A case for "Making the Clean Available"

Kirk’s recent thoughts on how to address household air pollution crystallized in a piece published this week in Energy Policy.

It’s a very clear framing of a complex problem, split into to two related thoughts: (1) We can make the ‘available’ (biomass) clean, by improving combustion efficiency and driving down emissions and/or (2) we can make the clean (gas and electric cooking) available. Number (1) above requires proof that we can make a stove that performs well in the field, not just in the lab, and will be used by consumers. To be seen. The second approach, though, looks to pull policy levers to make proven clean technologies available. A parallel is drawn to other health interventions, like vaccines:

The health sector does not rely on NGOs and local community groups to develop vaccines and anti-retroviral drugs, but works to develop the best and most effective possible interventions using modern technology. Then, by negotiating price reductions, royalty flexibility, and pre- purchase agreements, it works to bring down the price. In parallel, it works to put into place the local supply chains to bring these effective interventions to poor populations, which has important roles for NGOs and community groups. It however does not promote different vaccines for the poor and the rich— health is for all.

BBC's Your life on earth

Put in a few facts about yourself — birthdate, gender and heights — and get an assortment of facts about how the world has changed since your arrival.

Some of mine:

  • Population has increased by ~2.8 billion; life expectancy is 8 years longer than when I was born
  • BBC projects Oil and Coal will run out by the time I’m 80. They estimate gas supplies will continue beyond my life, but not my children’s.

If you were born 4 years ago:

  • Population has increased ~327 million — 10 million more than the US!
  • While you’re on average (in the US) 3.3 ft tall, a coastal redwood would have grown ~5ft.

Kind of fun. I’d be interested to know a bit more about their data projections. They do offer a little bit of information, at least, about where the data came from.

via kottke

Introducing HAPIT

I’ve lead recent efforts to create a web-based tool to estimate the impacts of household air pollution interventions (like stoves, gas dissemination, etc) using methods based on what’s known about household air pollution and its contribution to the Global Burden of Disease. The project began as an Excel-based spreadsheet before moving to the web leveraging Shiny, R, and a fair amount of javascript. From the site:

HAPIT estimates and compares health benefits attributable to stove and/or fuel programs that reduce exposure to household air pollution (HAP) resulting from solid fuel use in traditional stoves in developing countries. HAPIT allows users to customize two scenarios based on locally gathered information relevant to their intervention, which is the recommended approach. This will normally require preliminary field work at the dissemination site to demonstrate pollution exposures before and after the intervention in a representative sample of households. If no local information is available, however, HAPIT contains conservative default values for four broad classes of household energy interventions based on the available literature — liquid fuels, chimney stoves, rocket stoves, and advanced combustion stoves. As each country’s health and HAP situation is different, HAPIT currently contains the background data necessary to conduct the analysis in 55 countries — those with more than 50% of households using solid fuels for cooking and China, which has a lower percentage of households using solid fuels for cooking, but a high number in absolute terms. See the drop down list on the left and the Info tab for more details.

HAPIT also estimates program cost-effectiveness in US dollars per averted DALY (disability-adjusted life year) based on the World Health Organization’s CHOICE methodology (see Info tab for more detail). It takes a financial accounting approach in that it 1) does not take into account the household costs such as fuel and health expenses or time spent cooking or acquiring fuel and 2) assumes that programs are covering the cost of fuel-based interventions (such as annual LPG costs per household). For custom scenarios, users can adjust the per-household maintenance or fuel cost based on the characteristics of their programs. All program costs should be entered in current US dollars.

There are a number of nice features of HAPIT, but one I’m particularly fond of is the customized, session-based pdf generated by clicking “Download Report.” HAPIT’s a work in progress and will continue to evolve in the coming months.

NYT: "Emissions From India Will Increase"

India’s new Minister of Environment and Forests, in the New York Times:

The minister, Prakash Javadekar, said in an interview that his government’s first priority was to alleviate poverty and improve the nation’s economy, which he said would necessarily involve an increase in emissions through new coal-powered electricity and transportation. He placed responsibility for what scientists call a coming climate crisis on the United States, the world’s largest historic greenhouse gas polluter, and dismissed the idea that India would make cuts to carbon emissions.

“What cuts?” Mr. Javadekar said. “That’s for more developed countries. The moral principle of historic responsibility cannot be washed away.” Mr. Javadekar was referring to an argument frequently made by developing economies — that developed economies, chiefly the United States, which spent the last century building their economies while pumping warming emissions into the atmosphere — bear the greatest responsibility for cutting pollution.

Not great news. Vox has interesting coverage of this story, as well; the bottom of their story has a great collection of links.

Water, Salt, and Sugar

Nice, brief origin story of Oral Rehydration Salts and their deployment in Bangladesh. In particular, I enjoyed the parts describing the challenges of translating the science into practice in the field. Many of the lessons are relevant to our work in household energy and health.

  1. Use competent, well-trained field workers — and figure out clever ways to incentivize good, thorough work.

So how did BRAC tackle this daunting challenge? A three-month field trial in 1979 tested whether mothers recalled BRAC field workers’ instructions on how to prepare O.R.S. This was no easy task considering that poor, illiterate households did not have measuring spoons or cups.

BRAC’s verbal guidelines included the dangerous symptoms of diarrhea, when to administer O.R.S. and how to make it with a three-finger pinch of salt, a handful of sugar and a half liter of water. In another critical step, monitors returned to villages days or weeks after the initial instruction to quiz the mothers. Health workers were paid according to how many questions their subjects answered correctly, thus incentivizing quality instruction and not just the number of lessons. The trial found that verbally trained illiterate and semi-literate rural mothers could make properly formulated O.R.S. that passed laboratory tests.

  1. Ensure that field workers believe in and, when appropriate, use the items and practices they are promoting.

[Mr. Fazle Abed, BRAC’s founder and chairperson] identified other early hurdles that slowed the adoption of O.R.S. by mothers. After inquiring about slow adoption in some villages, he found that only a fraction of health workers believed in O.R.S. themselves; they didn’t even use it to treat their own diarrhea. To dispel doubts among trainers, BRAC brought them from the field to research labs in Dhaka to scientifically show how O.R.S. worked. Health workers were then advised to convince distrustful villagers by sipping O.R.S. during household training sessions.

  1. Don’t ignore the men, who have disproportionate sway over household decisions in many parts of the world.

After this breakthrough, adoption of ORS increased but then plateaued. Again, Mr. Abed tried to find the root of the problem. He enlisted anthropology students in Dhaka to interview people about why they weren’t using O.R.S. They found that men were alienated from the discussions between female health workers and mothers and so withheld support for O.R.S. In villages, “we had to take men into confidences so we told them exactly how O.R.S. worked,” Mr. Abed recalled. When men were included in discussions, adoption of O.R.S. increased significantly.

Obviously not a perfect analogy. ORS is curative — a response to ill-health — and requires a change in treatment behavior. Arguably the need for ORS decreases in a world with adequate access to clean water and sanitation — but absent that panacea, removing barriers to affordable, easy treatment is essential. The shift we seek to encourage, towards clean cooking, is meatier — it requires big changes to routine behavior. The lessons above still hold, though. We need field workers who believe in the interventions (and, conversely, interventions worthy of their belief), we need to compensate them well, and we need buy-in from whole communities.

Kirk R. Smith in Science: In Praise of Power

Professor Kirk R. Smith in an editorial in Science:

Along with advanced biomass combustion, biogas, liquefied petroleum gas, natural gas, and other clean fuels, electric cooking needs to be directly incorporated into modernization plans for the world’s poorest people.

For those worried about CO2 emissions from power plants, consider that modest efficiency measures that reduce 3% of electric power consumption in rich countries (which are also largely supplied by coal) would “free” enough electricity to supply half of all biomass households with induction stoves. New supplies of electricity would produce far less than a 1% increase in global CO2 emissions.* It is not the cooking of the poor that threatens the climate.

Switching from solid to clean forms of energy can bring more health benefits than nearly any other modernization, including clean water and sanitation.† It is too early to tell whether induction cooking can be successfully promoted in biomass-using rural areas, but not too early to predict that electric cooking appliances will be attractive to people as electricity becomes more reliable. Although in one sense the most mundane of energy issues, given that billions do not use modern fuels in their households and suffer great impacts on health, welfare, and the local environment as a result, finding solutions for providing electricity has important implications for global health and sustainable development.

Citizen Science: Long Island Weather Observer

NY Times story about Richard Hendrickson:

Twice a day, every day, he has recorded the temperature, precipitation and wind from the same area of Bridgehampton. He has been at it through 14 presidencies, 13 New York governorships and 14 mayoralties in that city 96 miles away. The Weather Service says he has taken more than 150,000 individual readings.

His is the longest continuous streak in the history of the Weather Service, which has 8,700 such volunteers nationwide, including 55 in the New York area. The agency says he is the first to serve for more than eight decades. And to answer the obvious question, yes, he has been known to take the occasional vacation. In his 20s, he went to New Zealand — “as far away as you can get,” he said. His mother filled in at the weather station.

Mr. Hendrickson’s daily diary, kept since Jan. 1, 1931, records weather data and family matters. The Weather Service recognized Mr. Hendrickson last month with an award named for him. He said he did not realize until after a ceremony in Upton that he was getting the Richard G. Hendrickson Award, and he sounded embarrassed that the meteorologists had made such a fuss. He did not mention that notables like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington had kept weather records or that Thomas Jefferson had done so from 1776 to 1816 — less than half as long as he has.

Incredible. He started when he was 17. He’s 101 now. 101.

Hard to imagine today, when we expect these things to occur on their own, without intervention. I like this better. Routine thoughtfulness.

The Archdruid Report & Climate Clarity

John Michael Greer, communicating articulately about perturbations to complex systems (read: climate) at The Archdruid Report:

The next time you fill a bathtub, once you’ve turned off the tap, wait until the water is still. Slip your hand into the water, slowly and gently, so that you make as little disturbance in the water as possible. Then move your hand through the water about as fast as a snail moves, and watch and feel how the water adapts to the movement, flowing gently around your hand. .

Once you’ve gotten a clear sense of that, gradually increase the speed with which your hand is moving. After you pass a certain threshold of speed, the movements of the water will take the form of visible waves—a bow wave in front of your hand, a wake behind it in which water rises and falls rhythmically, and wave patterns extending out to the edges of the tub. The faster you move your hand, the larger the waves become, and the more visible the interference patterns as they collide with one another.

Keep on increasing the speed of your hand. You’ll pass a second threshold, and the rhythm of the waves will disintegrate into turbulence: the water will churn, splash, and spray around your hand, and chaotic surges of water will lurch up and down the sides of the tub. If you keep it up, you can get a fair fraction of the bathwater on your bathroom floor, but this isn’t required for the experiment! Once you’ve got a good sense of the difference between the turbulence above the second threshold and the oscillations below it, take your hand out of the water, and watch what happens: the turbulence subsides into wave patterns, the waves shrink, and finally—after some minutes—you have still water again.

This same sequence of responses can be traced in every complex system, governing its response to every kind of disturbance in its surroundings…

… Once things begin to oscillate, veering outside usual conditions in both directions, that’s a sign that the limits to resilience are coming into sight, with the possibility of chaotic variability in the planetary climate as a whole waiting not far beyond that. We can fine-tune the warning signals a good deal by remembering that every system is made up of subsystems, and those of sub-subsystems, and as a general rule of thumb, the smaller the system, the more readily it moves from local adjustment to oscillation to turbulence in response to rising levels of disturbance.

Small site changes

I’m making a small (but fundamental) change to the way the site works to reflect the traffic coming to the site (which has mainly been directed towards environmental health and other work/science related posts).

For the foreseeable future, snarglr.com will only display posts from the environmental health and science categories; all other posts (including the more fun ones) will be accessible from snarglr.com/all/.

For those who appreciate the more whimsical and fun posts, you can visit snarglr.com/all moving forward or click the “View All Posts” link in the sidebar.

Gates Notes: Two Videos That Illuminate Energy Poverty

Bill Gates, at his blog:

Many developing countries are turning to coal and other low-cost fossil fuels to generate the electricity they need for powering homes, industry, and agriculture. Some people in rich countries are telling them to cut back on fossil fuels. I understand the concern: After all, human beings are causing our climate to change, and our use of fossil fuels is a huge reason.

But even as we push to get serious about confronting climate change, we should not try to solve the problem on the backs of the poor. For one thing, poor countries represent a small part of the carbon-emissions problem. And they desperately need cheap sources of energy now to fuel the economic growth that lifts families out of poverty. They can’t afford today’s expensive clean energy solutions, and we can’t expect them wait for the technology to get cheaper.

Gates links to two videos from political scientist Bjorn Lomborg. They’re interesting and decent encapsulations of issues we grapple with regularly. We know what works, and indeed most of us in the developed world use either gas or electricity — or both — to cook everyday. Offering solutions that only partially protect health seems morally dubious, a point Lomborg and Gates make. Lomborg’s videos are embedded below. Grist for the mill.

Paulson on Climate Change and the Price of Inaction

Henry M. Paulson, writing in the NYT:

In a future with more severe storms, deeper droughts, longer fire seasons and rising seas that imperil coastal cities, public funding to pay for adaptations and disaster relief will add significantly to our fiscal deficit and threaten our long-term economic security. So it is perverse that those who want limited government and rail against bailouts would put the economy at risk by ignoring climate change.

This is short-termism. There is a tendency, particularly in government and politics, to avoid focusing on difficult problems until they balloon into crisis. We would be fools to wait for that to happen to our climate.

When you run a company, you want to hand it off in better shape than you found it. In the same way, just as we shouldn’t leave our children or grandchildren with mountains of national debt and unsustainable entitlement programs, we shouldn’t leave them with the economic and environmental costs of climate change. Republicans must not shrink from this issue. Risk management is a conservative principle, as is preserving our natural environment for future generations. We are, after all, the party of Teddy Roosevelt.

We maaaaaaa-aade it! Fox News goes after cookstove research.

“First, they came for your lightbulbs… Now the EPA, using taxpayer money to target kitchen stoves… Soon they’re coming… not just here, in third world countries. Why? Because climate change.”

The Petroleum Product That Can Save Millions Of Lives Each Year

Professor Kirk R. Smith, writing at Forbes:

The fracking furor over shale gas is the latest in a series of environmental debates that have bedeviled the oil and gas industry in spite of what might be considered an enviable record compared to related industries, coal for example. From off shore spills to the Keystone Pipeline, the industry probably feels a bit set upon at times. Similarly, its products are often the focus of environmental concern and consequent strict regulation, for example diesel air pollution. Finally, it often bears the brunt of concerns about carbon dioxide emissions leading to climate change risks.

The industry might keep in mind, however, that one of its products, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG — bottled gas containing propane and butane), is actually the most effective solution available for the largest environmental health risk in the world: cooking with solid fuels.


There is some opposition in the environmental community to promoting LPG, a fossil fuel, because of climate concerns. In reality, however, because of the poor combustion typical in biomass stoves, which produces black carbon, methane, and other climate-active pollutants, and the often non-renewable nature of the biomass supplies, which results in CO2 emissions, the net climate impact of a switch to LPG would be negligible. Even if only considering CO2, the incremental impact on global emissions of a switch to LPG would be no more than a percent of the emissions from the developed sector globally. It is not cooking by the poor that poses risk to the climate.

Nature: Deadly Dinners

A decent journalistic piece in Nature about household energy use and health. My favorite bit, from the one-two punch of Kirk Smith & Kalpana Balakrishnan:

After decades of battling to get people to use improved cooking-stoves, many researchers worry that such devices will never win over consumers and thus never achieve the desired health and climate gains. “My bottom line is that nothing works,” Smith says. “The only thing we know that’s ever worked is gas and electric.”

Balakrishnan makes a moral argument against improved cooking stoves, which still produce harmful amounts of pollutants compared with LPG or electric ones, powered by remote energy plants that comonly use fossil fuels. “Are you justified in saying that it’s OK to be just a little bit better?” she asks. “If it’s OK for 40% of the population to use fossil fuels, then why is not OK for the other 60% of the population? How can we have dual standards?”

Nature chimes in on clean cookstoves

Today, in Nature:

Even though high-profile programmes have distributed millions of stoves to households in south Asia, Africa and Latin America, it is hard to find signs that the stoves are being widely used. There is a vast gap between reported accomplishments and what researchers see when they step into people’s homes.

The crux of the problem is that simply supplying the stoves does not establish demand for them.


Efforts could be redirected to providing people with the energy they most aspire to: not a stove designed by someone in the developed world to cook cleaner, but the actual stoves used in the developed world, which run on electricity or hydrocarbons such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

This is not an absurd goal. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that bringing electricity and clean-cooking facilities to every person on Earth by 2030 will cost US$49 billion a year. Although that is a considerable sum, the agency points to major commitments by Indonesia, Ghana and Nigeria to aggressively switch large portions of their population to cooking with LPG.

Where will all this new energy come from? It will require some additional consumption of fossil fuels, and that will increase the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But the extra pollution would be minimal at the global scale: the IEA estimates that it would boost CO2 emissions by just 0.7% above its base scenario.


Climate Change: If you see something, say something

Powerful opinion piece by Michael E. Mann in the NYT:

If scientists choose not to engage in the public debate, we leave a vacuum that will be filled by those whose agenda is one of short-term self-interest. There is a great cost to society if scientists fail to participate in the larger conversation — if we do not do all we can to ensure that the policy debate is informed by an honest assessment of the risks. In fact, it would be an abrogation of our responsibility to society if we remained quiet in the face of such a grave threat.

This is hardly a radical position. Our Department of Homeland Security has urged citizens to report anything dangerous they witness: “If you see something, say something.” We scientists are citizens, too, and, in climate change, we see a clear and present danger. The public is beginning to see the danger, too — Midwestern farmers struggling with drought, more damaging wildfires out West, and withering record summer heat across the country — while wondering about possible linkages between rapid Arctic warming and strange weather patterns, like the recent outbreak of Arctic air across much of the United States.

How will history judge us if we watch the threat unfold before our eyes, but fail to communicate the urgency of acting to avert potential disaster? How would I explain to the future children of my 8-year-old daughter that their grandfather saw the threat, but didn’t speak up in time?

Those are the stakes.

Bill Murray's Ask Me Anything on Reddit

As with all things Bill Murray, this is a gem. My favorite question and answer is the top one in the thread (for now):

Q. If you could go back in time and have a conversation with one person, who would it be and why? (from anniedog03)

A. That’s a grand question, golly.

I kind of like scientists, in a funny way. Albert Einstein was a pretty cool guy. The thing about Einstein was that he was a theoretical physicist, so they were all theories. He was just a smart guy. I’m kind of interested in genetics though. I think I would have liked to have met Gregor Mendel.

Because he was a monk who just sort of figured this stuff out on his own. That’s a higher mind, that’s a mind that’s connected. They have a vision, and they just sort of see it because they are so connected intellectually and mechanically and spiritually, they can access a higher mind. Mendel was a guy so long ago that I don’t necessarily know very much about him, but I know that Einstein did his work in the mountains in Switzerland. I think the altitude had an effect on the way they spoke and thought.

But I would like to know about Mendel, because i remember going to the Philippines and thinking “this is like Mendel’s garden” because it had been invaded by so many different countries over the years, and you could see the children shared the genetic traits of all their invaders over the years, and it made for this beautiful varietal garden.


Council on Foreign Relations: Vaccine Preventable Disease Map

It’s been a long time, blog. Blame India and Nepal. Both of which are seemingly under-represented in the below map. The embed code’s not great — click on a region or pull the map around a bit to see their assessment. Or, better yet, view the map in your full browser window here.

For the past three years, the Global Health program at the Council on Foreign Relations has been tracking relevant reports to produce an interactive map plotting global outbreaks of diseases that are easily prevented by inexpensive and effective vaccines. The diseases include measles, mumps, whooping cough, polio, and rubella.

“These outbreaks illustrate a worrying trend and raise the sense of alarm regarding failures in and public resistance to vaccine efforts,” says CFR senior fellow for global health Laurie Garrett. “Small decreases in vaccine coverage are known to lead to dramatic increases in outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases,” she explains.

Venus, Mars, the Earth and Moon from Saturn

NASA and JPL continue to release some incredible images. Click the image to see a large version in a new window; click here to see huge ones over at NASA.

Humbling and magical.

On July 19, 2013, in an event celebrated the world over, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft slipped into Saturn’s shadow and turned to image the planet, seven of its moons, its inner rings — and, in the background, our home planet, Earth.

With the sun’s powerful and potentially damaging rays eclipsed by Saturn itself, Cassini’s onboard cameras were able to take advantage of this unique viewing geometry. They acquired a panoramic mosaic of the Saturn system that allows scientists to see details in the rings and throughout the system as they are backlit by the sun. This mosaic is special as it marks the third time our home planet was imaged from the outer solar system; the second time it was imaged by Cassini from Saturn’s orbit; and the first time ever that inhabitants of Earth were made aware in advance that their photo would be taken from such a great distance.

With both Cassini’s wide-angle and narrow-angle cameras aimed at Saturn, Cassini was able to capture 323 images in just over four hours. This final mosaic uses 141 of those wide-angle images. Images taken using the red, green and blue spectral filters of the wide-angle camera were combined and mosaicked together to create this natural-color view. A brightened version with contrast and color enhanced (Figure 1), a version with just the planets annotated (Figure 2), and an annotated version (Figure 3) are shown above.

This image spans about 404,880 miles (651,591 kilometers) across.

Some more graphs of Beijing's Air Pollution

A bunch of folks across the internet have been doing some great stuff with the air quality data coming out of China via official channels and the US Embassy twitter feeds. My advisor asked for some graphs of available data. They are posted below (all were created in R using ggplot2). If time ever permits, I’ll post some interactive visualizations.

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