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Washington Is Literally Suffocating Under Its Own Climate Apathy

Smoke from unseasonable wildfires is choking the eastern seaboard. Yet Democratic leaders aren’t drawing the obvious lessons, and Republicans remain in denial.

The Capitol.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The air in New York City this week has been measured as the worst of any major city in the entire world. At time of writing, its air quality index was measured at 332 — well into the most extreme category of “hazardous,” or nearly twice as bad as second-place Dubai, and the worst figure ever recorded since the EPA started keeping track in 1999.

While New York City had it exceptionally bad, the air was also wretched in Boston, my home city of Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Conditions are expected to remain grim through the weekend. The reason for this is a combination of severe wildfires breaking out all across Canada, and unfortunate regional wind patterns swirling the smoke all over the eastern U.S.

One would think this would make a perfect moment to illustrate the dangers of climate change. Not only is it a clear and present danger to the health of the American people that is almost certainly related to climate change — seemingly every couple months another study comes out finding that air pollution is much worse than previously thought — it also illustrates that only coordinated international action can address the problem.

But so far one would be wrong. President Biden has not taken the opportunity to build public support for his signature climate legislation, nor have other Democratic leaders. Republicans, with their habitual focus on doing the most obnoxious and stupid possible thing in every circumstance, had been planning to pass a bill “protecting” gas stoves, but failed because the so-called Freedom Caucus is mad about the debt ceiling deal. The mind reels.

Now, one must include the usual caveat that it’s impossible to say whether or not this particular spree of wildfires was specifically caused by climate change. However, we can say that higher temperatures make this kind of thing much more likely, by raising temperatures that make combustion easier and drying out the forests. We can also say that this Canadian wildfire season is wildly worse than what is typical at this time of year. According to the Canadian government, previously this early in the season there have been, on average, 1,624 fires that have burned about a quarter million hectares. This year we’ve seen over 2,200 fires that have burned over three million hectares. With months left in the summer this has already been one of the worst fire seasons on record.

There are some aspects of climate disasters that one might conceivably keep out of the country. Climate refugees can be left to rot and die, and seawalls might be built around threatened cities (not in Florida). Smoke is not like this. You can’t build a wall that prevents air from circulating across the 8,900 mile border between Canada and the U.S. And while rich people might buy fancy air purifiers or respirators, those are poor substitutes for fresh outdoor air and blue skies. Everybody loses when New York City turns into Blade Runner 2049.

So on the Republican side, all this illustrates the grievance perpetual motion machine that has made the party utterly incapable of rational thought. The gas stove measure mentioned above was supposedly meant to stop the government from banning that type of cooking device. There are just a few problems here. The first is that there is no prospect whatsoever of such a ban actually happening. One stray comment from a commissioner of the Consumer Product Safety Commission about the potential of such a ban has been blown ludicrously out of proportion so that conservative elites like Ron DeSantis can howl about being the victims of imaginary liberal oppression.

Second, the argument for replacing gas stoves with electric is based primarily on the fact that lighting an open flame in your home is terrible for air quality. Gas stoves release benzene, nitrogen dioxide, and other toxins that increase the risk of developing respiratory illness, particularly for children. Moreover, induction electric stoves are cleaner, faster, and more accurate in their temperature control than gas ones. There’s no reason to prefer gas, aside from price — hence the Inflation Reduction Act’s subsidies for electric stoves.

But even that doesn’t plumb the depths of Freedom Caucus madness. They were all in favor of the gas stove bill, and only blocked it because the debt ceiling compromise wasn’t as close to their ransom demand for raising the ceiling. That demand included a repeal of the IRA’s core structure: the enormous tax credits for renewable investment and production. That not only would create more air pollution directly by prolonging the life of carbon fuel power plants, it also would accelerate climate change, creating more smoke-spewing wildfires. On the very day when America’s largest population complex is choking under a plume of unprecedented wildfire smoke, conservative Republicans are angrily demanding more deadly coal and natural gas pollution, more deadly galloping wildfires, and more deadly stove pollution in the home.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this kind of suicidal political insanity. During the pandemic, we saw literally tens of thousands of loyal Republican base voters and numerous right-wing regional radio hosts die because they believed lunatic propaganda about the COVID vaccines. If the Freedom Caucus has their druthers, many thousands more will die from preventable respiratory illnesses.

On the Democratic side, let me emphasize that the East Coast smoke problem is not a “both sides” situation. Failing to point out that you’re doing the right thing, as Biden and congressional Democrats have done with the IRA, is not remotely as bad as trying to do the wrong thing while that thing is causing mass asthma attacks among schoolchildren.

That said, it is still negligent not to draw the obvious conclusion in public, loudly and repeatedly. Adam Johnson at The Columndetails how on Tuesday, all the major TV evening news broadcasts covered the smoke disaster without so much as mentioning the possibility of climate change. If Biden and other Democratic leaders had been bringing it up over and over again, that likely would have been very different.

And just in terms of political messaging, it is vitally important to bring home to the average American that this smoke plume is just a tiny sample of what unchecked climate change is going to do. If America and the rest of the world don’t undertake unprecedented, sustained decarbonization efforts over the next several decades, this current haze will seem like paradise compared to what is coming.

Polling shows that few Americans are familiar with the provisions of the IRA, and those that have are skeptical of what it might accomplish. As David Roberts points out on the Volts podcast, because of how the law delegates spending, how much it can achieve is to a great degree up to the efforts of states and localities. Republicans might be out of their gourds, but Democrats should be taking every opportunity to sell their most significant accomplishment in generations.

Ryan Cooper profile image

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is the managing editor at The American Prospect, and author of the book "How Are You Going to Pay for That?: Smart Answers to the Dumbest Question in Politics."

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