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NYC skyrockets to world’s most polluted city as wildfires blaze in Canada

Masks and stay-at-home advisories are back in New York City, now the most polluted city in the world by far as a result of wildfire smoke from Canada
A view of downtown Manhattan on June 7 (Image via EarthCam)

A view of downtown Manhattan on June 7 (Image via EarthCam)

As smog flows in from wildfires in Canada, New York City is now by far the most polluted city in the world. At one point on June 7, the air quality index measured at an astonishing 377, the worst air quality level in the city’s history. Breathing in this air for 24 hours would be the equivalent of smoking 20 cigarettes. The city is now ranked at a Code Maroon, the most severe air quality alert indicating that the air is hazardous to breathe. 

To highlight the uniqueness of this moment: historically, NYC does not rank above the worst 3,000 cities for air quality across the globe. New Yorkers are back to wearing the N-95 masks worn primarily at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the city was the epicenter of the epicenter.

Beyond New York City, millions of people across North America are being impacted by the hazardous levels of smoke that are a result of massive wildfires in Canada. As of June 7, abysmal smoke levels can also be found in upstate New York and Washington DC, the nation’s capital.

The smoke is a result of wildfires that have been raging across forests in Canada. As of June 6, an estimated 26,000 people have been evacuated in the North American country. There have already been over 2,200 wildfires in Canada this year. 

“The images that we have seen so far this season are some of the most severe ever witnessed in Canada,” said Bill Blair, Canada’s minister of public safety.

The unsustainable exploitation of the Earth’s resources has contributed to the conditions that are giving rise to more severe wildfires. As deforestation to support the ever-expanding needs of the agriculture industry decreases precipitation, and fuel (trees, or forest debris) builds up as a result of timber extraction, wildfires become more frequent and more severe. The fragmentation of forests to make way for cities and industrial structures can also create higher levels of flammability and more ignition points.

There is a strong consensus that climate change, caused by capitalist resource exploitation, increases the likelihood of wildfires by causing vegetation to dry out and combust. As a result, “when [fires] do start, they spread faster, they burn longer,” Tina Landis, an environmental activist who works in air quality regulation, told Peoples Dispatch. In 2020, Landis published her book “Climate Solutions Beyond Capitalism.”

According to a 2022 United Nations report, the effects of climate change on wildfire can be put into three categories: “direct effects on fire weather through drought, higher temperatures, and changes in the strength and seasonality of winds; indirect effects resulting from changes in the nature and availability of biomass/fuel; and; direct and indirect changes in the frequency and location of natural and human- caused ignitions via changes in dry lightning profiles, and changes in demographics and human behavior resulting from revised climate and land management policies.”

According to Landis, the root cause of the present severity of wildfires can be traced all the way back to the colonization of the Americas. “Indigenous people of these lands used to have controlled burns, to reduce the fuel and have a healthy forest ecosystem,” referring to the practice of intentionally lighting wildfires to control fuel build up and decrease the severity of fires down the line.

“The colonizers came, displaced those Indigenous people, broke that tradition, and also saw trees as a commodity. Fire suppression has been the way of maintaining forests for the last several centuries,” she added. Fire suppression is the practice of trying to prevent all forest fires, even the healthy seasonal fires that maintain the balance in the ecosystem. This practice has directly contributed to more severe fires. “A lot of fuel has built up because [colonists and industrialists] wanted to save those trees so they could sell them for the timber industry.”

But Landis explains that our most recent economic system of capitalism has made some of the worst changes to our planet. Landis says, “Capitalism has caused the climate crisis. The commodification of the natural world, the need for endless growth and endless profits has destroyed ecosystems.”

“Capitalism is really acting as a barrier to the changes that are needed,” she says. “What we need to do is rapidly shift to renewable energy, which could be done here in a wealthy country like the US. But there’s very little being done, and really we’re going in the opposite direction with all these new fossil fuel projects that Biden has recently approved, which will just exacerbate the rising temperatures and the drying of the climate.”

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