Normally, 67-degree June days without rain in New York City are cause for celebration. Early summer is beautiful here, spring’s freshness not yet erased by summer’s humidity and heat-oozing concrete.
But this week was different. Hundreds of miles to the north, more than 400 wildfires are devouring Canadian forests that are drier than normal, in temperatures that are hotter than normal. Canada’s east suffered its driest April on record this year; in western Canada, parts of Alberta saw May temperatures 12 degrees above average. Wildfire season, which we normally don’t hear about till later in the summer, is off to an early, intense start.
And as the smoke traveled across our border, my home region fell under a suffocating blanket of smoke.
I’ve lived in the New York area almost all my life, so I am no stranger to smog and air pollution. I’m used to wiping black soot particles off my shelves and tabletops and I grew up with the smell of coal in the winter. When I was in grade school, the city relied on “Big Allis” — known to locals as “Big Al — a massive coal plant turned gas plant built in 1963, the year I was born. Big Al is now being transformed into a renewable energy hub.
But until this week, I’d never seen New York City’s air quality rated the worst of major metropolitan areas in the world.
Nor had I ever had to turn on the lights at 3 pm in June because the smoke turned the sunlight a dark, hazy orange.
Or heard about fly balls at Yankee Stadium disappearing into the smoky haze.
Or needed to close the windows and turn on an air purifier to keep from coughing.
For many elderly folks, children, and people with asthma and a range of heart and lung diseases, the smoke is not an inconvenience; it’s a threat to their lives. Exposure to air pollution — almost all of it from burning fossil fuels — results in more than 100,000 premature deaths annually in the U.S. and close to 7 million premature deaths globally.
This is no inconvenient truth. It is a preventable massacre.
Some insurance companies still use the phrase “act of God” to describe fires or other natural disasters for which no human agent can be held responsible. But we need to stop putting God on the hook: These disasters are happening because governments are drunk on the fossil fuel industry’s deadly Kool-Aid.
In sacred texts, large amounts of smoke often indicate a sign of God’s immediate presence; think of Mount Sinai “wrapped in smoke” (Exodus 19:18) when Moses received the Ten Commandments. Smoke is also associated with divine anger: David describes God’s righteous indignation as a cosmic storm, with smoke from God’s nostrils and fire from God’s mouth (2 Samuel 22:9). In Isaiah, God’s judgment “comes from far away, burning with his anger, and in thick rising smoke” (30:27). In the Qur’an, and entire surah is called “The Smoke,” or Ad Duhkan in Arabic. It tells of the sky filled with smoke and the people begging Allah to remove it. “This is a painful torment,” they say. I know plenty of people with asthma who would say amen to that.
We’d be wrong to read these scriptures literally. No one (except outdated insurance policies) blames God for the smoke that’s smothering the U.S. Northeast. Instead, I think these verses about God’s presence and formidable anger at injustice can tell us that when we see a lot of smoke, we’d better pay attention to the root cause. In the Bible, people often react to divine smoke with fear and trembling; I wish more people saw this smoke as cause for fear about where our planet is headed if our governments and financial institutions continue to deny reality. If we want to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we cannot keep permitting and funding new fossil fuel projects.
In the face of this widely-known fact, the U.S. remains the world’s leading oil and gas exporter and producer and has more planned oil and gas production between now and 2050 than any other single country. I don’t blame God for the smoke in our skies; I blame the fossil fuel industry and the politicians who are enabling it.
That is why GreenFaith, the global, grassroots, multi-faith climate justice organization I lead, is calling on President Joe Biden to declare a climate emergency and stop all new fossil fuel permits. We urge you to join this call to action. An emergency declaration would give the administration the ability to take further steps such as banning the export of fossil fuels, limiting financing for fossil fuel projects abroad, and suspending offshore oil leases. These are the steps that governments need to take if they are serious about climate change.
Political pundits will argue that these steps aren’t politically viable. But if that’s the case, it’s all the more reason that people of faith need to speak up. What’s politically viable can change. Atmospheric science does not.
I’m no fan of Bible proof-texting. But I am sick of politicians saying how important climate change is while they keep on pouring gasoline on a raging fire. So try this on for size.
Traditional translations of the Sermon on the Mount have Jesus saying “Let your yes be a yes and your no be a no” (Matthew 5:37).
I prefer a more contemporary version: “Don’t say anything you don’t mean. … You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk …. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.” (5:33-37, The Message)
Biden has promised to take climate change seriously, saying last summer, “This is an emergency, and I will look at it that way.” Yet he has stopped short of declaring an actual emergency, a move that leaves the government unable to do what only it can do: stop new fossil fuel projects that are the cause of the fires, droughts, and floods that are destroying the planet. For people of faith, our message to Biden must be as clear as the last several days have been choked with haze: Declare a climate emergency. Stop fossil fuels.