Hazy orange skies illustrate need for climate action

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 by Tom Gilbert, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Among the things that many New Jerseyans tend to take for granted are blue skies and the opportunity to enjoy outdoor activities. We rarely think twice about going outside for a run, a walk, a bike ride or other physical activities for fear of sore throats, burning eyes, asthma attacks or lung damage.

Unfortunately, this is not equally true in all communities – especially urban, Black, brown, and low-income communities. And according to the American Lung Association, nearly half of New Jersey’s 21 counties get poor grades for ground level ozone pollution.

For a few days during the week of June 7, nearly everyone in this state experienced what it is like to breathe unhealthy air, as a thick plume of smoke from unprecedented Canadian wildfires engulfed New Jersey. Concerns about breathing the air suddenly became urgent even for people with no history of respiratory problems.

Air quality was the worst it had been in the 43 years in which data have been kept, as the skies filled with small particulate matter – tiny bits of soot, dust and other burned debris. Much of the state hit “hazardous” levels of above 300 on the Air Quality Index scale of 0 to 500, and some towns registered in the 400s.

Skies were orange and hazy, and smelled strongly of woodsmoke – even though the fires were hundreds of miles away. The sun appeared as a red ball even at midday, an eerily apocalyptic scene.

Many outdoor events and activities were cancelled, and even people without respiratory problems were warned to stay inside. For those who had to be outside, face masks that hadn’t been worn outdoors since the early days of COVID-19 were put back into use. Even indoors, it could be hard to breathe, as most homes and businesses don’t have air filtration systems capable of handling extremely high levels of particle pollution.

Thankfully, the air gradually cleared over the weekend and the danger level dropped. Rains over much of the state also helped air quality return to healthy levels.

Though the immediate crisis is over, nobody should think it can’t happen again.

Climate change is making weather more extreme and unpredictable, causing heat and drought in some places, and strong storms and flooding in others. Experts warned that as conditions conducive to large wildfires become more common, hazy orange skies and unhealthy air could become more frequent.

What can be done to protect clean air and public health? The best solution is to tackle the climate crisis by aggressively reducing emissions from the burning of fossil fuels that produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

“When the smoke clears, may we remember that consistent, concerted climate action is the answer — and choose a better future,” tweeted New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Shawn LaTourette.

That message was reinforced on June 9, when leading state legislators and environmental advocates gathered in Trenton to call for historic legislation to put New Jersey on the path to 100% clean electricity from zero-carbon sources by 2035 – 15 years earlier than the previous goal.

Advocates called on the Legislature to transition New Jersey to an equitable clean energy future by taking key actions, including:

  • Codifying Gov. Phil Murphy’s clean energy goals into law to ensure that successive administrations can’t roll back the state’s new standard of 100% clean electricity by 2035. In February, the governor issued an executive order calling for “100 by 35” – accelerated from the original target of 2050, and considered critical to meet New Jersey’s climate goals. The state Legislature should move swiftly to pass this legislation.
  • Amending the bill to clarify that trash incineration does not count toward the state’s clean energy targets. Currently, incineration qualifies under the definition of clean energy, despite the fact that burning trash harms air quality in many communities that are already overburdened by pollution.

Climate change isn’t slowing down, and we can’t either! To protect public health and the environment, New Jersey’s electricity must come from clean sources. We need to take action to prevent orange haze and unhealthy air from becoming a regular part of our future!

Please urge legislators in your home district to support 100% clean electricity by 2035, remove trash incinerators from the definition of clean energy, and create a cleaner, healthier and more prosperous state. To find your legislator, go to www.njleg.state.nj.us/#findLegislator.

For information on protecting New Jersey’s land and natural resources – including clean air and water – visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at [email protected].