Winona Bateman from USA

Our legacy: the air we leave them to breathe

In early August 2021, as my family traveled down the spine of the Rocky Mountains, smoke hung in the air for nearly all 1,200 miles. In Salt Lake City, under a thick blanket of gray wildfire smoke and car exhaust pollution, we spotted a sign advising, “Water to survive, not thrive.” This sums our grim summer in the western U.S., and describes one possible future.

In Montana, families suffered 90+ temps for weeks, extreme drought, wildfires, and thick smoke. Families watched the air quality index closely each day to determine if their kids could play outside safely, and for how long. Camps that could be moved indoors did so. Some outdoor-only camps ran anyway, with parents left to make tough decisions between needed childcare and increased smoke exposure for their children. Those of us with privilege and flexibility kept our kids home. Most families don't have this option. Friends of mine rushed their children to the Emergency Room at a local hospital when their child's breathing became labored and needed support. One particularly bad smoke day, after taking a short time to play outside (after days of being sequestered inside) and begging me to play outside "just a little longer mama," my daughter acquired a hacking cough that lasted hours. It was heartbreaking, and could have been worse.

Montana's state nickname is "Big Sky Country." But this summer, our big beautiful sky was blotted out for weeks. Given that Montana is a hot spot for the climate crisis, warming faster than the global average, if we do not take bold action to end greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, this summer is likely a mild preview of what’s to come. Our children and grandchildren will certainly measure our care for them by the air we leave them to breathe.

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