A Vermont Writer On Black Soot, Wood Stoves And Climate Change

Jan 27, 2016

When we hear about climate change in the media, the message tends to be of the gloom and doom variety. But there’s a message of hope to be found in a recent book about, of all things, soot.

In Fire & Ice: Soot, Solidarity and Survival on the Roof of the World, part-time Lincoln resident Jonathan Mingle writes that there are things we can all do to help ameliorate the effects of climate change.

It’s a bold premise for a book about a major – and, at times, lethal – polluter. In the developing world, 3 billion people still burn solid fuels like wood, dung and coal. They burn these materials in stoves that create soot — or black carbon — contributing to climate change, respiratory illnesses, and even premature death.

Mingle traveled to a remote Himalayan village in northern India to work with a community there on passive solar heating methods. And that journey sparked several years of reporting that culminated in his book.

Mingle spoke with VPR about his experience, and about how even Vermonters aren’t immune to the effects of soot.

On black carbon & climate change

"Black carbon are these ultra-fine particles that are produced anytime you have incomplete combustion of pretty much any fuel … It could be dung, it could be wood, could be a fossil fuel like diesel or kerosene.

A simple cooking set up in a herders' hut above Kumik. Black carbon is the number-two contributor to climate change, according to recent estimates, while the World Health Organization estimates that 4.3 million people die each year from household air pollution.
Credit Jonathan Mingle

"And there's been a lot of emerging science on black carbon, and what they’ve concluded is that it's the number-two contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide when you add up all of its effects."

On the number of people who die each year from household air pollution: 4.3 million

"That's the latest estimate of the burden of disease from the World Health Organization. It's a staggering number. There are 3 billion people around the world, most in the developing world, who rely on solid fuel, polluting fuels for cooking in heating and lighting.

"That number is just an estimate based on what people use for cooking and heating, because they don't have access to clean alternatives like gas and electricity — what you and I probably use in our kitchens."

On the lack of alternatives

"The village that I write about in the book, Kumik, is in a very remote part of India, a very high altitude valley called Zanskar. There are not a lot of trees that grow at that altitude and what few trees there are they mostly use for building material. So mostly they burn animal dung for cooking but also for heating. The winter is very long [and] it’s very cold. If they had an alternative they would use it. But being at the end of some very long supply chains, they just can't afford it."

Writer Jonathan Mingle, left, in Kumik. Black carbon only lasts an average of one to two weeks in the atmosphere, Mingle says. That efforts to reduce it yield immediate benefits, unlike with other longer-lived climate pollutants.
Credit Jonathan Mingle / Courtesy

On efforts to address the issue

"It’s a tricky engineering challenge, but it's also a tricky behavioral challenge because in different parts of the world people cook in very different ways … You're never going to design a stove that's one size fits all.

"But there are some interesting companies [working on this issue]. One I write about in the book is called BioLite. It’s based in Brooklyn and they've developed a camping stove for sale in the recreational market here in the U.S. And it’s powered by wood, twigs, and pinecones that you find in your campsite. It generates electricity to charge your phone or an LED light. And they're using the sales of that stove to subsidize the development of an affordable stove that uses the same technology for sale to households in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, where this problem is most prevalent."

EPA data shows that Vermonters produce the most emissions from burning wood per capita: 22 lbs. (That's nearly double the figure for second place, Wisconsin.) Are Vermonters contributing to the global soot problem and do they face some of the same health risks?

"Health is by far the greater concern. I think if you add it up Vermont's contribution to the global soot problem, in climate terms, it would be pretty negligibly small. But … you should be concerned if you're near a polluting source, because what you’re worried about is the fraction of pollution that you're breathing in or exposed to.

"There are a lot of wood stoves out there that are the older ones, [from] before the EPA certifications were instituted, I believe in the ‘90s. They can be polluting devices and if you're downwind or live right nearby, or use one yourself, you might want to think about swapping it out for a newer one, which really does burn a lot [cleaner]."

Villagers of Kumik break to share bread and tea while working together on construction of a solar community hall in the new village they are building, as they slowly abandon their old homes due to worsening drought.
Credit Jonathan Mingle / Courtesy

On the impermanence of black carbon

"Black carbon only lasts one to two weeks in the atmosphere, on average. Soot is derived from an old English word for "to sit" - soot is what settles ... [That's] why I (and the scientists I cite) regard it as such a "hopeful" story, after detailing all the damage black carbon does.

"Basically it means if you reduce black carbon emissions, you start to see benefits immediately, for both climate and health ... It's unlike almost all other climate-warming pollutants, which are much longer-lived, and which don't pose as direct a threat to human health as black carbon."

On hope and solidarity

"It's an incredibly daunting problem if you look at it in its entirety. But one reason I was drawn to black carbon is that I think it's a hopeful story. The big lessons I drew are: One, we can solve these daunting problems. We have the wherewithal, we have the know how. But two, the only way we will solve them is through solidarity, cooperative action. I mean, that's why I snuck the word solidarity into the subtitle of a book about soot."

This interview has been both condensed and augmented.