Wildfire smoke in New York City.

Smoke continues to shroud the sun as it rises behind the skyline of lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center in New York City on June 7, 2023, as seen from Jersey City, New Jersey.

(Photo: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

'Declare a Climate Emergency': Biden Urged to Act as Wildfire Smoke Chokes Eastern US

"We are in a climate emergency, and it's absurd that our government isn't acting like it," said one campaigner.

Environmental groups are demanding that world leaders take urgent action as smoke from Canadian wildfires fueled by the climate crisis continued to smother eastern regions of the United States on Wednesday, pushing the Air Quality Index (AQI) in both nation's capitals to "unhealthy," with at least 16 states issuing air quality alerts affecting millions of people.

New York City had the worst air quality of any major city Tuesday night, and then again on Wednesday afternoon, when its AQI jumped up to "hazardous," the highest possible level that signals a "health warning of emergency conditions."

"New York City looks like it's on fire, kids are choking on dirty air, and the AQI is a serious health threat equivalent to breathing in smoke from cigarettes. We are in a climate emergency, and it's absurd that our government isn't acting like it," Sunrise Movement executive director Varshini Prakash said in a statement.

"President Biden, declare a climate emergency," she continued. "How can you look at what's going on and not take action?"

The smoke emergency comes as the Sunrise Movement and 63 other climate and frontline groups are launching a week of action Thursday to demand that President Joe Biden declare a climate emergency and reverse recent approvals of fossil fuel projects like the Willow project in Alaska and the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP).

Organizers said a protest planned outside the White House Thursday would continue "with a backdrop of wildfire smoke" and N95 masks available for participants.

"In the capital city of the United States of America it is medically unsafe to inhale air," the group Climate Defiance, which plans to take direct action at the White House Thursday, wrote on Twitter. "Fossil-fueled climate change has parched Canada, where 6,600,000 acres of forest just burst into flames. Those majestic woodlands are now ash. And we are inhaling the soot."

Millions of people in the U.S. and Canada are breathing unhealthy air for the second day in a row Wednesday, with more than 75 million under air quality alerts in the Eastern U.S. and the Canadian capital of Ottawa also hard hit, CNN reported.

Both New York and Washington, D.C. canceled outdoor activities at public schools, New Jersey closed its state offices early, and the the Federal Aviation Administration slowed air traffic for New Jersey's Newark Liberty International Airport and New York City's LaGuardia Airport because of low visibility, as ABC News reported.

"The smoke—making the Eastern U.S. look like California at the peak of fire season—is not normal," The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang tweeted. "The air is compromised from Minneapolis to D.C. to Boston, and the worst from western NY to around Ottawa."

New York Mayor Eric Adams advised vulnerable residents to stay inside until the smoke cleared.

"This is not the day to train for a marathon," he said, as The New York Times reported.

AccuWeather assessed that the smoke was the worst the Northeast had experienced in more than two decades.

"Unlike other wildfire smoke episodes in the Northeast, where the smoke was primarily present well above the ground, only resulting in hazy skies and more vivid sunrises and sunsets, the smoke in recent days has also been at ground level resulting in poor air quality, low visibility, and serious health risks to people, especially those outdoors," the outlet wrote in a media advisory.

Wildfire smoke is a cause of particulate matter air pollution, which has been linked to a growing number of health hazards from heart and lung disease to poor mental health and cognitive decline. In the U.S. West, regular smoke from climate-fueled wildfires has begun to reverse policy-driven improvements in air quality, and now the East is beginning to see similar impacts.

New York City's air quality on Wednesday was its worst since the 1960s, New York City health commissioner Ashwin Vasan said, according toThe New York Times. AccuWeather, meanwhile, likened spending hours breathing the air in the hardest-hit Northeast cities to smoking five to 10 cigarettes.

"If you can see or smell smoke, know that you're being exposed," William Barrett, the national senior director of clean air advocacy with the American Lung Association, told CNN. "And it's important that you do everything you can to remain indoors during those high, high pollution episodes, and it's really important to keep an eye on your health or any development of symptoms."

The smoke is coming from more than 400 fires burning in Canada, as officials in that country said this year could be the worst for fires on record, the Independent reported. In the province of Quebec alone, more than 150 fires were burning as of Tuesday, with more than 110 out of control, forcing thousands to evacuate, CTV News Montreal reported.

The climate crisis is fueling these fires with record spring heat, and high latitudes are warming faster than the global average, as The Washington Post pointed out. Already in May, Canada saw more than 6.5 million acres burn, far surpassing the average for the month of around 370,000 acres.

"These conditions this early in the season are unprecedented."

"These conditions this early in the season are unprecedented and of course they are deeply concerning to all Canadians," Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair told CBC News June 1.

Smoke from the Quebec fires is being pushed south over the Great Lakes, Northeast, and Mid Atlantic by a clockwise low pressure system over Nova Scotia, The Washington Post reported further. It has drifted as far south as South Carolina and as far west as Minnesota.

It's not clear when the smoke will end, though a change in wind direction could improve conditions Friday into Saturday.

"As bad as the smoke and air pollution was on Tuesday, the air quality can be even worse at times across parts of the Northeast on Wednesday and poor air quality is expected to linger in some areas into the weekend," AccuWeather chief meteorologist Jonathan Porter said.

The location of the smoke could also change as the week progresses.

“On Thursday and Friday, the worst smoke and related air quality is expected to shift west across the Great Lakes and parts of Ohio Valley and interior Northeast including the cities of Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Detroit," AccuWeather director of forecasting Operation Dan DePodwin said.

DePodwin warned that a system in the Ohio Valley region in the coming days or next week could turn into something called a "smoke storm," causing the smoke "to wrap westward across the Great Lakes and then southward through the Ohio Valley and into the mid-Atlantic."

While millions wait for the smoke to lift, climate activists pointed out that a change in political wind is really what is needed to prevent such extreme weather events.

"Hey @POTUS, about that climate emergency?" Fossil Free Media director Jamie Henn tweeted over a picture of a smoke-darkened New York.

Food and Water Watch policy director Jim Walsh also tweeted a smoky D.C. streetscape Wednesday as he headed to Capitol Hill to protest the MVP, a 300-mile natural gas pipeline that Congress fast-tracked as part of the debt ceiling deal signed into law by President Joe Biden on Saturday.

"The hazy sky over D.C. this morning, from climate change charged wildfires in Canada, is just one more way the fossil fuel industry is killing us in their blind pursuit of profit," Walsh said.

Educator and activist Nina Turner responded with similar outrage with an image of an orange New York skyline.

"The sky should be blue when the sun is out," she tweeted. "Because politicians rather take Big Oil money and put their owner donors first, the whole East coast is having difficulty breathing. Shameful."

Oil Change International U.S. program co-manager Allie Rosenbluth also called out the government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for providing another $2.24 billion in loan guarantees to the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline.

"This has to stop if we want to have a livable planet," Rosenbluth said. "While Global South, Indigenous, coastal, and other frontline communities feel effects of the climate crisis first and worst, the inability to breathe clean air for millions who are unaccustomed to climate fires, should be a wake up call."

Rosenbluth urged action as international negotiators meet for the Bonn Climate Change Conference in Germany as part of the lead-up to the UN COP28 climate change conference later in the year.

"We cannot dig our way out of this hole with false solutions that prolong the life of fossil fuels," Rosenbluth said. "The response must be to slash carbon pollution by phasing out fossil fuels. And fast."

Update: This piece has been updated with new information and with quotes from Sunrise Movement, Nina Turner, and Oil Change International.

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