Linked Fates

Wildfire smoke from Quebec that smothered New York City exposed labor inequalities and an urgent need for U.S.-Canada climate cooperation

Jackson Todd

Manhattan skyline, showing the Empire State Building and UN Headquarters, under a haze of wildfire smoke in early June 2023 | Photo: Jackson Todd

Manhattan skyline, showing the Empire State Building and UN Headquarters, under a haze of wildfire smoke in early June 2023 | Photo: Jackson Todd

Starting on Tuesday, June 6th, the city’s skyline started to fade from view. The colossal skyscrapers of Manhattan are often obscured by fog, but in this case the haze had an off-putting yellowish tint. Wildfires burning hundreds of miles away in Quebec had sent giant plumes of smoke into the air, and atmospheric pressure patterns began funneling the smoke to settle on some of America’s largest eastern cities.

The emergency illustrates our linked fates: Canada and the United States share so much of this continent and its ecosystem; a climate change-fueled emergency on one side of our shared border will inevitably have effects on the other.

By Tuesday night New York City had declared an air quality emergency, and by Wednesday afternoon the skies were orange and the city smelt like a campfire. Other local governments across the Northeastern United States, from Boston to Washington, D.C., also acknowledged the emergency and encouraged residents to stay home. As with the pandemic, the stay-at-home orders only highlighted everyday inequalities. For many professionals, transitioning back into remote work (if they even still had to make the commute to the office) was easy; however, for most essential laborers, there is no remote option.

Climate crises expose labor inequalities

Grocery workers, delivery workers, and transit operators are just some of the many workers that had to either don a mask in an attempt to protect themselves, or take time off and hope the smoke would clear up enough to safely return to work at the end of the week. The Worker’s Justice Project, a New York City-based workers’ center that organizes construction, domestic, and delivery workers, released a statement via Twitter on how air quality conditions were affecting app-based couriers: “Many #Deliveristas cannot afford to stay at home and are on duty. Many are directly experiencing the effects of this air pollution, including shortness of breath.” T. Richard, a Queens native who delivers groceries in Manhattan via e-bike, tells the Watershed Sentinel, “After work on Tuesday, I started to feel the effects of the smoke in the back of my throat.” Fearing that working on Wednesday would only make him sicker, he called out, losing pay.

The West Coasts of the United States and Canada have been facing similar emergencies for years now, but this one may hit closer to home for the power brokers in each country.

And he had good reason. Starting on that Tuesday night, New York City had the worst air quality of any city in the entire world, and it kept this spot into Wednesday afternoon. In these circumstances, everyone, regardless of pre-existing conditions, is encouraged to stay indoors. According to research gathered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, even short-term exposure has the potential to cause eye and respiratory tract irritation, wheezing, and, depending on the concentration of the smoke, bronchitis, strokes, or heart attacks, especially in at-risk populations. There are also secondary effects to inhaling wildfire smoke, as “particle pollution may also affect the body’s ability to remove inhaled foreign materials, such as viruses and bacteria, from the lungs.” This increases the likelihood one will get sick in other ways after short-term exposure.

Brooklyn Park under wildfire smoke | Photo: Jackson Todd

Brooklyn Park under wildfire smoke | Photo: Jackson Todd

In response to the crisis, the Biden administration sent firefighters to assist the Canadian government in tamping down the fires. For more long-term answers on climate change, President Biden’s climate agenda so far rests mainly on market solutions, with the centerpiece being more tax incentives for Americans to purchase electric vehicles. In cooperation with Canada, the administration hopes to realize “alternative fuel corridors,” in which electric vehicle chargers are plentiful on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. Additionally, the administration reported that it sought to revise the U.S.-Canada Air Quality Agreement (AQA), which was enacted in 1991 to facilitate cooperation on reducing air pollution.

Our continent needs radical, structural solutions

Beyond electric vehicles or tinkering with existing bilateral agreements, what may inspire a more radical, structural approach to the climate emergency is the stunning visuality of the wildfire smoke across U.S. cities. Unlike reading about the collapse of the ocean’s phytoplankton populations or large segments of the Antarctic ice shelf plummeting into the ocean, there is something more visceral about seeing some of the most iconic man-made structures in the world, like the Empire State Building or Washington Monument, obscured by the yellowish haze of wildfire smoke. Perhaps less iconic but more symbolic, the United Nations Headquarters was also smothered in the smoke, as seen from across the East River in Queens.

The West Coasts of the United States and Canada have been facing similar emergencies for years now, but this one may hit closer to home for the power brokers in each country. The bulk of both nations’ media classes, along with their national governments, are clustered in the east, so major media voices and decision-makers are not (yet) as accustomed to this type of climate emergency as people in, say, San Francisco or Vancouver. Hopefully the lesson learned is that no matter how much one country locks down their borders, the air, water, flora, and fauna, as well as human beings in the form of climate refugees, will inevitably flow from one country to the next in response to disruptions in local ecology. Bilateral and multilateral cooperation on climate is necessary not only in reaction to specific episodes in the climate emergency, but also in reducing emissions overall to try and mitigate the intensity of future disasters.

Wildfire season has only recently begun. There is a very high chance that New York and other East Coast cities will face another air quality crisis before the season ends. While we may be slightly more psychologically prepared for images of the World Trade Center enveloped in an orange haze, we cannot become complacent and must continue pushing each of our governments to pursue structural solutions to climate change that address its root causes.

The Empire State Building shrouded in smoke, as seen from the Brooklyn train | Photo: Jackson Todd

The Empire State Building shrouded in smoke, as seen from the Brooklyn train | Photo: Jackson Todd


Jackson Todd is a New York City-based journalist and graduate student at the New School for Social Research. He currently researches the politics of the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Region.

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