Why the U.S. Is Backsliding on Clean Air

New York City used to have deadly smog. Pittsburgh had bad air. Also Los Angeles.

It got a lot better. Until it didn’t.

Wildfire smoke has reversed the gains this country made in cleaning up its air. The latest example came this week, when wildfire smoke from Canada gushed down across the border, filling the sky with toxic, soupy haze in the Northeast, including New York City, where I live, before wending down to the South and West on Thursday.

Marshall Burke, a professor in the Doerr School of Sustainability, and his colleagues at Stanford University found that June 7 was “the worst wildfire day on record in the U.S. since 2006.” The day before ranked the fourth worst. In between were Sept. 13 and 14, 2020, when California and Nevada were engulfed in wildfire smoke.

Burke and his team based their rankings on the number of people exposed to toxic smoke.

It’s part of a backsliding trend in the United States.

Burke said he would have to update an eye-popping study that he and his colleagues put together in September.

That study, which was covered in The Times by my colleague Mira Rojanasakul, who created these maps and charts, found a 27-fold increase in the number of Americans exposed to an extreme smoke day between 2006 and 2020. That was principally in the Western United States, where hot, dry conditions, supercharged by climate change, have fueled catastrophic wildfires in the last few years.

This week, we in the Eastern United States tasted that smoke in our throats. Many other places could, too, in the coming years as climate change makes forests hotter and drier and more ready to burn.

Mira told me that as the smoke engulfed New York City, she was reminded first of the impossibility of escaping wildfire risk no matter where you live. Then, she was reminded of something that Tarik Benmarhnia, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, told her. “At the end of the day, the best type of policy is to proactively prevent these big fires in the first place,” Benmarhnia said.

How did the United States clean up its air in the past?

Barely a half-century ago, the air was terrible in American cities because of toxic substances that came out of industrial smokestacks and the tailpipes of cars. I grew up in Southern California and I remember its bad smog days.

Then came regulations. Citizens groups pushed lawmakers to enact rules to clean up industrial pollution. The Clean Air Act came into force. It actually cleaned the air. We have the privilege of taking that for granted. We also have a chance to learn from it.

How do you regulate wildfire smoke? It’s different. But not impossible.

Two immediate things can be done to limit the likelihood of wildfires.

First, says Burke, prescribed burns and mechanical thinning. Both can reduce the chances that fires will spread.

Second (and this is tricky), not counting the pollution from prescribed burns as human-made pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency counts wildfire smoke as natural pollution, but smoke from prescribed burns as man-made pollution. Burke says that should change.

Finally, there’s the driver of wildfires: the fossil fuel emissions that have heated up Earth’s atmosphere and raised the risk of extreme weather events like this.

Simply put, the burning of coal, oil and gas is driving these conditions.

People elsewhere choke on dirty air every day.

While air pollution decreased in the United States, it has not gone down in places like Delhi, Dhaka, Cairo, Lagos and many others.

I was in Dhaka recently on a reporting trip. Traffic was so bad that I resorted to taking auto rickshaws, which were better at zigzagging between cars but brutal for my lungs. In the heat and humidity, which made it feel close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, I was woozy after a few hours outside. My eyes itched, my head hurt, and I was freshly reminded of my good fortune. I could leave in a few days. But not the women and men who were going to work in hot buses, or the vendors weaving through traffic selling water, or the bicycle rickshaw pedalers who were out on those streets for hours every day.

As I write this, at 3 p.m., the air quality index is 152 in New York City (considered unhealthy) and worse in Dhaka, where the A.Q.I. stands at 171 at 1 a.m., when there’s not much traffic on the road. This is fairly common for Dhaka. There’s no wildfire there. It’s just the unremarkable and yet catastrophic consequences of burning oil and gas.

According to a study published in 2019 by public health researchers, one in five deaths globally was attributable to fossil fuel pollution.

Wildfires foul the air: Smoke from hundreds of fires in Canada billowed deep into the United States, forcing millions to stay indoors and endangering the health of people in both countries.

A preview of climate extremes: Scientists have long warned that global warming will increase the chance of severe wildfires and heat waves, but North America remains unprepared.

For others, it’s just a normal day: The hazardous pall has given people in the northeastern United States a sense of what daily life is like in some of the most polluted cities in the world.

Just how bad is it? This chart shows that New York City’s air this week was historically bad, even compared with places around the world that generally have much more pollution.

When will it end? Sooner for the Northeast. But the smoke from wildfires was expected to spread south and west across the United States. And to Norway, too. Here is a map.

More firefighters are sought: The wildfires in Canada renewed calls for a national firefighting service there. Now, wildfire emergency response management is handled locally.

Where do Republicans stand? Many conservative presidential candidates acknowledge that climate change is real, but they largely reject policies that would slow it.

The vaquita porpoise is one of the most endangered species on the planet. Only about 10 of them are thought to remain. But a scientific survey this spring in the Gulf of California showed that these mammals are hanging on. That might be thanks, at least in part, to new conservation programs.

Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill, Chris Plourde and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward. This was a special edition, so we won’t be coming to your inbox on Friday. We’ll be back on Tuesday.

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