This week, New York City has the dubious distinction of having the worst air quality of any large metro area in the world, with sports postponed and schools back to remote learning. Let’s make sure it’s a passing distinction.
Those waving away the risks because Delhi or Jakarta usually have it worse should know that Indians and Indonesians don’t want polluted air; just because something’s bad in one place doesn’t mean it’s fine if it’s bad elsewhere, and we should be striving to make the air breathable everywhere as opposed to resigning ourselves to dangerous air anywhere.
In our case, the cloud of smog has less direct human provenance, in the sense that it’s not being caused by our routine use of vehicles, power plants, cooking fires and other functional sources. It’s been triggered by Quebec forest fires, with wind patterns, meteorological conditions and our own infrastructure conspiring to trap a lot of the worst of it right here. Yet in a broader sense, the smog certainly isn’t disconnected from human activity. Climate change is driving increases in brush and forest fires around the world.
Can we conclusively establish that these particular fires at this particular time can be tied directly to man-made climate change? That’s beyond the point, like arguing about specifically which of a series of unhealthy habits gave someone heart disease. Maybe they’d have gotten it anyway, but that doesn’t mean they should give up and smoke a pack a day on a strict diet of cheeseburgers. This air that’s plaguing us right now is a result of choices, and we can keep making those choices, which will keep producing the same or worse outcomes, or we can dramatically shift gears.
We still have the choice of doing the latter, but the window is quickly closing for when we can do so and significantly alter our fortunes. For New Yorkers breathing in the fumes today, the real question should be what to demand from our leaders so this isn’t something we have to get used to.