You may have noticed, the air in New York City the past couple days has been a bit smokey. Actually it’s been chock full of awful particulate matter, making it at some points the worst air of any city in the world. New York City number 1, I guess?
The reason for this is Canadian wildfires spewing smoke that is then drifting its way down to us, with a multitude of factors making our air actually worse than a lot of places much closer to the fires themselves. The dense air got bad enough that events and school activities around the city were canceled.
Not a freak occurrence
Plenty of people are writing about the mayor’s response, the air quality, its potential health impacts, and the unsettlingly orange, Blade Runner-esque hue that overtook the city, but one thing we should understand here is this isn’t a freak occurrence that came and went never to be seen again. Much like the notion that we now have to contend with what were formerly once-in-a-century floods and storms, we should all get comfortable with the idea that somewhat unpredictable clouds of hazardous particulate matter will occasionally drift to NYC from Nova Scotia, or the Pacific Northwest, or wherever.
The thing about climate change is that it’s a global phenomenon, and what might seem like local events can have widespread repercussions. Even Covid itself could plausibly be of climate change; much noise has been made theorizing where exactly the pathogen originated, and we may never know with certainty. However, a significant driver of the growth of zoonotic diseases — those that pass from animals to humans — is habitat destruction and changing weather patterns, driving wild animals into closer contact with people.
Climate hazards don’t even have to be so obvious. Summers, rather famously, are hot and humid. But exactly how hot and humid, and the interplay between those two factors, can make a huge difference even with relatively minor shifts. I’m referring in particular to the kind of unpleasantly named wet-bulb temperature, where the combination of high heat and humidity makes it so sweat can’t evaporate and even completely healthy people can quickly overheat and die. The distinction between a normal hot summer day and an elevated risk of lethal wet-bulb can be a few degrees and a handful of percentage points of humidity, and most New Yorkers will hardly be able to tell the difference until they actually feel it.
Long-term health risks
All these crises compound. As we note in our accompanying piece, breathing in this wildfire smoke can be especially harmful to people suffering from asthma, and in the long run, it can put people at risk of developing asthma and other respiratory diseases. That doesn’t just reset because the fumes are gone for a while. Every time the air quality drops dramatically, a person’s risk of long-term respiratory impact increases.
What I’m really trying to get at with all of this is that we need to change our stance on how we think about climate impact and mitigation. It’s not all just the big, flashy catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy, although we absolutely must still expect and prepare for those. The tendrils of climate change will reach into more mundane and ever-present aspects of city life, and that means we should prepare accordingly. Building giant sea walls along the southern Manhattan coastline might be necessary in a world with increasing storm surges, but megaprojects are not going to be enough to help safeguard New Yorkers.
To his credit, Mayor Eric Adams has emphasized the need to have a whole-of-government approach to climate risk, having consolidated various climate-related offices early in his tenure with a view towards having government-wide objectives and strategies. Ultimately, no sector of government will be untouched by the crisis. The Department of Education will have to contend with rising asthma cases among young students, not to mention increasing enrollment by recent migrants escaping ecological cataclysms in Latin America and elsewhere. The Department of Buildings will have to help oversee the energy efficiency transitions of buildings around the city, as well as ensure that residential spaces are properly habitable in an environment of consistent climate impact. If you think Rikers is bad now — and we certainly do — imagine what things are going to be like when the temperatures routinely reach 100 degrees and the jail complex’s decaying infrastructure just can’t keep up. And so on and so forth.
Everything is going to be climate
If we’re going to even attempt to properly deal with the totality of the consequences, we must accept that “climate change” isn’t something that can be shunted to some specific office, or a handful of potential challenges that can be guarded against before calling it a day. Everything is going to be climate, and we’re all going to have to get used to thinking differently about our responsibilities here. That’s even as simple as having a plan and tools in place to deal with the eventualities as they come; did you have remaining KN95 masks or respirators still available that you could wear while walking out into the smog in the last couple days? (One silver lining of a reality of relatively frequent crises is that your preparations for one can help with the others, thus the masks you bought for Covid can filter the particulate matter from the wildfire smoke). Did you know where to look for up-to-date information?
From a broader civic and political perspective, it’s raising questions about what plans our leaders are actually drawing up to manage all this. With the summer heat right around the corner, is the city taking steps to have abundant and available cooling centers? Will it plant more shade, and put in more water fountains and such? What will you do if you see someone that seems to be having a heat stroke or dehydration episode? What might be your responsibility to intervene? These might seem like esoteric urban planning or philosophical concerns, but they’re direct responses to the very real dangers of runaway climate change. We’d better start getting used to it.