United Under an Orange Sky

Welcome to the future, East Coast! California got there first—and can show you how we can all make it better.

By Andrew Leonard

June 9, 2023

A Man talks on his phone as he looks through the haze at the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee, N.J., Wednesday, June 7, 2023.

George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee, New Jersey, on June 7. Intense Canadian wildfires are blanketing the northeastern US in a dystopian haze. | Photo by Seth Wenig/AP

On Tuesday morning, as my plane took off from Newark airport, I could see the haze from the Canadian wildfires start to coagulate around the Manhattan skyline. That afternoon, a few hours after I made it back to my home in Berkeley, my daughter, who lives in Brooklyn, texted me:

well you missed an apocalyptic blanket of smoke descend on the city this evening, feels like i’m in California

Ouch. Both my children were born and raised in California and know all too well what it is like to wake up in the morning and encounter a coating of ash on the family car and an acrid taste in the air. My youngest was still living with me in September 2020 on that infamous day when California’s skies turned orange and I came back from a bike ride with a snapshot of hell reigning over Costco. Is it any wonder that both kids now live in Brooklyn, where they could be excused for imagining themselves safe from California’s infatuation with disaster, its relentless alternation of drought and flood and fire and earthquake? I miss them but don’t blame them—even if it still hurts that they think of the state that spawned them as the dystopic poster child of the future gone wrong.

The belief that the future arrives first on the Californian frontier used to be cause for pride, not dread. The shroud over New York this week is a harsh reminder that the future—a hotter, chaotic future—eventually comes for everyone. It’s the worst version of California Dreaming: “All the skies are orange . . .” I’m very sorry for my kids and everyone else affected, but after a day watching East Coasters trade hell-scape memes on social media and West Coasters do their (not very) best to restrain themselves from saying “I told you so,” I think the arrival of bicoastal Armageddon might actually be for the best. If California’s climate change mess really is the future, then it’s high time that everyone, everywhere, caught up. And what more forceful way for climate change to make its presence manifest than a stream of warnings from the government to stay inside because breathing the air outside will be harmful to your health?

There is no doubt that this is a climate change disaster. After the warmest May on record in many parts of Canada, more than 200 fires are raging. The Washington Post reported that 370,000 acres burn in an average May. This year? 6.5 million acres. The wildfire surge has been California’s reality for a decade; now it’s everyone’s. The world’s oceans are hotter than ever. A strong El Niño is predicted to push global surface temperatures to record highs in the next year. More forests will burn. The loaded gun at the scene? A new, peer-reviewed report from the Union of Concerned Scientists calls out fossil fuel companies: “Scientists found that 19.8 million acres of burned forest land—37 percent of the total area scorched by forest fires in the western United States and southwestern Canada since 1986—can be attributed to heat-trapping emissions traced to the world’s 88 largest fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers.”

So Californians, stop with the smoke-shaming! The most useless, not to mention petty, response to this week’s live streamed apocalypse from New York was to bemoan the sight of New Yorkers and New York media making a big deal of unbreathable air, now that it’s unbreathable by them. One tweet, out of many, caught my eye:

as a Seattle resident I genuinely sympathize, I do, but it's hard to not notice how wildfire smoke is suddenly very important now that new york city residents are experiencing it

It’s easy to understand how this latest iteration of Saul Steinberg’s classic New Yorker cover, View of the World From 9th Avenue, a map in which California barely exists, might ruffle feathers. But the fact that the media and financial capital of the world is suddenly absorbed by its air quality is not something to be dismayed or annoyed about. We should applaud and amplify it. An AQI over 400 can mean more coverage of the causes of climate change, more titans of finance becoming interested in investing in clean energy, and perhaps even more attention to what California is trying to do to keep our skies blue, like our renewable energy mandate requiring that the state get 60 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045, or our Advanced Clean Cars regulation that requires that all new cars and light trucks sold in California in 2035 to be zero emission vehicles.

The future that arrived in New York this week is not the only one possible. I regret that my children left California but couldn’t escape the world burning down, and I flinch at the sight of bridges and skyscrapers disappearing into a toxic orange haze. But we can make these orange skies a faded memory, just as we made the smog that turned the skies of Los Angeles a dismal brown in the 1970s disappear with the help of clean air laws and catalytic converters. All we need is the will to do so. Here’s hoping that millions of pushy, self-absorbed, and enormously powerful New Yorkers will heed the message their skies are sending and lend California a hand.