An open letter: On wildfires and pollution
Canada is experiencing an unprecedented year of fires, with the smoke shrouding cities in the US and, over 2,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, in parts of western Europe
Dear resident of Europe,
I write to you from a city where the air quality is consistently among the worst. But Tuesday was one of the rare days here, in Delhi, where the sun rose to a crisp blue sky, punctuated only by monsoon rainclouds. For part of the morning, the city was not even in the top 10 list of IQ Air’s live polluted cities ranking — it was 11th, below Chicago, Minneapolis and Detroit. Over a billion of us, including our neighbours in Pakistan, Nepal and China, are used to breathing the sort of air that you got a taste (and smell) of this month.
Wildfires in Canada sent up plumes of smoke that are now smothering your cities. Soot-filled clouds have crossed the Atlantic and are shrouding skies as far away as southwestern Europe. And just weeks ago, New York was lit in a dystopian orange hue, its iconic skyline muddied by a blanket of haze.
Setting aside a tinge of schadenfreude — we in the developing world often look on in silent disbelief as your mishaps make primetime while our tragedies are bottom-of-the-screen tickers — I write to you in a spirit of empathy. Living with air pollution changes a significant part of you, especially your relationship with the outdoors.
At first, it is just the smell and the sight. For us, blue skies are now conspicuous for how rare they are; bright sunshine is when we know it is a good day to go out for a jog; and the way the air smells in the morning can determine whether it’s worth skipping school.
Then the effect the air on your body becomes clear: your throat itches, your skin breaks out, a dull, but constant, headache keeps thrumming, and — for some — it triggers asthma. It soon brings in new ways of living: air purifiers become a common fixture in homes and offices, government warnings now include smog advisories, and barbecues? Those probably get banned when the weatherfolk predict a spell of bad air.
Even vocabularies change. You talk of the weather in terms of AQI, or air quality index, and you learn what PM2.5 is, how it is 30 times smaller than the width of a single strand of human hair and can reach deep into your lungs and poison you slowly. A rainy day is not what you save for, but one on which you take a deep breath of relief as the soot in the air is washed away. The media is full of new but predictable verbs (like choking and toxic) and puns (like “airpocalpyse”) to describe the situation.
More than a billion of us are used to living with this new normal — not by choice but compulsion. Which brings me to the part of what you can, and must, do as you face a burning crisis that we have not been able to douse.
And the most important of these is to look the problem in the face: Air pollution is here to stay. The wildfires in Canada, and in other parts of Europe, are almost certain to worsen as the climate warms. Carbon emissions that all of us (but mostly you and your friends across the pond) have sent into the atmosphere for decades means the world is on an unstoppable trajectory to a situation where many of your forests will become warmer and drier, turning into acres of tinder that will ignite this air quality crisis over and over again. This means that there is no space for ambiguity and misinformation on the realities of the climate emergency.
Which brings me to the second point: Listen to science. We are yet to unravel the true toll bad air takes on us, but it is now certainly linked to millions of premature deaths. Science is the only differentiator between meaningful steps and meaningless political stunts. Here, millions have been spent in ineffective solutions like smog towers (these are giant air purifiers that do little to improve air quality) instead of prioritising resources on better uses such as air quality monitoring stations. An air pollution problem turns into a crisis when it is already too late, making foresight the most important strategy. It is only science that can counter such short-sighted thinking.
Third, protect the vulnerable. Lower middle-income countries such as ours have limited per capita resources to reach those at the highest risk of air pollution harms. People who work in low-paying, labour-intensive jobs, or those who live in crowded tenements and slums, face significantly worse exposure to toxic air than their wealthier neighbours, who have the luxury to remain indoors with their air purifiers purring away. The poor are also the least likely to get quality healthcare when the air they are exposed to leads to breathing difficulties and cardiac problems.
Fourth, work together. This will arguably be the toughest challenge. The very nature of air pollution makes it invisible, especially when it is not an active crisis. Dealing with the crisis requires striking a balance between short-term constraints and long-term objectives. For instance, a ban on polluting coal power plants can lead to an immediate rise in costs but can help catalyse a longer-term switch to cleaner energy. Working together will also involve politicians and policymakers to overcome their own differences. The challenge here too has been demonstrated in painful detail when nation-states sit down for the UN Climate Conference, where consensus on sharing responsibility and resources is still elusive.
Fifth, use your privilege. Your influence on scientific research, industry and global policy is far beyond the developing world’s. The asymmetry in understanding and solving problems facing the poor is more successfully addressed when the same problems affect the rich or the more privileged. Use this sway to bring polluting companies to book, to push the envelope of technologies that can lead to a cleaner environment — at scale and cheaply — and, hopefully, bring the sort of global action that the air pollution crisis needs.
In other words, we — in India, Bangladesh, China and Pakistan — pray for a Manhattan Project to solve air pollution, now that Manhattan knows what a toxic haze is.
A Delhi resident