Haze and smoke caused by wildfires in Canada linger over the skyline of midtown Manhattan in New York City (OSV News photo/Mike Segar, Reuters).

Because of wildfires in Canada, the sky above New York City turned orange in June. Smoke partially eclipsed the sun and caused the worst air-quality levels on record for the city. Most New Yorkers wisely stayed inside, and the streets of Manhattan fell silent, eerily reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic.

After blanketing the Midwest, the smoke eventually cleared, just as temperatures started to rise across the country. A record-setting heatwave in Texas lasted for more than a week and sent hundreds of people to the emergency room. Temperatures throughout the South registered 20 degrees higher than normal, while parts of northern California experienced a sudden spike in temperatures following a cooler-than-usual start to the summer. On the Fourth of July, likely the hottest day on earth in 125,000 years, 57 million Americans were exposed to dangerous heat, the leading weather-related cause of death in the United States.

El Niño is one cause of this year’s severe heat. This naturally occurring phenomenon, marked by warmer waters in the Pacific, disrupts jet streams and weakens trade winds, raising temperatures around the world. But the more general cause is climate change, which exacerbates El Niño. The result has been flooding in Oklahoma, Chicago, Vermont, and upstate New York, as well as the aforementioned wildfires in Canada, which released more carbon than Indonesia did in all of 2022. Wildfires in California now account for as much pollution as fossil fuels do.

The effects of climate change are catching up with us and, if we fail to act, they will become both more common and more extreme.

Of course, the United States is not alone in suffering from extreme weather. While Texans were enduring the recent heat wave, just across the border in Mexico, twenty-three states were under weather alerts. The city of Hermosillo, in northwest Mexico, registered a record high temperature of 121 degrees. On the other side of the planet, at least ninety-six people died during a heat wave across two of India’s most populous states. And in Beijing, temperatures neared triple digits for nine consecutive days in June and July, while more than ten thousand people were displaced because of floods in the central province of Hunan.

The effects of climate change are catching up with us and, if we fail to act, they will become both more common and more extreme. According to the First Street Foundation, a research group that analyzes climate risk, over the next three decades, the average number of Americans experiencing consecutive days of temperatures over 100 degrees each year will climb from 46 percent to 63 percent.

Cities are the places most susceptible to rising temperatures, and the poor and people of color are the populations most vulnerable to health problems related to heat and poor air quality, from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder to heat stroke. Making sure every American has access to air-conditioning, either in their own home or in public facilities, is essential. Doing so without burning yet more fossil fuels is equally essential.

Fortunately, as environmentalist Bill McKibben recently pointed out, such an undertaking is more feasible than ever. Previous investments in solar power helped keep the notoriously unreliable Texas state grid operational last month, providing more than sixteen thousand megawatts, or 20 percent of its total power needs. “The power of the sun gives us a chance to allow the functions of the world as we know it to continue,” McKibben wrote, “without increasing the temperature of the earth.” Adding solar power to existing energy grids is a practical way to address rising temperatures today and a viable solution for reversing the effects of climate change in the coming years, before our blue skies permanently burn orange.

Published in the July/August 2023 issue: View Contents

Miles Doyle is Commonweal’s special projects editor.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.