Editorial: Air quality alerts are a climate change alarm

Published 8:50 pm Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

The sky over Minnesota was the subject of fascination and frustration over the weekend.

Awe over solar-storm triggered northern lights turned to “Aw, not again!” over an air quality alert sparked by smoke drifting from wildfires in western Canada.

The red alert — a condition considered unhealthy for all — issued by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was the first for 2024, following a record-setting 2023, when 21 such alerts were declared because of seemingly endless western forest fires.

Email newsletter signup

The smoky air isn’t just a nuisance, ruining a deceivingly delightful sunny Sunday afternoon and early Monday. It can be dangerous, especially to kids, older adults and people with respiratory concerns, as well as other vulnerable groups. In fact, recent research from the Centers for Disease Control and

Prevention indicates that there were 15 more emergency room visits related to heart attacks per day in the Midwest during last summer’s worst days of wildfire smoke.

Those wildfires, and the resulting cross-continent plume of dangerous smoke, are yet another indicator of the direct and indirect effects of climate change.

And in some ways, “climate change plus,” Jessica Hellmann, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, told an editorial writer. “The changing climate is an important variable” in the wildfires since warmer winters and springs mean the fire season now starts earlier.

And the intensity of drought in western Canada is “definitely a climate change signal.” (Fire management challenges also play a role, Hellmann added.)

It’s now well-established that the impact of climate change can occur well beyond the immediately affected area. In this case, wildfires aren’t scorching the North Star State directly, but the smoke is having a significant indirect effect. Hellmann said that “when the climate science community started talking about climate risks and making models, we looked at what would happen in our local regions, and I think many of us underappreciated how much we’d be tied together, that things happening in faraway locations would have such an impact on us.”

And it’s not just the climate science community: Add agronomists, economists, business leaders, Pentagon planners and lawmakers not still in absurd denial of climate change, as well as other leaders from every sector who are assessing the intertwined impacts. Even add Warren Buffett, whose extensive Berkshire Hathaway holdings have to contend with climate change, as he indicated at his recent investor annual meeting in Omaha.

The insurance industry, especially in hurricane-prone places like Florida, is increasingly making changes to its pricing models, too, which may erode or even end the economic advantages many seek in low-tax (and often low-government-service) states. Supply chain disruptions may increase in intensity and frequency, making goods even more expensive in an already inflationary environment. Climate-instigated migration crises and even conflicts may have more pernicious geopolitical impacts, too.

Episodic air quality alerts, as happened on Sunday and Monday, remind us “that climate change has a variety of consequences and some of those consequences can travel long distances,” said Hellmann, who added that “thinking locally is often not enough to confront the full breadth of climate-related impacts.”

That’s certainly true about life here in Minnesota. With abundant water and a relatively favorable climate, the state is often considered more of a safe haven from challenges other countries or states face. But thinking locally about doing our part — individually, and as a state — is imperative, as is thinking locally about elections. Voters should no longer send lawmakers to St. Paul or Washington who don’t acknowledge that climate change is caused by human behavior and thus must be addressed by changes in human behavior, which requires some collective, commonsense action.

Clearer skies are worth it. Just ask those gaping — and gasping — at the wonders of Friday night’s celestial light show.

— Star Tribune, May 14

About Editorial Roundup

Editorials from newspapers around the state of Minnesota.

email author More by Editorial