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author: Nalini Chhetri

Blaming the stoves of the poor for global warming

The New York Times’ article of April 16, 2009 on “Third-World stove soot is target in climate fight” is a piece that makes you want to throw up your hands in despair – why is the world’s poor invariably targeted as being responsible for global warming? The article points out that while the stoves of the poor in developing countries do not contribute to carbon dioxide emission per se (their contribution is “near zero” in carbon dioxide emission), they contribute, nevertheless, to soot or black carbon which is responsible for “18 percent of the planet’s warming.” The article notes that this black soot is being seen as a “major and previously unappreciated source of global climate change,” and scientists recommend “low-soot stoves” to alleviate this problem.

The real worrisome aspect of the article is not so much in the technological fix recommended as alternatives for the soot spewing stoves that the poor in India are using. It is rather that the poor continue to be viewed as passive unthinking collection of humanity who is unaware that their stoves are detrimental to their health, and the environment. That scientists and well-intentioned writer of this piece, Elizabeth Rosenthal, should provide such a skewed view of the poor, gives cause for pause. So do the poor who use such smoke spewing stoves not know the harm that they cause? A women’s interview in the same article suggests that they do but they continue to use them anyway – why? That is the more pertinent question. Those who have worked with the poor know that the stove itself is not problem, rather it is a triage of related factors – scarcity, access and cost of fuel that compels the poor to continue using their cheaper, more accessible, almost maintenance-free stoves, and accept smoke as the inevitable byproduct of choices they have been compelled to make. So they continue to use the iron tripod stand or rocks that pass off as stoves because they are the only affordable and accessible way of cooking.

The reductionist aspect of envisioning global warming as caused by soot emitting stoves misses the more complex web of poverty that compels people to do so in the first place. It is also unsurprisingly but consistently a paternalistic way of viewing the survival strategy of the poor. Development history has taught us that unless poverty is addressed in a comprehensive manner, targeted interventions, no matter how well-intentioned, does not make a difference, and may make it worse sometimes. Climate scientists recommending low soot stoves that reduce particulate matter do not address the more embedded problem of poverty and the challenges of accessing scarce firewood, or even relearning of new skills required to adopt new stoves. The assumption that new technology in and of itself will alleviate, if not solve, soot emission, appears both pigheaded and a refusal to admit to the need for multi-dimensional approach to solving the human dimensions of climate change. As experience shows, such assumptions could lead to costly and harmful consequences.

Scientists must be willing to acknowledge that only with improvement in the quality of life such as better education and better access to opportunities does it even make sense to claim that the soot from stoves of the poor is contributing to global warming. Until that happens, we stand on shaky grounds to have the audacity to point out ways to improve how the poor in India or elsewhere should cook, let alone indicate, even remotely, that they are contributing to global warming.

Discussion

8 comments for “Blaming the stoves of the poor for global warming”

  1. I always complain whenever they point third world countries as irresponsible for all those hectares lost by deforestation. Europe was built after their forests were depleted to the point where today they have a patch landscape where few parts have a connection for life. But this is what is called DEVELOPMENT and now there is the fashion to label it SUSTAINABLE. If that is what it means to have a sustainable development, I really don’t wish THAT model for my country or region.

    Posted by Cecy GP | April 22, 2009, 11:07 am
  2. I think that you are saying that, in the absence of any alternative cooking technology and fuel, it is audacious to blame the poor for GW. But that is different than saying that “we stand on shaky grounds to even have the audacity to point out the ways to improve how the poor in India or elsewhere should cook.” I agree with the first point but not the second. You are saying that a technological solution is not as good as a more global, systemic approach to social reform via “improvement in quality of life such as with better education and better access to opportunities.” This case is similar to Dan Sarewitz’s analysis of the development of a malaria vaccine vs the distribution of mosquito net. The net requires an administrative and educational infrastructure that has proven to be a bigger social challenge as well as a less effective path than expected. A vaccine for malaria would be more effective in that it would have major immediate positive outcomes without requiring major changes to existing social, psychological and political communities involved (the Apocalypse Now counterexample notwithstanding). In a similar way, an energy efficient, inexpensive, easy to operate, low pollution cook stove, as an alternative to the sooty woodstove, has positive impact on individual health, firewood resources, and atmospheric pollution. And it is an alternative that does not require a generation-long education reform program. Given that neither malaria vaccines, nor alternative cook stove fuel do not yet exist, the question is a matter of prioritization of research and development. In other words, where should the money be spent? on programs of social, or technology development? While there is no one-size-fits-all answer to such a question, in the case of the cook stove (as in the case of malaria), I believe technology development is potentially the more suitable, more effective answer.

    Posted by aizad | April 23, 2009, 4:18 pm
  3. Global warming has been outed as a massive scam; no more funding should go into the research.

    Posted by Mortgage Refinancing Grand Rapids MI | March 10, 2010, 9:49 pm
  4. im not sure how people can realize this issue more serious..

    all stuff that we used is trigger globalwarming

    Posted by foodi | April 19, 2010, 7:58 pm
  5. In this day and age we have the knowledge and know how to solve or reduce this cook stove situation. The bottle neck as I see it is whether the governing body wants to education and assist in a program geared to resolving the apparent situation in there own country.

    Posted by Ringworm Treatment | April 30, 2010, 4:53 pm
  6. n a similar way, an energy efficient, inexpensive, easy to operate, low pollution cook stove, as an alternative to the sooty woodstove, has positive impact on individual health, firewood resources, and atmospheric pollution. And it is an alternative that does not require a generation-long education reform program. Given that neither malaria vaccines, nor alternative cook stove fuel do not yet exist, the question is a matter of prioritization of research and development.

    Posted by iyinet frmtr trkygnclr webmaster seo yarışması | May 3, 2010, 1:16 am
  7. there is no one-size-fits-all answer to such a question, in the case of the cook stove (as in the case of malaria), I believe technology development is potentially the more suitable, more effective answer.

    Posted by new era red bull hats | May 7, 2010, 8:38 am
  8. we should do something against global warming, but what?

    Posted by k3mo | May 19, 2010, 7:20 pm

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