Air Quality Alerts Across the Midwest Reveals Growing Dangers of Climate Change

The fact that areas with typically healthy air quality are increasingly being damaged by air pollution reveals the spreading dangers of pollution and climate change threatening the human rights of all people.

July 5, 2023

Screenshot of the Air Quality Index taken by Kara Anderson from showing an AQI of 206 in Albion, Michigan

Screenshot of the Air Quality Index taken by Kara Anderson from showing an AQI of 206 in Albion, Michigan.

By Kara Anderson, ’25

When I first started writing this post I was distressed and surprised when I saw the Albion Air Quality Index at 157 on June 7th, 2023. Several weeks later I am even more alarmed to have witnessed the local Air Quality Index rise above 200.

The startling “very unhealthy” message points to the violation of the Right to Health protected in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It also reveals the increasing dangers and widespread nature of climate change continuing to threaten human rights.

The Air Quality Index

Like many Americans I have been learning quickly just what the Air Quality Index is and what it means for our daily life.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) reports the current air quality based on the level of air pollution and degree of health concern. An AQI value of 50 or below represents good air quality, 51-100 moderate, 101-150 unhealthy for sensitive groups, 151-200 unhealthy, 201-300 very unhealthy, and 301 or higher hazardous.

An AQI above 200, as seen in Albion last month, means the air may cause negative health effects for all people, and is even more dangerous for sensitive groups. When the AQI is this high, it is recommended to limit time outside, avoid outdoor exertion, and keep windows and doors closed.

According to AirNow, a partnership of the Environmental Protection Agency, the two pollutants that pose the greatest threat to health in the United States are ground-level ozone and airborne particles.

Some of the side effects of ozone and particle exposure include the following:

  • Eye irritation
  • Coughing
  • Irritation in the throat or a burning sensation in airways
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Asthma attacks

Air pollution also poses additional dangers to people with heart or lung disease (including asthma), older adults, and children. People in those groups are at a higher risk of hospitalization and even death.

Increasing Dangers of Climate Change

I never used to think much about local air quality. I have been privileged to live in an area where AQI alerts are not something I am used to. However, the fact that areas with typically healthy air quality are increasingly being damaged by air pollution reveals the spreading dangers of pollution and climate change threatening the human rights of all people.

The immediate cause of most of the air quality alerts across the nation this summer is wildfires in Canada. But to simply say this is Canada’s fault would be a gross understatement. Wildfires are exacerbated by climate change, which we all are responsible for. The increasingly hot and dry conditions fuels wildfires. And things are only getting worse.

The planet’s temperature is rising at an alarming rate. The National Centers for Environmental Information states that, “the global annual temperature increased at an average rate of 0.08ºC per decade since 1880 and over twice that rate (0.18ºC) since 1981.”

What is worse, the World Meteorological Organization says, “The annual mean global near-surface temperature for each year between 2023 and 2027 is predicted to be between 1.1ºC and 1.8ºC higher than the 1850-1900 average.” (1850-1900 is used as a baseline because, “it was before the emission of greenhouse gasses from human and industrial activities.”)

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the forest fire burned area has doubled between 1984-2015 due to human-caused climate change. And projections show that in the U.S. West, “an average annual 1 degree C temperature increase would increase the median burned area per year by as much as 600% in some types of forests.”

And wildfires and their effect on air quality are not the only growing dangers of climate change. According to NASA, these are some predicted effects on our planet of another half-degree or full degree Celsius of warming:

  • Extreme temperatures
  • Widespread heatwaves
  • Droughts
  • Floods
  • Loss of species and extinction
  • Invasive species
  • Fires
  • Biome shifts
  • Deforestation
  • Unstable ice sheets
  • Rising sea levels
  • Increased ocean acidity

The consequences of rising global temperatures affect us all. Some groups have long been suffering from severe effects of climate change, and while others have only experienced moderate ramifications so far, soon they will be inescapable. Michigan is a clear example of this.

June marked a series of firsts for Michigan:

  • First time environmental regulators issued air quality warnings for two pollutants in the same area.
  • First air quality alert in the Upper Peninsula for any pollutant.
  • First statewide air quality alert.

While we hope that these alerts are outliers, given the increased number of wildfires and the prediction that they will continue to grow, it would almost be more surprising not to see these alerts again unless something changes. And it is clear something needs to change.

What You Can Do

We need to fight to protect our planet before it is too late. Here are some steps you can take:

  1. Reduce your individual environmental impact
    In the United States, the greenhouse gas emissions per person is more than double the global average and six times more than per person in India. But there are things each person can do to limit one’s impact on the environment. This includes saving energy at home, using greener travel options, recycling, eating more vegetables, and throwing away less food. See the United Nations’ “Actions for a Healthy Planet,” for more information.
  2. Speak up
    Contact people in positions of power to urge them to take action on reducing emissions. The UN has an interactive “Act Now Speak Up!” page with helpful resources and tips to advocate for climate action. You may also view our “Fighting Injustice” blog post for steps and links to fight for important issues. See too our Advocacy Toolkit and be on the lookout for new tabs on how to communicate with decision makers and attend and/or organize a protest.
  3. Join an environmental justice organization
    You are not in this alone. There are people around the world fighting to protect this planet and human rights. Becoming a part of a non-governmental organization (NGO) can grow your network and impact. There are many NGOs that focus on environmental justice and climate rights, and many broader human rights organizations that support environment rights and protections. Do some research to see what might work for you.

Remember, you have the power to make a difference! Act now to protect our planet!

Kara Anderson is a rising junior political science and English double major, pursing an experiential learning certificate in human rights. At Albion, Kara is a part of the Prentiss M. Brown Honors Program and the Gerald R. Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service. 

The views expressed here represent those of the author and not necessarily of Albion College.