Earth needs a chimney sweep

Hard to defend soot, you’d think, yet Vandana Prakash pleads eloquently on behalf of the target du jour of global warming anxiety: rural villagers who produce soot in the mud stoves of India and Third World nations.
“From an individual point of view, I would say that an ocean is the accumulation of many, many little drops. At the same time, where global warming is concerned, I think ‘You versus Me’ is unlikely to help: To grudge the Third World poor their daily bread so that the First World can run its Hummers and air-conditioners hardly seems right.”
Prakash is a San Francisco Bay Area writer and lecturer on environmental policy. Writing in EcoWorldly on Wednesday, she was responding to an April 15 story in The New York Times that highlighted soot as a neglected contributor to global warming:
As women in ragged saris of a thousand hues bake bread and stew lentils in the early evening over fires fueled by twigs and dung, children cough from the dense smoke that fills their homes. Black grime coats the undersides of thatched roofs. At dawn, a brown cloud stretches over the landscape like a diaphanous dirty blanket.
Prakash urged dialogue, and just as she did so, Al Gore entered the tent like an elephant at a meeting of ministers of Arctic nations in Tromsø, Norway. Soot migrates to the Arctic as a dark haze that absorbs sunlight and warms the air, he said, then falls to the snow, darkening its surface so that it too absorbs sunlight and melts. Also called black carbon, soot derives not only from mud stoves but also from wild fires, agricultural fires, suburban barbecues, and the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal and diesel.
“The principal problem is carbon dioxide, but a new understanding is emerging of soot,” Gore said via Guardian UK. “Black carbon is settling in the Himalayas. The air pollution levels in the upper Himalayas are now similar to those in Los Angeles.”
Prakash defends mud stoves by putting them in perspective with First World carbon emissions and without minimizing the threat of global warming. But now that Gore has entered the conversation you can expect more shrill opposition to find a voice on soot. “Humans have been using fire for thousands of years!” they’ll insist, impatiently. Which is why whenever scientists are polled about the greatest threats to the environment, they sometimes list one higher than global warming: human overpopulation.

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