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How to Slow Climate Change? Stop Talking About It

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Three billion people around the world use cookstoves that cause up to 2 million premature deaths every year and contribute to global warming.

Listening to President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday evening, I found myself thinking about black carbon -- even though he never once used the phrase. Until recently, in fact, I doubt that many people had even heard of it. Black carbon? Maybe it’s the stuff that’s left over on the barbecue after you’ve finished grilling the hot dogs?

But the reduction of black carbon emissions has suddenly moved to the center of the climate debate -- and the beauty of it is that it’s unnecessary to utter the word climate at all, because getting rid of black carbon brings so many other benefits. Even the egregious John Tierney, who can never resist a swipe at the advocates of a global carbon treaty, has come on board. In his regular column last week in the New York Times, Tierney was one of the many commentators to draw attention to an article about black carbon emissions by two dozen distinguished scientists from around the world in the January 13 issue of Science magazine.

So what is black carbon? The easy shorthand is that it’s soot, and in the developing world it’s largely the product of burning wood, animal dung, or crop residues in primitive cookstoves. It isn’t a greenhouse gas; it comes in the form of countless billions of tiny, dark particles that absorb sunlight -- and that means that the net effect on atmospheric temperatures is much the same. By depositing dark soot on white snow and ice and increasing their absorption of sunlight, black carbon accounts for a substantial amount of the melting of glaciers and ice sheets from the Arctic to the Himalayas. In fact, it accounts for about 18 percent of all global warming emissions, second only to carbon dioxide.

The nastiest thing about this newcomer to the climate debate is that its effects are not limited to the warming of the atmosphere. Visit a poor household in South Asia or Africa, and you’ll see blackened kitchen walls and women choking over the smoke from their stoves. Go to the local clinic, and you’ll find children dying of preventable respiratory diseases. As the authors of the report in Science point out, getting rid of black carbon could save anything from 0.7 to 4.7 million lives a year. And that’s not all. The stoves that generate black carbon also generate ozone, a ground-level pollutant that causes billions of dollars in crop losses in the developing world.

The beauty of eliminating black carbon, then, is that it deals with multiple threats afflicting the developing world, from the long-term loss of water from disappearing glaciers to out-of-control child mortality to declining yields from agriculture. This is where Tierney has to get in his obligatory swipe: environmentalists don’t care about the huddled masses struggling to grow rice, because of their "lack of glamour." The plight of the poor, he says, "is less newsworthy than negotiating a global treaty on carbon at a United Nations conference."

Ah, those glamorous U.N. conferences on climate change! All those long, pre-dawn hours spent wrangling over every comma in resolutions taking note of this, and cognizant of that, and gravely concerned by the other, and calling for steps to facilitate the effective implementation of appropriate mechanisms to… whatever. Personally I’d rather have a root canal.

Tierney’s argument, aside from being spiteful, is based on totally false premises. First of all, why are we worried about climate change in the first place? Because we want the planet to remain habitable. In other words, we want people to have sufficient water, produce food in a sustainable way, and minimize the escalating threats to their health. Second, the decision to take action against black carbon emerged from the highest levels of the climate treaty crowd that Tierney so disdains. At the most recent U.N. climate conference, in Durban, South Africa, in December, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme, Achim Steiner, declared that black carbon would be the centerpiece of the agency’s "fast-action agenda" against climate change.

The most ambitious effort in the world to curtail black carbon emissions is in India, and it grew directly out of conversations between one of the world’s leading climate experts, Veerabhadran Ramanathan (who is also one of the authors of the article in Science), and Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It’s called Project Surya (the word surya means sunlight in Hindi), and it involves the replacement of traditional mud stoves with clean-burning stoves. (I went to see the project just a couple of days after meeting with Pachauri in New Delhi last November, and I’ll be writing more about it in the next issue of OnEarth magazine.)

Ramanathan’s reasons for launching Project Surya, and Pachauri’s enthusiasm for working with him, were twofold. One, Ramanathan is a world-class climate scientist who saw a way of sidestepping the obstacles to a global carbon treaty. (And because black carbon only remains in the atmosphere for a matter of days -- CO2 lingers for more than 100 years -- getting rid of it brings almost instant results. Two, he’d been haunted since childhood by the image of his grandmother coughing and wheezing over the dung stove in the smoke-blackened kitchen of the family home in South India. Slowing climate change and protecting public health were inseparable goals for him, in other words.

While the president never used the words black carbon on Tuesday night, two things brought it to mind: first, his acknowledgment that, "The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change," and second, the moment when the camera panned briefly across the grim visage of Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the most obdurate of all climate deniers. The beauty of eliminating black carbon is that it can bring a smile even to Inhofe’s face. Because it’s a local matter, and has such obvious humanitarian benefits, it avoids the political third rail of a carbon treaty at the U.N. and legislation in Washington. Surprising as it may seem, Inhofe was one of the co-sponsors of a bipartisan bill in 2009 (on Earth Day, no less!) directing the EPA to study the impact of black carbon emissions on public health and global warming.

So does it matter what words we use? Public health or climate change? Cynics or purists will probably say it does: that talking about dying babies in Asia and Africa is a weasely cop-out, an act of political surrender, an evasion of our responsibility to educate the public about the coming apocalypse. But surely it’s the results that count, and we need to buy as much time as we can to bear down on the ultimate problem of rallying the public, and the world, once and for all against CO2. Attacking black carbon does that. Public health, climate change: to me, the rose, by either name, smells just as sweet.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >
You want us to stop climate fluctuation. Get real.
My home is Arizona but I am in India at present working with Green Building Systems. I am seeing the continued raping of the countryside as people understand less about their environment and more about survival. Less about how destroying the forests has a long term effect on evaporation and local climate conditions. In Arizona from studying the forest conditions for the past 500 years, we can see a cause and effect to local climate change. We don;t all have to be believers to make a difference in our own backyards.
I am an AGW sceptic. I don't buy into the CO2 scare and sees global warming as generally beneficial for human kind. Still, I will sign up to all efforts to reduce black carbon as I see the immediate benefit to the health of billions. Add to that also a clean water initiative, abundant healthcare in developing countries and cheap electricity to all and you'll find us fighting on the same side. I dare say that i belive the vast majority of us skeptics share the same view.
Climate Change crisis from Human CO2 was not energy or clean water. It was a 26 year old death warrant to billions of children and a tragic exaggeration. Yes pollution is real but death for all from a climate "crisis" was not. Be happy. Have a parade.
We need to see the millions of members in the worldwide scientific community to join the hundreds of Climate Change protesters, otherwise exaggeration of “consensus” and “CO2 Fears” are still confirmed. REAL planet lovers are happy a crisis was avoided for “whatever reason”.
I repectfully suggest that we use the phrase "Global Warming" instead of "Climate Change" for the later is a euphemism created by a GOP propagandist to fog the issue. This tactic of deception has been successful and we are only increasing mass ignorance by using their terms.
Thanks for the comment. Yes, when the phrase "climate change" first entered the discussion it was often used to duck the language of "global warming" for political reasons. I continue to use "global warming" a lot, but I often find "climate change" more accurate when I'm describing the particular impacts. Changes in precipitation, for example, may not correlate with rising temperatures in particular settings. I actually find the term "climate disruption" the most useful and accurate of all, but outside of specialist audiences I tend to avoid it because people aren't familiar with it - and therefore it slows down the process of public education that I agree is essential. George
Is there such a thing as White Carbon, carbon is black, period. They are now producing a problem in the narrative, because we have been told so far that the West must cut its "carbon" emissions, when in fact they mean CO2, not soot, which is filtered out on modern fossil fuel plants. Now we hear that the developing world must reduce its carbon emissions, meaning soot not CO2, which they can't do much about without using cheap energy from fossil fuels, rather than open fires.
I agree, the terminology can be confusing. We've got into the habit of using the shorthand of "carbon," no doubt because that's easier on the ear than always saying "carbon dioxide" or "CO2" - which of course is not black, but a colorless gas. Now that black carbon has entered the debate so dramatically, we may need to think more about how to use these terms so people understand better what we're talking about. What's so exciting about the idea of reducing black carbon emissions in places like India is that it's a great opportunity to achieve rapid results - and as I've been arguing in several recent columns about India, the alternative is NOT to use cheap energy from fossil fuels, but to find ways of funding totally realistic clean alternatives. George
There are several small cooking stoves (and smaller camping stoves) around that help eliminate black carbon - Envirofit in USA are just one of the producers / suppliers (I have seen others but cannot recall who). We seem to subsidise global food supply with aid, so why not switch some of this into programs to supply these speciality cooking stoves into Africa & India, save fuel and save lives .... just an idea as the technology is already with us .... perhaps a suggestion for the Gates Foundation
Yes, Envirofit does a terrific job - important organization. They also do good work on retrofits of two-stroke engines - here's a video about that - Anyone who's interested in reading more about cookstoves should also take a look at an excellent article published a couple of years ago in the New Yorker magazine by Burkhard Bilger.
Hmmm ... let's see ... 1. This shifts the blame and discussion away from the developed world onto the shoulders of the least developed populations in the world. Much easier to cheer and support as Senator X and Representative Y won't be representing people impacted by this. 2. Why not discuss the mass mobilization / education / etc required to achieve this? 3. Focusing on Black Carbon leaves off the table any impetus for shifting toward a cleaner energy economy in the developed world. Every day that passes, 'we' are sinking more capital into capital goods that will be around for decades -- polluting, energy inefficient, otherwise ... a 'moratorium' on addressing that challenge because we're focused on Black Carbon isn't a solution. 4. Running away from the science does not lead to a solution nor does it help people understand what is happening and what is required to mitigate future impacts. To be clear, I support addressing black carbon issues (and have, for example, donated to integrated cooking and solar cooking efforts in the developign world). This is, however, not an 'either / or' situation but a "both" -- we need to be doing R&D into cleaner energy programs, we must be deploying renewable energy and executing energy efficiency, we must be fostering improved agricultural practices (improved productivity with lowered pollution), we must be working to drive down black carbon, we must ... PS: Burning fossil fuel impact is far from limited to climate change impacts -- health impacts are, for example, quite large.
I'm puzzled by much of your argument here, since the whole point about black carbon - as you rightly say at the end - is that it's a both/and, not an either/or. First of all, I have no idea why talking about black carbon "leaves off the table any impetus for shifting toward a cleaner energy economy in the developing world." Everyone who is talking seriously about black carbon reduction is equally committed to that shift. Second, this is absolutely not about shifting the blame or the discussion. It's about adding a promising new element to the discussion of climate change. No matter how passionately they feel about the principal onus being on the developed economies, which it is, no one in South Asia or Africa would see any "blame" here. On the contrary, there's enthusiastic support for doing something significant that might be feasible to address in the short term without the political obstacles that stand in the way of solving the larger problem. It's also a way of relieving the burden on those who are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change - including, as you say, the health impacts of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, the other range of efforts continue, and this buys a little time.
Sequence matters. We need to talk about climate, the question is how. Don't lead with it, it just gets both sides to put their dukes up. Start with faith or energy or... whatever, and then get into climate a bit later.