. And even more happily, we know how to end it. We just stop burning stuff, and rely instead on the fact that there’s a large ball of burning gas at a safe 93-million-mile distance. We get all the fire we could ever want, and none of the smoke. Call it “external combustion.”
External combustion: what a good phrase.
I hope all of you reading this are safe. Besides fine particles, what reflections are you experiencing on the topic?