In recent days, government officials, scientists and public health experts have warned millions of Americans to stay indoors in order to protect themselves from extraordinary levels of wildfire smoke drifting down from Canada. Across the Northeast, countless people have reported seeing orange haze and experiencing acute physical discomfort from inhaling particulate matter. Stanford researchers have already rated the intensity of the pollution one of the worst wildfire pollution events in U.S. history.
But if you turn on Fox News, an "expert" will tell you that it's all in your head. There is no crisis. And it's definitely not related to climate change.
On Wednesday, Fox News host Laura Ingraham introduced Steve Milloy as a “senior legal fellow at the Energy and Environment Legal Institute and Trump-era transition team member” on her show, after which he proceeded to barrage viewers with the misinformation that the smoke from the wildfires isn't harmful. He disseminated that nonsense with the nonchalance and shamelessness befitting a former professional Big Oil and Big Tobacco propagandist. I guess that's the kind of person you have to reach out to as an expert when you're in the business of climate denialism.
According to Milloy, there is no "health risk" associated with wildfire smoke. Americans, he argued, are simply succumbing to "anxiety." That is false. As anyone who has ever inhaled smoke can intuit, it's not something that's meant to be in one's lungs. And this is not a source of debate or controversy among scientists and public health experts. Per NBC News:
In the short term, wildfire smoke can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs, as well as an increased risk of respiratory infection. Studies have also found that short-term exposure to small particulate matter increases the risk of a range of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Longer term, exposure to air pollution is associated with several chronic health conditions...
Milloy also tried to deceive audiences by pointing out that India and China have "this kind of" poor air quality all the time, and that there is "no public health emergency" in those places. That is also false.
As The New York Times' David Wallace-Wells recently pointed out, "For a moment, New York’s air quality was worse than it was in Delhi, the infamous pollution capital where average life spans are reduced more than nine years by particulates in the air."
The Chinese government considers poor air quality such a serious problem that it declared a "war on pollution" in 2014, and researchers estimate that China could raise its life expectancy by about three years by improving air quality. Milloy's flippant attitude toward the suffocating smog in those countries, which dramatically reduces quality of life for hundreds of millions people, is as offensive as it is absurd.
Later on, Milloy hinted at the motivated reasoning behind his disinformation campaign. "This is not a health event, this has got nothing to do with climate, first of all, this is wildfire smoke, this is natural, this is not because of climate change, this is not because of fossil fuel, internal combustion engines," he said.
Milloy — whose Twitter handle is @JunkScience and who has been on the payroll of ExxonMobil and Philip Morris in the past — likely wants to downplay the dangers of the wildfire smoke because he knows that many people are perceiving it as a worrisome sign of a warming planet. Those people are correct. As University of Pennsylvania atmospheric scientist Michael Mann told me on Wednesday, Canada's exceptionally intense wildfire season this year corresponds with a trend of weather patterns that is making the country hotter and drier. Downplaying the wildfire crisis allows Milloy to downplay the climate crisis.
Milloy is not only a climate change denialist but also a troll. He once tried to discredit wind energy by saying it was responsible for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. No media outlet that respected its audience would dare to invite him onto their platform except to mock him. But the smoke and mirrors game that Fox News hosts have been playing with the network’s audience — telling them things the hosts know to be false — shows how little respect they have for those viewers.