Sunrise over NYC during Canadian Wildfire Smoke Event. Shot from Hoboken NJ. Photo: Brian Youchak, Shutterstock.

Love, Justice And Climate Change

Russ Vernon-Jones

A little more than two weeks ago, my adult daughter called me and asked what I was doing.  I told her I was working on a project in my yard. She said, “Have you seen the Air Quality Index (AQI)?” When I said I hadn’t, she said it was over 100 in my area in New England and suggested I stop working outside. When I looked up the AQI online, I learned that over 100 is considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” The next day it hit 163 near me, which is in the “unhealthy” range  for everyone. The average for this area is under 40.

Wildfire Smoke
As many of us are now aware, the elevated air pollution was from wildfires in Quebec and Nova Scotia, Canada. Climate change has led to abnormally dry, hot weather in much of Canada for months and turned normally lush forests into tinder boxes of fire danger. Over 160 wildfires were burning in Quebec with 114 of them “out of control.” Winds carried the smoke to much of northeastern United States, blanketed New York City, and reached as far south as North Carolina.

My Grandchildren In New York City
My biggest personal concern was for my grandchildren (ages 3 and 5) who live in Brooklyn. Apparently wildfire smoke can be particularly harmful to the lungs of young children. The Air Quality Index went over 200 (“very unhealthy”) one day and then over 450 the next.  (Anything over 300 is “hazardous.”) They still went to pre-school and kindergarten, but they wore masks outside and at home the family kept the windows closed and ran an air purifier constantly.

The adults told me they could taste the smoke in the air. The photos of yellow-orange sky and heavy haze in New York were spooky. If you think about millions of people, including children and adults with respiratory issues, breathing that air, it’s frightening.

Many Places In The World
While our experience in New England with this elevated air pollution was brief, I’ve read that we can expect more of it in the future. I hope that having any experience of wildfire smoke pollution can enable us feel a sense of solidarity with people in other parts of the country and the world. In recent years, wildfires and their noxious hazardous smoke have affected people in much of Canada, California and most of the West Coast in the U.S., and  in Australia, Brazil, South Africa and Southern Europe. Perhaps any skirmish with wildfire smoke can enable us to imagine the sense of helplessness that so many people have experienced as wildfire smoke polluted the only air they had to breathe.

Dangerous Air Pollution From Burning Fossil Fuels
I’ve also been touched reading about the experiences of travelers to Delhi, Dhaka (Bangladesh), Lagos, and Shanghai breathing (and tasting) the air in cities where the air quality is chronically bad, not from wildfire smoke, but from pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. Climate activist Bill McKibben wrote, “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 it was a few hundred feet away at most.” Climate reporter Somini Sengupta wrote that she was in Dhaka, Bangladesh recently where a few hours outside on a typical day made her eyes itch, her head hurt, and left her feeling “woozy.” What must it be like to live in these cities year after year?

Research at Harvard University et al. found that 8 million people a year die from air pollution from fossil fuels. The World Health Organization estimates that nine out of ten people in the world breathe air too polluted to meet international health standards, but most of the deaths occur in low and middle income countries. Making a global transition to clean energy and eliminating the use of fossil fuels would save these lives and improve the health of countless more.

Being Impacted By The Behavior Of Others
Most of us don’t blame the Canadians, of course, for the smoke that polluted the air of the Northeast U.S. last week. But some of us could tell that it felt different to be impacted by something from another country that we had no control over. Perhaps this can help us imagine what it must feel like to live in a low-income country experiencing the effects of climate change– catastrophic floods, droughts, and heat waves– exacerbated daily by the wealthy nations continuing to burn fossil fuels.

Rising Together On Behalf Of Each Other
Can we find solidarity with those people as well? Can we imagine everyone rising up on behalf of each other–demanding an end to fossil fuels– and nations everywhere supporting each other to create a global system of clean energy for everyone?

Russ Vernon-Jones was principal of Fort River School 1990-2008 and is currently a member of the Steering Committee of Climate Action Now-Western Massachusetts. He blogs regularly on climate justice at

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