Victims and heroes: Young adults and NYC climate crisis


As I descended from my apartment on a hot summer morning just a few months ago, I was already dreading my first step into the crippling heat. As I stepped outside, I immediately noticed something different. On this day, aside from the usual muggy heat, the smoke from the fires raging on the west coast had become trapped amidst the city heat, casting a summer smog unlike any I’d seen before.

As I glanced down the block, I could barely make out the tall buildings that once defined the skyline view from my apartment. On that Wednesday morning, the air quality index in Manhattan reached an alarming 157. And as every city night goes, as the air finally cools, the sky is re-heated by the bright lights that shine through the night.

If you’ve spent time in New York City, it should come as no surprise why it has been deemed “the city that never sleeps.” It’s nearly impossible to find darkness let alone get a glimpse at the stars, no matter the hour of the night. And if you’ve ever spent a summer in the city, you may be familiar with gasping for air as you descend into a 100-degree subway station already drenched in sweat.

You probably also recall opening your weather app to find the words “air quality warning,” followed by a brief message asking you to limit outdoor exertion. And despite it all, it’s practically part of being a New Yorker to power through, brush off the discomfort, and go about your day as you normally would. Having grown up in the city, I can say with certainty that I never thought twice about these conditions — it was just the way of life.

While not the most enticing of topics for your average young adult, most are in the dark about the negative psychological and physical health burdens caused by these conditions. I certainly didn’t concern myself with it during the 18 years I spent growing up in New York. However, what I do know is that all of us, in some way, will likely pay the consequences.

Even as early as the womb, studies in California and Boston discovered a link between air pollution severity and pre-term birth rates for pregnant mothers. Air pollution in New York City remains one of the leading causes of death, comprising approximately 6 percent of annual deaths.

Children and young adults growing up in regions with higher particle pollution levels will have an increased risk of asthma, limited lung growth, and long-term complications. In fact, one study in California saw a similar decline in lung function for individuals who grew up in polluted regions, and those who were raised with smokers for parents.

While the negative health impacts on young adults may not be immediate, they are undeniable.

However, it isn’t always something so obvious as air pollution that could be taking a toll on our well-being. Each night, the city skies are illuminated by artificial light, causing massive disruptions to our circadian rhythms. Light pollution not only contributes to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, but has a direct impact on people by limiting melatonin production during the night-time hours. Decreased levels of melatonin production can cause insomnia, anxiety, depression and severe fatigue.

For high school-aged students especially, the blue light from electronic devices combined with the light pollution at night could lead to severe disruptions to one’s circadian rhythms. Some studies have even begun to discover links between low melatonin levels and an increased risk of certain cancers.

It’s difficult to convince anyone — young adults included — that the status quo may actually be so detrimental. We must stop approaching the climate crisis in our communities as a daunting, slow-moving process destroying our planet. Instead, it is time to focus on the way it is diminishing our physical and emotional well-being today.

The same way we rely on younger generations to push every other progressive movement in our country, we will once again need to count on them to take upon the burden of climate change. The climate-related consequences our world faces are exacerbated by the United States’ largest cities — a list where New York remains unrivaled in population density.

However, young people in New York are also unrivaled in their ability to rally together behind a common cause. Our younger population is resilient, and have been granted a platform unlike any previous generation. It’s time we all start to use it to make sure we’re around to see a better planet — and a better city.

The author, currently a junior studying public policy at Duke University, is a graduate of Ethical Culture Fieldston School.

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Birk McCaffrey,