Unfiltered: We can see, smell & feel climate change all around us

Extreme heatwaves, persistent drought, year-round fires, are manifestations of climate disruption from global heating. It’s time to aim for a far better future.

Wildfire smoke is again blanketing North America. Axios reports:

Wildfires were burning across more than 768,000 acres of land in 12 western U.S. states, and over 500,000 acres in Canada on Sunday amid another searing heat wave… Evacuation orders and warnings were issued in states including CaliforniaOregonIdaho and Montana, as well as British Columbia. Smoke from the fires was bringing hazy skies to large parts of the western and central U.S.

The result is serious deterioration of air quality across the continent. Not only are sunsets hazy, but that haze effect, dimming the Sun, corresponds to high amounts of small particulate matter in the air, including at ground level.

No-filter view of wildfire smoke blocking the Sun’s light. The red Sun in a gray dusk sky is an effect of degraded air quality that threatens human health.

As the effects of global heating set in, bigger, longer, more widespread wildfires are making unhealthy air more common. State authorities are increasingly seeing major air quality hazard events due to fires taking place in other states.

The Deseret News reports:

Wildfires in Idaho, California, Oregon and Washington brought smoke into northern Utah over the weekend, resulting in hazy skies and unhealthy air quality for sensitive groups, according to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency:

Smoke contains carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, particles, hydrocarbons, other organic chemicals, and nitrogen oxides. But the pollutant that’s the most concern is fine particles. Those are the ones that seem to do the most damage to the lungs and the heart.

The extent of the fires, and of the massive smoke plumes, is historic, and the duration of these extreme events is becoming longer.

The AirNow Fire Map—from Esri, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administraiton, the US Geological Survey, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other partners—shows the increasingly widespread wildfire smoke hazard, and the impact on ground-level air quality. The crisp Rocky Mountain air people expect to be pollution free is, at present, full of particulate pollution.

That all of this is happening in the middle of a pandemic emergency involving severe acute respiratory illness only makes clearer the threat to national wellbeing. What were formerly isolated wildfire pollution events are now compromising respiratory health and leading to other consequences, creating an added base of vulnerability to novel pathogens like SARS-CoV-2.

According to the American Lung Association:

researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute also looked at the impact of long-term exposure to fine particle pollution on COVID-19 death rates. They examined 3,089 counties, accounting for 98% of the United States’ population. The researchers found that just a small increase (1 microgram per cubic meter) in long-term average exposure to fine particle pollution is associated with an 11% increase in the COVID-19 death rate for that county. 

As the LA Times reports, in a story about California’s record-breaking 2021 fires:

“The exceptional fire weather this year and in recent years does not represent random bad luck,” said Jacob Bendix, a Syracuse University professor who specializes in pyrogeography, or the study of wildfire distribution. “It is among the results of our adding carbon to the atmosphere — results that were predictable, and indeed that have been predicted for decades.”

Earlier this year, asset managers responsible for $70 trillion in wealth committed to align their holdings with net-zero carbon pollution, on timelines sufficient to limit global heating to 1.5ºC. Science suggests at least 50% reduction in overall global climate pollution by 2030 is required to limit global heating to 1.5ºC or less.

This unprecedented network commitment to net-zero is also supported by wider networks of banks, financial institutions, businesses, and nation states committing to zero out climate pollution by mid century. This is happening, because the threat of resilience failure is rising, and costs from climate impacts will soon be unmanageable.

1.5ºC is still hotter than where we are now, so we need to take stock of the level of uncontrollable harm already happening. The already pervasive and compounding effects of climate emergency are evident and need to be dealt with in an evidence-based and ambitious way. Delay will only deepen the crisis and add to the steadily mounting risk of systemic failure in finance, food, ecosystems, and water.

The blanket of toxic smoke covering North America is the result of climate pollution, or rather climate-forcing carbon pollution. But it also constitutes a compound impact: Nature generating pollution as a result of what carbon pollution has done to Nature. This is the definition of an unsustainable situation—unhealthy, ill advised, and too costly to allow to go unchecked.

We can still avoid the worst of climate disruption, but we must act swiftly, decisively, and with a commitment to building resilience as we go.

For new thinking about how we can align policy, finance, livelihoods, and the everyday rights of everyone, read the Resilience Intel Principles for Reinventing Prosperity.