If you think allergy season this year is especially severe, you are not wrong. Even people who do not normally deal with pollen allergies are suffering, and those with serious allergies or other respiratory issues are under siege by a marauding army of windblown dots of pollen. This is on top of the smoke pouring into the U.S. from Canadian wildfires. As with so much else today, the stark reality of climate disruption is playing a part in our misery.
More than half the states in the continental U.S. are enduring pollen counts ranging from “High” to “Very High.” Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas are an inland sea of allergens, and every Southern state from Mississippi to South Carolina and up through Virginia are painted yellow and orange with the misery-inducing spores. The story is the same out West from Washington State to California, and from Idaho to Arizona and New Mexico. Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois are likewise feeling the sting.
Harsh allergy seasons are nothing new in the human experience, and I am certainly not trying to pull a Reverse Inhofe by claiming climate disruption is to blame for your car looking like someone slathered it in cake batter every morning. The science here, however, is entirely straightforward.
“For the first time in human history, on May 13, Earth’s concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) reached 415 parts per million (ppm). Before the 19th century’s industrial revolution, the CO2 concentration was at about 280 ppm,” writes Dahr Jamail for Truthout. “The current dramatic rise of CO2 in the atmosphere is unparalleled in Earth’s history dating back hundreds of thousands of years, based on ice-core data.”
Put plainly, C02 is plant food. The more plant food there is in the air, the more pollen trees and other plants will produce. Combine that with the historically wet spring season felt by the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest, and all the ingredients for a pollen explosion are in place.
“If you remember your basic biology from elementary school,” writes meteorologist Dave Epstein for the Boston Globe, “you’ll recall that carbon dioxide is what plants take in, while they give off oxygen. If you increase the carbon dioxide, you essentially give plants more food and many of these are responding in kind … The projections moving forward are for even more pollen production. By the time we get to the middle of the 21st century, carbon dioxide is expected to be near 600 parts per million, and this will rapidly increase the amount of pollen being produced by all plants.”
Exacerbating an already wheezy season is the smoke pouring out of Canada from wildfires that are unprecedented in both size and number. One such, the Chuckegg Creek Fire in Alberta, is almost the size of Rhode Island. In seven Canadian provinces and two territories, at least 87 other wildfires are burning.
Here in the U.S., a swath of states from Washington State to Maine and down to Oklahoma are hacking their way through a thick cloud of Canadian woodsmoke. Smoke from the Alberta wildfires is so vast that it is painting the sunsets in Great Britain, an entire ocean away.
As with the brutally high pollen count, climate disruption is playing a distinct role in Canada’s worsening fire seasons.
“As the Canadian north grows warmer and drier for longer periods, the destruction is expected to get worse,” writes Amanda Coletta for The Washington Post. “Wildfires are now scorching more than 6 million acres of land here per year. That’s twice what they burned in the 1970s — and it’s projected to double again by the end of the century … More broadly, analysts say, intense wildfire activity is increasing, and fire seasons are getting longer. They say climate change is at least partly to blame.”
The problem of climate-driven drought and fire is, of course, not relegated solely to Canada. “As western states like California continue to reel from last year’s onslaught of fires, South Asia is in the midst of a staggering heat wave,” reports E.A. Crunden for ThinkProgress. “Areas within the Arctic circle, meanwhile, are shattering their own heat records.”
More than 25 million people in the U.S. suffer from asthma. Many of them live in poorer communities that are more likely to be saddled with the industrial pollution that is helping to disrupt the climate in the first place.
Another 14 million people suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to the National Institutes of Health, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Millions more endure various other respiratory distress syndromes. With the pollen count and the smoke from wildfires continuing to enter the atmosphere at an increasing rate, the threat to the health of those with chronic respiratory conditions is acute.
We all need to breathe. Climate disruption is making that more difficult for everyone. Donald Trump can suggest we cut down all the trees, as he did in response to last year’s California conflagration, but that will not solve the problem, because there is no solving the problem. (Also, notably, killing plants is the fastest way to end the world — and forest regeneration is a key tool in combatting climate change.)
So, how can we address respiratory dangers? We can mitigate the situation somewhat if we act now to eliminate fossil fuels and take other immediate, global measures to lessen the blow. One roadmap has already been laid out in detail within the Green New Deal proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts). However, in the final analysis and given all the damage that is already baked into the atmosphere, all these new perils are merely heralds of what is to come.