This week's wildfire smoke could serve as a climate wake-up call, experts say

People take photos of the sun
People take photos of the sun as smoke from the wildfires in Canada cause hazy conditions in New York City on Wednesday. (Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)

The wildfire smoke that has gripped several U.S. cities and states this week may be a watershed moment in people's understanding of the reality of climate change, experts say.

“These days may wake millions of people up to the climate crisis all around them,” Leah Stokes, an environmental policy expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Yahoo News. “It can be seen in the orange skies and the dirty air. We know from political science research that experiencing climate impacts like this can mobilize people to act politically on climate change. Whether that’s voting for a pro-climate ballot initiative, attending a protest or purchasing clean electric machines.”

Pictures worth a thousand words

Social media platforms are rife with eerie photos and videos from cities like New York, where the air has been the world’s most polluted at times in recent days. Widely followed accounts, including those of drummer and producer Questlove and James and Karla Murray, photographers who specialize in capturing local small business, posted alarming images of the city with captions on Wednesday decrying “apocalyptic air” and blasting “climate deniers.”

A new normal?

The Northeast and Upper Midwest are generally wet regions, unaccustomed to widespread wildfire smoke. To the extent that residents there have seen the effects of climate change firsthand, it has typically been in the form of unusually heavy rains or more powerful storms, like Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

But now those regions are in the thick of a massive plume of smoke originating from fires in Canadian provinces such as Ontario and Nova Scotia that experts say have been exacerbated by climate change.

A man stands in the Empty Sky 911 Memorial in Jersey City, New Jersey looking towards the One World Trade Center tower in lower Manhattan as haze and smoke caused by wildfires in Canada hangs over the skyline, June 8, 2023. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
The World Trade Center tower in lower Manhattan as seen from Jersey City, N.J., on Thursday. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

“I attended a play reading in Midtown [Manhattan] on Wednesday night,” Sergei Burbank, a 43-year-old New York City-based playwright, told Yahoo News. “While the haze was mildly irritating during quick trips around my Brooklyn neighborhood and definitely scary to look at out the window, after four hours on the subway and in Manhattan, I coughed through the night, woke up spitting blood, and my voice has been reduced to a Tom Waits snarl all day. I have never been forced to experience the physical toll sudden climate shifts like this take in such a painful, immediate way.”

Experts say that climate change will make such shifts more common.

“Wildfires are more intense than they used to be, because you have drier wood, you have a longer dry season and you have higher temperatures, all of those contribute to more intense wildfires,” Mark Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy program Stanford University, told Yahoo News.

How experience informs public opinion

Climate change and air pollution experts say that growing, tangible problems like wildfire smoke and extreme heat have already brought the problem home for many Americans.

“I’ve been working on air pollution and climate change advocacy for more than a decade and I’ve been seeing that, increasingly, we have to do less and less work to help people understand the connections between climate change and their health,” Laura Kate Bender, national assistant vice president for healthy air at the American Lung Association, told Yahoo News.

The sun is shrouded as it rises in a smokey sky behind the Empire State Building in New York City on June 8, 2023, as seen from Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)
The sun is shrouded as it rises in a smokey sky behind the Empire State Building in New York City on June 8, 2023, as seen from Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

There is some historical precedent for air pollution inspiring policy change. In 1952, four days of especially bad smog — caused largely by the soot from burning coal — caused the deaths of an estimated 12,000 Londoners, which galvanized public support for United Kingdom’s first Clean Air Act, passed in 1956.

Similar events in the United States led to the passage of the U.S.’s first environmental laws as well. As a result, American air consistently got cleaner for four decades, although that progress has been recently undermined by increased particulate pollution from worsening wildfires, according to the American Lung Association’s latest State of the Air, which gathers air monitoring data nationwide.

But longtime observers note that the public’s memory can be short.

“I think it will galvanize people right now, whether they’ll remember two weeks from now what happened is a different story,” Jacobson said.