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Smoke from climate-related Canadian forest fires enveloping Chicago on June 27.

Smoke from climate-related Canadian forest fires enveloping Chicago on June 27.

Owen Ziliak

Better breathing now, but more bad air days likely for Chicago due to climate change

Breathing in Chicago isn’t as easy as it used to be. And it’s not going to get any better.

Just two days in a recent monthlong period saw the air in and around the city deemed “good.” For several days, the air was so bad — the worst in the world — that people were warned to stay inside for fear that the particulates in the air could make them sick or even put some at a higher risk of dying.

That was preceded by drought conditions across Illinois and followed in early July by record rainfall that caused severe flooding around Chicago.

It’s been a couple of months of weather extremes that experts say resulted from climate change and global warming.

Much of the recent bad air was caused by smoke blown in from climate-related forest fires raging in Canada.

On top of that, conditions were ripe for car and truck exhaust to bake in the sun and worsen ozone pollution, another serious health threat.

The big rains helped clear the air. But we’re not over any of this.

There is a chance the Canadian smoke will return to Chicago, though the air quality is unlikely to be as extreme and unhealthy as it was in late June, experts say.

The flags of Chicago Cubs' Hall of Fame players off the Wrigley Field left field foul pole as a veil of haze from Canadian wildfires shroud high rise buildings along Lake Michigan on June 27.

The flags of Chicago Cubs’ Hall of Fame players off the Wrigley Field left field foul pole as a veil of haze from Canadian wildfires shroud high rise buildings along Lake Michigan on June 27.

Charles Rex Arbogast

Smoke blowing in from wildfires elsewhere isn’t uncommon in Chicago. Later this summer, wildfires that typically erupt that time of year in the western United States are almost certainly going to have an effect on air quality in the city.

And the summertime cooking of chemicals in the air, a common occurrence that can stretch from spring to fall, is likely to cause more ozone pollution.

We have to learn to deal with all of this, says Daniel Horton, an assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences who heads the Climate Change Research Group at Northwestern University.

“A depressing way to talk about it is: ‘This is a taste of the future. The dice are loaded up, and they are coming up snake eyes,’ ” Horton says. “We know things are getting bad. But we also know how to fix these problems.”

Worries about the very unhealthy recent air quality in Chicago as well as in other cities, including New York and Detroit, put a spotlight on the problem, Horton says, that should be channeled into a call for action.

“The way people sit up and recognize climate change is through extreme events,” Horton says.

Reducing fossil fuel use for energy, heat, transportation, manufacturing and many other sources has become a government goal. That’s why so much attention has been placed on phasing out coal-burning power plants and the use of natural gas and oil for fuel. These fossil fuels burn and create carbon dioxide, which accounts for more than three-quarters of the gases that cause global warming. Methane is the second-largest contributor.

Local, state and federal governments all have climate action plans.

Horton says he’s encouraged that the Biden administration is providing billions of dollars for research to help researchers figure out how to further reduce harmful pollution that contributes to extreme weather and the resulting bad air that, across the population, is likely to be shortening lives.

He, other academics and environmental advocates say that one of the first steps for anyone concerned about the recent air problems is acknowledging the climate threat, change your own behaviors and urging politicians and businesses to take actions that, in the aggregate, can begin to slow the impact.

They say that, in Illinois, where transportation is the biggest contributor to the release of carbon dioxide that’s fueling climate change, people can call on government officials to speed the transition to electric trucks and cars to reduce the pollution caused by gas and diesel vehicles.

This is particularly important in Chicago, a freight hub where transportation-related industry is a major focus of economic growth but also is a major source of ozone pollution.

That industry includes warehouses that hold online orders and the thousands of trucks that go into and out of these facilities as well as the intermodal centers where diesel-fueled trains bring containers carrying goods that then are typically delivered by diesel trucks. The transportation, distribution and logistics industry has been growing rapidly in Chicago and the surrounding area.

“Because of the way our politicians have embraced it, the electrification part is so crucial,” says José Acosta-Córdova, senior transportation policy analyst for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization who is also a doctoral student in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s department of geography and geographic information science.

Brian Urbaszewski, environmental health director for the Respiratory Health Association in Chicago, wants Gov. JB Pritzker to speed the transition to electric vehicles, as some other states have done.

California is a leader among states in putting in place policies to aggressively demand that large truck fleets be quickly converted to electric models. That state is aiming to cut petroleum use in half by 2030. Other states have followed California’s lead, including Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

Haze from Canadian wildfires obscures buildings in Chicago on June 29.

Haze from Canadian wildfires obscures buildings in Chicago on June 29.

Erin Hooley

Illinois hasn’t set a similar goal. But Pritzker has promoted the manufacture of electric trucks and other vehicles and signed a law to phase out fossil fuel energy sources, a leading cause of greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

“Countering climate change is a generational task, but Illinois is on the right path towards reducing carbon impact and building a cleaner future,” a Pritzker aide says.

A new initiative underway at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont is trying to identify climate-related impact on neighborhoods in Chicago. The aim is to help people at a local level — particularly in communities of color, where pollution often is worse than in others areas — adapt and deal with issues that lead to poor air quality, urban flooding and other hazards.

Scott Collis, an atmospheric scientist at Argonne, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy, says people can reduce their carbon footprint, which contributes to climate change, by finding alternatives to driving such as biking or taking public transit.

“If we keep burning fossil fuels and warming the planet, we expect these things to get worse,” Collis says of the Canadian fires.

“One of the most hopeful things is: It is us,” he says. “We can do something about it. It is a result of our actions. There is something we can do about it.”

One climate-fighting tactic Collis points to: cutting down on eating beef. The environmental impact of global demand for beef has had widespread effects, including reducing the size of Amazon rain forests and other natural sources that absorb air pollution. Also, cows emit methane, which contributes to climate change.

And the threat of more smoke from Canada as wildfires continue to burn?

“It really depends which way the wind blows,” Horton says. “They are going to burn all summer and into the fall. We might be under the gun again. On top of that, we are going to have heat waves and our own local air quality issues with ozone.”

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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