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Canadian smoke bathes U.S.; climate change 'only getting worse,' says White House

WASHINGTON — A hazy, acrid shroud lingered over some of America's largest cities Wednesday as Canadian wildfire smoke continued to drift south, touching off "code red" air quality alerts from Massachusetts to North Carolina.
The sun rises over a hazy New York City skyline as seen from Jersey City, N.J., Wednesday, June 7, 2023. Intense Canadian wildfires are blanketing the northeastern U.S. in a dystopian haze, turning the air acrid, the sky yellowish gray and prompting warnings for vulnerable populations to stay inside. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Seth Wenig

WASHINGTON — A hazy, acrid shroud lingered over some of America's largest cities Wednesday as Canadian wildfire smoke continued to drift south, touching off "code red" air quality alerts from Massachusetts to North Carolina. 

In New York City, a dense, orange-tinted fog settled among the skyscrapers of Manhattan, forcing athletes and older Americans alike to take shelter indoors. Schools across the region cancelled outdoor activities.

In low-visibility areas, motorists were urged to stay off the roads, while the Federal Aviation Administration ordered temporary ground stops at major airports in New York and Philadelphia.

The sky was "yellow and grey," said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at New York's Columbia Law School, who spent the day working from his suburban home in Westchester, north of the city.

"The last time I smelled air like that, I was in New Delhi."

The Indian capital is typically top of the list when it comes to the world's worst air quality, but on Wednesday it was overtaken by the city that never sleeps — a blight that was expected to keep migrating south all week. 

On Twitter, which was awash Wednesday in photos and videos of the otherworldly scene, the National Weather Service posted a time-lapse video that showed the New York skyline gradually disappearing behind a thick orange veil. 

Air passengers reported smelling smoke inside the plane as their flights descended into the haze. New York Mayor Eric Adams urged citizens to remain indoors. And residents of the West Coast and the Pacific Northwest, where wildfire smoke is a regular part of life, urged their eastern counterparts to get a grip. 

Actress Jodie Comer abandoned her one-woman play on Broadway in the middle of a matinee, citing breathing problems as a result of the pollution. And even Sesame Street got in on the act, urging parents to keep their kids inside. 

The White House has been in regular touch with the federal government in Ottawa for several days now, having already deployed more than 600 firefighters and personnel, as well as water bombers, said press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

Deputy national security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall has been "listening to them and making sure we're offering any assistance that they might need," Jean-Pierre said.

On Wednesday night, the office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he had spoken with President Joe Biden about the wildfires and the effect on air quality in both countries and thanked the U.S. for its support. 

"Both leaders acknowledged the need to work together to address the devastating impacts of climate change," read an official summary of the conversation provided by the Prime Minister's Office.

On Twitter, President Joe Biden said wildfire events are intensifying "because of the climate crisis," and asserted that the government was in touch with state and local leaders. 

"It's critical that Americans experiencing dangerous air pollution, especially those with health conditions, listen to local authorities to protect themselves and their families."

The White House, which has an outdoor event planned for Thursday to celebrate Pride month, has not made any changes to its schedule, nor is Biden taking any special precautions, she added.

By now, most Americans are on board with the idea that climate change is fuelling more serious natural disasters and unpredictable atmospheric events, said Gerrard. But the ones who really need to experience it are in Washington. 

"In the U.S., the majority of people believe that climate change is a problem and is worsened by humans. But that's not who's running Congress," he said. 

"I think most members of Congress are most heavily affected by the views of their constituents and their contributors. Their constituents are geographically distant and their contributors care most about their bottom line." 

The smoke is arriving in the U.S. capital at an interesting moment for policymakers, amid mounting tensions between American dependence on fossil fuels and the climate prerogative of expanding green energy projects. 

On Tuesday, climate activists interrupted an event in D.C. with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, whose status as a moderate Democrat in a ruby-red state has made him a coveted ally in a narrowly divided Congress. 

That's a big part of how Manchin was able to secure approvals for the controversial Mountain Valley pipeline project in his home state as part of the debt-ceiling agreement Biden signed over the weekend. 

And in March, Biden enraged environmental groups when he approved the Willow project, which will allow energy giant ConocoPhillips to develop three drill sites in the petroleum-rich North Slope region of western Alaska.

Critics say Willow will be a "carbon bomb" that could produce upwards of 300 million tonnes of pollution over the next three decades, effectively hamstringing Biden's own efforts to ease U.S. fossil fuel dependence.

But that hasn't prevented the White House from continuing to portray the president as a champion in the fight to slow the impact of human activity on the planet. 

"This is not uncommon; sadly, it's only getting worse," Jean-Pierre said of the fires. 

"But this is why the president has made climate change a priority. ... And he's certainly going to continue to stay focused on how we move forward in dealing with climate change." 

In the interim, it's time for people to get serious about coping strategies, said Gordon McBean, a longtime climate-change expert and professor emeritus at Western University in London, Ont. 

"We need to have an action plan that really puts in place strategies, so we build the resilience to reduce the impacts of storms, in terms of those people who are more vulnerable and more exposed," McBean said. 

"They are a simple manifestation (of) the reality that we are already in a changing climate system." 

The fight isn't over, added Gerrard. 

"There's no question climate conditions are going to be worse; the wildfires are going to intensify in the years to come. But we still have choices in how bad it gets," he said.

"We can make a big difference. Our children, the lives of our children and grandchildren will be seriously affected by what we do today. That is still the case. It still matters."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press