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First Thing: Millions under air quality alerts in US as Canada fire smoke drifts south | US news

First Thing: Millions under air quality alerts in US as Canada fire smoke drifts south | US news

Good morning.

Tens of millions of people in the US were under air quality alerts on Wednesday as smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted south, turning the sky in some of the country’s biggest cities a murky brown and saturating the air with harmful pollution.

States across the east, including New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut, issued air quality alerts, with officials recommending that people limit outdoor activity.

In New York City, where conditions were expected to deteriorate further through the day, residents were urged to limit their time outdoors, as public schools canceled outdoor activities.


Smoke from wildfires in Canada has been moving south into the US since May. Hundreds of fires are burning in Canada, from the western provinces to Nova Scotia and Quebec in the east, where there are more than 150 active fires in a particularly fierce start to the summer season.

  • How are New Yorkers coping? The whole city is immersed in a dystopian-looking smog: urban streets in sepia, emptier than usual, bathed in an eerie quiet. More were seen wearing face masks than usual these days, reminiscent of earlier days of the Covid-19 pandemic – and the feeling of potential doom the virus had induced.
  • What should we do to protect ourselves? Exposure to smoke can trigger an array of health problems, experts say, but there are ways residents can keep themselves safe. Staying inside and especially refraining from strenuous outdoor activity is an important way to limit exposure. Keeping indoor air clean by closing windows and doors is also helpful, as is turning on air purification devices when possible.
  • Are the fires still burning in Canada? Yes. Hundreds of wildfires are burning across Canada, many of them out of control, have blanketed cities in a thick haze of smoke, amid warnings from experts the situation will continue to worsen.
  • What else is happening? Greenhouse gas emissions have reached an all-time high, threatening to push the world into “unprecedented” levels of global heating, scientists have warned.

‘No regrets,’ says Edward Snowden, after 10 years in exile

Snowden has been in exile in Russia since 2013 after fleeing Hong Kong, where he handed over tens of thousands of top-secret documents to journalists. Photograph: Baikal/Alamy

Edward Snowden has warned that surveillance technology is so much more advanced and intrusive today it makes that used by US and British intelligence agencies he revealed in 2013 look like child’s play.

In an interview on the 10th anniversary of his revelations about the scale of surveillance – some of it illegal – by the US National Security Agency and its British counterpart, GCHQ, he said he had no regrets about what he had done and cited positive changes.

But he is depressed about inroads into privacy both in the physical and digital world. “Technology has grown to be enormously influential,” Snowden said. “If we think about what we saw in 2013 and the capabilities of governments today, 2013 seems like child’s play.”

He expressed concern not only about dangers posed by governments and Big Tech but commercially available video surveillance cameras, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and intrusive spyware such as Pegasus used against dissidents and journalists.

  • What did he say? Looking back to 2013, he said: “We trusted the government not to screw us. But they did. We trusted the tech companies not to take advantage of us. But they did. That is going to happen again, because that is the nature of power.”

Republican hardliners’ revolt against Kevin McCarthy shuts down US House of Representatives

Statue to honour author Willa Cather unveiled in National Statuary Hallepa10677982 Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R) and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (L) during the unveiling of a statue to honour author Willa Cather in National Statuary Hall at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, 07 June 2023. Speaker McCarthy continues to face opposition by members of the House Republican caucus following debt ceiling negotiations. EPA/WILL OLIVER
McCarthy and Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic minority leader, at the Capitol on Wednesday. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

The US House of Representatives has been forced to postpone all votes until next week – paralyzed by a revolt against its Republican speaker, Kevin McCarthy, by ultra-conservative members of his own party.

The standoff between McCarthy and a hardline faction of his own Republican majority has forced the chamber into a holding pattern that looks likely to persist until at least Monday.

Members of the House Freedom Caucus have been upset over the bipartisan debt ceiling bill that McCarthy recently brokered with the Democratic president, Joe Biden, as well as claims that some hardliners had been threatened over their opposition to the deal.

“You’ve got a small group of people who are pissed off that are keeping the House of Representatives from functioning,” said Republican representative Steve Womack.

“This is insane. This is not the way a governing majority is expected to behave, and frankly, I think there will be a political cost to it.”

  • What are the group angry about? The hardliners were among the 71 Republicans who opposed debt ceiling legislation that passed the House last week. They say McCarthy did not cut spending deeply enough and retaliated against at least one of their members. McCarthy and other House Republican leaders dismissed the retaliation claims.

  • What has McCarthy said? He brushed off the disruption as healthy political debate, part of his “risk taker” way of being a leader — not too different, he said, from the 15-vote spectacle it took in January for him to finally convince his colleagues to elect him as speaker. With a paper-thin GOP majority, any few Republicans have outsized sway.

In other news …

Donald Trump speaks at his Mar-a-Lago estate in April
Donald Trump speaks at his Mar-a-Lago estate in April. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP
  • Federal prosecutors formally informed Donald Trump’s lawyers last week that the former president is a target of the criminal investigation examining his retention of national security materials at his Mar-a-Lago resort and obstruction of justice, according to two people briefed on the matter.

  • The House of Representatives plans to investigate claims that the US government is harboring UFOs after a whistleblower former intelligence official said the US has possession of “intact and partially intact” alien vehicles.

  • Several people including children have been injured in a knife attack in a town in the French Alps, according to France’s interior minister. Gérald Darmanin said the attack took place in Annecy. In a short tweet, he said police had detained the attacker.

  • Poland has deported a purported former Russian FSB officer who sought asylum in the country back to Russia, accusing him of lying about his past and background. Emran Navruzbekov claimed to have been a senior officer in Russia’s FSB security service in the southern region of Dagestan.

  • Shannen Doherty has revealed that the terminal breast cancer she has been receiving treatment for over several years has now spread to her brain. In an emotional post on Instagram, Doherty shared a video of herself receiving radiation treatment, writing in the caption that a scan in early January had revealed “Mets”, or metastasis, in her brain.

Stat of the day: EU states refusing to host asylum seekers may have to pay up to €20,000 a head

Families from Syria and Iraq wait behind a wall at the Polish-Belarus border
Families from Syria and Iraq wait behind a wall at the Polish-Belarus border on 29 May. Photograph: Wojtek Radwański/AFP/Getty Images

EU countries that refuse to host migrants or asylum seekers could be charged up to €20,000 ($21,500) a head under radical proposals aimed at easing the pressure on frontline countries including Italy and Greece. Home affairs ministers from the 27 member states will attend a crunch meeting in Luxembourg on Thursday to discuss two key proposals including a relocation scheme for more than 100,000 migrants a year. But the plans have proved highly contentious, with Poland, Hungary and other countries on the border of the EU struggling to see how they can sell them to their voters. Poland has already said it will not support a compulsory relocation scheme, with the deputy foreign minister Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk calling it a “pseudo remedy”.

Don’t miss this: Pence’s historic challenge – can Trump’s loyal deputy become his nemesis?

Karen Pence looks on as former US vice-president and 2024 presidential hopeful Mike Pence speaks to reporters after his campaign launch event in Des Moines, Iowa
Karen Pence looks on as former US vice-president and 2024 presidential hopeful Mike Pence speaks to reporters after his campaign launch event in Des Moines, Iowa. Photograph: Stephen Maturen/AFP/Getty Images

Mike Pence enters the 2024 presidential race with a murky path ahead to capturing the Republican nomination and a contentious relationship with his former boss and now primary opponent, Donald Trump. Historically, vice-presidents have been able to use their past White House experience to make a strong case for their party’s nomination. But Pence faces unique challenges that could complicate his already difficult task of attempting to topple Trump, who continues to lead in polls of Republican primary voters. Although Pence’s actions on January 6 have been lauded by Republicans and Democrats in Congress, they have not made him as popular with the primary voters whose support he will need to win the nomination. Pence appears to be counting on white evangelical voters, who make up a significant portion of the Republican base, to boost his standing, writes Joan E Greve.

Climate check: Canada’s wildfires are part of our new climate reality, experts and officials say

Smoke from wildfire
Canada is on track to experience its most severe wildfire season on record, and it’s part of a trend experts say will intensify. Photograph: Reuters

Canada’s ongoing wildfire season is a harbinger of our climate future, experts and officials say. The fires are a “really clear sign of climate change”, said Mohammadreza Alizadeh, a researcher at McGill University in Montreal. Research shows that climate change has already exacerbated wildfires dramatically. A 2021 study supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association found that climate change has been the main driver of the increase in hot, dry fire weather in the western US. By 2090, global wildfires are expected to increase in intensity by up to 57% thanks to climate change, a United Nations report warned last year. Canada is on track to experience its most severe wildfire season on record, national officials said this week. It’s part of a trend experts say will intensify as the climate crisis makes hotter, drier weather and longer fire seasons more common.

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Nicola Slawson

Published: 2023-06-08 10:08:23

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