What We Can Learn From the Canadian Wildfires

What We Can Learn From the Canadian Wildfires

What We Can Learn From the Canadian Wildfires

The smoke that blanketed the US Northeast was not incidental or anomalous but yet another manifestation of accelerating anthropogenic climate change.


In September 2020, West Coast wildfires spread smoke that blackened the skies of the East Coast. I reported on the phenomenon for Inside Climate News, an exercise in detachment from the personal stakes of the issue as a New Yorker that allowed me to focus on the bigger picture. But less than three years later, such detachment feels impossible.

Like many of my fellow New Yorkers, I spent last week obsessively checking the air quality index on my phone’s weather app and live updates from the New York Times as hazardous smoke from the Canadian wildfires blanketed skies across the Northeast. Photos of the burnt-orange sun overwhelmed social media platforms. Politicians were quick to express concern, but failed to connect the conversation to the global climate crisis.

The out-of-control Canadian wildfires are not incidental or anomalous: they are a manifestation of accelerating anthropogenic climate change. The crisis has led to consistently record-breaking and drought-producing heat that makes such wildfires much more likely than in the past. With that reality in mind, the current moment offers a number of key takeaways that we should not forget even after the haze has lifted.

Climate change doesn’t care about borders

As then–UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stated in 2015, “Climate change carries no passport and knows no national borders.” For anyone who previously doubted the global nature of the climate crisis, the spread of Canadian wildfire smoke makes it glaringly obvious that the climate crisis will not be contained to single countries.

The smoke was only one manifestation of the growing cross-border impacts of the climate crisis, including forced displacement and consequent migration, which will affect up to more than a billion people within the next few decades.

Climate solutions, therefore, must cross borders, too. Wealthy, developed, and historically polluting countries like the United States must not only increase climate action within their own borders but also support and finance climate mitigation and adaptation in developing and low-emitting countries.

Climate change is a public health crisis

Canadian wildfire smoke was far more than just an eyesore on a New York City or Philadelphia skyline. Climate change jeopardizes the most basic tenets of public health. While the levels of air quality in the US Northeast are dangerous for everyone, they pose a particularly high risk for people with preexisting respiratory, heart, and other immune system and health conditions.

The World Health Organization calls climate change “the biggest health threat facing humanity.” Climate change makes extreme heat, drought, and flooding more frequent, all of which can cause injury and even death; harms people directly through intensified disasters; and drives the spread of infectious diseases, increasing the chance of global health crises like the Covid-19 pandemic.

Health is a fundamental human right. In the last few years, dozens of human rights-based climate cases have been litigated in courtrooms across the globe. 

Climate change affects everyone, but not equally

For many Americans outside of the West Coast, experiencing the effects of hazardously poor air quality this past week was a relatively new experience. For a day, New York City overtook New Delhi as the world’s most polluted city.

Yet, for people in New Delhi and many South Asian cities, hazy skies and harmful air are a daily reality. Fossil fuel pollution is a major contributor to such air quality, causing one in every five deaths worldwide.

US climate action must support a renewable energy transition that benefits communities most affected by fossil fuel pollution globally. It’s also essential to recognize that such stark disparities in impact from the fossil fuel economy—products of environmental racism and climate injustice—also exist domestically, as historically marginalized communities suffer disproportionate exposure to air pollution. Unhoused people, too, are uniquely vulnerable to such pollution.

The time for action is now

Research from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications shows that an increasing percentage of Americans believe the science of and are concerned about the effects of anthropogenic climate change. Yet these attitudes must transform into action at every level of government.

Already, US climate action organizations are using the current moment as an opportunity to put pressure on state and national policy-makers. Environmental justice groups have called on politicians to enact stronger climate policies and hold the companies driving the climate crisis accountable. In New York, for example, advocates are pushing the state Assembly to pass several pieces of legislation that would decrease home pollution, make polluters pay, and bolster the implementation of state emission-reduction goals.

As Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg famously said to world leaders in 2019, “Our house is on fire.” With that sentiment feeling just as literal as metaphorical for many North Americans last week, and with the Canadian wildfires still burning, it is clear that there is no time to delay. The time to act is now.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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