What wood smoke has taught me about fighting climate change

While much of the U.S. has been dealing with severe winter weather, California is experiencing a record dry spell.    The clear skies have also brought some cold nights and, with them, wood smoke.  What I’ve noticed in my neighborhood is that the desire for a cozy wood fire cuts across political lines.  And as the local air quality authority has called a record number of no-burn days due to poor air quality (high levels of PM 2.5, the fine particulates that can get through the respiratory system and lodge in lungs), the anger at restrictions on those cozy fires has also cut across political lines.

Many of these neighbors are friends of mine.  They are caring people who recycle their newspapers and bring home their groceries in reusable bags.    Most are concerned about pollution in general and believe that greenhouse gases are causing potentially devastating climate change.  Yet, they ignore warnings about the pollution from their wood fires, in some cases even blatantly violating the burning bans that have been called on nearly half of all days in the bay area since November 1.

The science on local particulate air pollution is settled – both that wood fires are the primary source in winter and that the health threat is significant.  And it takes much less imagination to understand the danger from wood smoke than the danger from carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.  Particulates are visible in higher concentrations and your nose, eyes and throat tell you that there is a problem with the air.  GHGs are invisible and odorless.


Addressing the wood smoke problem does not require a fundamental shift in the way we live.  Sure there is a sacrifice – even I enjoy a wood fire on occasion – but it doesn’t mean living in a colder house, traveling less, reducing electricity consumption or anything else that has a broad impact on standard of living.  The houses around me already have natural gas furnaces that are a less-expensive way to heat.

Yet, judging from news reports, letters to the editor in the local papers, and discussions with my neighbors, there is widespread resentment that the air quality district is restricting wood fires.  Many of the excuses are of the “my contribution is so small it doesn’t matter” variety.   One recent letter in the local paper dismissed policies that are designed to reduce pollutants so small that they aren’t even visible, a “what I can’t see couldn’t be that dangerous” attitude that I bet is more widespread that we’d like to admit.

My point here is not to scold my neighbors.  I think they are just as public-spirited as other people.  What I take away from this is that people have a strong ability to deny uncomfortable truths about pollution (and externalities more broadly) when the implication is that they need to change the way they live, even if the change is fairly small.  The changes we will have to make to address climate change are going to be much more challenging than just substituting a cleaner, easier and cheaper heating source for a dirtier one that is also a hassle to use.

This realization has helped move me in the last few years to argue for much greater emphasis on subsidies for R&D to reduce the cost of substitutes for fossil fuel.  The renewables advocates are right that we have the technology today to address climate change, but we don’t have the technology to address climate change without sacrifice.


There are people who will voluntarily sacrifice to reduce their pollution, but that’s not most people.  Even among the upper middle-class households in my neighborhood (by world standards, quite wealthy), most people react by denying the problem or denying their ability to have any impact on it.

Broad support for national or international strategies to reduce carbon emissions quickly dissipates if those policies turn out to be expensive (see Spain’s abandoning renewable subsidies) or if other priorities come to the fore (see how Germany’s decision to ditch nuclear power has led to increased coal-fired generation).  In the developing world, where incomes are much lower and the other threats to life are more immediate, sustained support for more-expensive alternative technologies will almost certainly be even more scarce.

These political realities also point out another, related, reason to lean towards greater R&D funding.  Any shift away from fossil fuels will create losers (think coal miners, oil drillers, Big Carbon shareholders).  If the loss is directly attributable to regulation (or even pricing GHGs) there will be tremendous pressure to loosen the regulation.  If it’s due to a new technology then all the government needs to do is step back and let the market have its way.  “Regulation is killing our industry” carries a lot more political heft than “A new lower-cost technology is killing our industry and we need government regulation to slow it down.”

Digital photography destroyed the film industry without a murmur of government intervention.  If the shift had been due to expensive regulations on film (even if they were good public policy), we’d still be getting our photos developed at the local drug store.

With apologies to Donald Rumsfeld (now there’s a phrase I didn’t ever imagine I’d be writing), we have to go to war against climate change with the human and political constraints that exist, not the benevolence, rationality, and far-sightedness that we wish existed.

About Severin Borenstein

Severin Borenstein is E.T. Grether Professor of Business Administration and Public Policy at the Haas School of Business. He has published extensively on the oil and gasoline industries, electricity markets and pricing greenhouse gases. His current research projects include the economics of renewable energy, economic policies for reducing greenhouse gases, and alternative models of retail electricity pricing. In 2012-13, he served on the Emissions Market Assessment Committee that advised the California Air Resources Board on the operation of California’s Cap and Trade market for greenhouse gases. Currently, he chairs the California Energy Commission's Petroleum Market Advisory Committee and is a member of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District's Advisory Council.
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35 Responses to What wood smoke has taught me about fighting climate change

  1. nancy white says:

    sorry… what is the Rumsfeld connection here?

    • Rodrigo says:

      NW: Rumsfeld famously said (this is a paraphras) “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish for” and I believe Severin is riffing off of that

  2. Being concerned about climate change has become a cultural affect for most people. Worrying about climate change is something we do. Actually doing something about climate is not something we do. I think that is the takeaway from everyone burning wood in their fireplaces.

  3. Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA says:

    Severin, I think you’ve hit the nail squarely on the head.

  4. Another green guy says:

    Yea, its interesting. We got an AQMD subsidy for our very clean-burning wood stove, which replaced an older stove. But the “spare the air” days do not distinguish between poorly burning fire places (that result in the visible wood smoke plumes rich in particulate matter, such as in your photo) and highly efficient wood stoves. When we operate our wood stove you can’t see a plume. Can we not recognize the difference in degree, as we do with old polluting cars vs. modern cars?

    • It might make more sense to have a pollution levy, say $1 a year for a car and $1,000 a year for a wood stove like yours that emits about 1,000 as much pollution per year as the average car, with a 50% rebate if you guarantee not to use it on “spare the air” days.

  5. Joseph Romm says:

    So we just give up — since we’ll never have the technology to address climate change without any “sacrifice” at all (whatever that means in a world where we are sacrificing the future for billions of people) since you’ve basically defined sacrifice as change?

    Sorry, don’t buy it. We have to go to war against climate change with the technologies that exist, not the ones we wish exist. There is no carbon free power source that will be cheaper than existing coal!! R&D is great, been advocating it for years, but its DEPLOYMENT that brings down costs.

    • Right on, Joe. A good first step would be protecting the incentives that have existed for some time for wind and solar power, and are regularly under attack by fossil-fuel-funded think tanks and members of Congress. Thanks for your continue emphasis on deployment rather than R&D (R&D is great, but when considered as an alternative to aggressive deployment, it just means kicking the can down the road).

  6. Steve Braithwait says:

    As a native Californian who now lives where you really need winter heating (Wisconsin), and a fireplace can be more than ornamental, my recommendation is that you suggest to your wealthy neighbors that they convert their wood-burning fireplaces to gas-burning versions. Modern versions are actually quite attractive, with artificial logs that look realistic, and flames that look like a burning fire with embers. Plus, they put out considerable heat (which makes our living room tolerable) and don’t extract heat from the room and put it up the chimney.

  7. nowoodfires says:

    And not having a cozy wood fire in your heated home is such an incredibly SMALL sacrifice to make!

  8. Azmat Malik says:

    The root of the problem is that we want to have it all … ‘feel good’ about ‘appearing to be doing good without really looking at the is-it-enough’. We have wasted [I will pick a number] about $5T on this ‘war on terror’ to ‘assure’ our safety and security. BUt we hesitate to sacrifice anything for the REAL security of the planet, nay, of the state, nay, of our own lawns. England has had the heaviest rainy season in decades, while the US West has the worst drought in decades.

    REDUCTION is the ONLY durable solution. Stay warm with clothes, and socks help a lot, not heating up the whole house. Use natural ‘systems’ as have been designed into the architecture for centuries in the central Asian region. Anything different is a short-term win.

  9. Peter Schwartz says:

    Severin, thanks for identifying this challenge. However, I think that the development of better and cheaper technologies will not solve the problem. Consistent with Jevon’s Paradox, such technological improvements will likely result in increased use of the related surface. Additionally, much of what you have shown me is that people are not rational. Even your present post would indicate that people are not going to always do what is easier, cheaper, more responsible. We are instead driven by fashion, attention, and lust. We want to flaunt and show off, which is often consistent with extravagant energy use. When actions consistent with environmental stewardship become sexy, we will likely see profound change in the choices we make. Surely, it’s happened in some aspects. There are people who would date a bicyclist over someone in a new car, no? How could we get the advertising industry to support the behavioral changes that we as a society find desirable?

  10. Rodrigo says:

    Interesting piece, Severin. But IMHO it seems like the point of it is undone by the wood-smoke example. You wish that substitutes for GHGs were more affordable and mainstream, not just availalble; hence the call for more R&D. The wood-smoke analogy falls apart here because, as you point out, there ARE mainstream and cheaper ways to warm a house. YET, wood-smoke persists. Isn’t the wood-smoke story is more of a classic commons problem and an example of why air commons are tougher to deal with than, say, earth commons (fisheries, land, etc). It seems as though in the case of the former the scarcity is harder to perceive and therefore value. I’m sure some clever economist has put this observation to work 🙂

  11. art2science says:

    This is a great commentary. But I’m not ready to generalize much from it. ALL behavioral changes take time. You may mostly be seeing the initial resistance, whereas after a few years people would get more on board. Public health campaigns have this character: seat belts, smoking, exercise, vaccination, and I bet even spittoons 100 years ago. Significantly changing behavior can take _decades_, so I’m not worried by one year of whinging from your neighbors. With luck, fashion/public taste eventually reaches a tipping point where the behavior is socially frowned on. As that spreads in different cultures, the pace of change accelerates.

    One problem with R&D subsidies is that they are unlikely to overcome the cost of retrofitting for a consumer. The only example I can think of is low power light bulbs; ;and look how long it is taking to get them refined and accepted by a large number of consumers. Businesses are much more rational.

    By the way, my wife a) insisted that we get a house with a fireplace, and b) asks me to use a log from time to time, even though it burns natural gas. I had some respiratory problems from the smoke, and she is rapidly reversing course. Human behavior, at least at the household level, is predicted and shaped better by _marketing_ than it is by _economics_. A heretical thought for economists, but when a company wants to increase its sales, who do they turn to? Don’t use only rationale arguments on your neighbors; use emotional ones.

    Azmat asks a good question: where is the house thermostat set by your neighbors; where did their parents set it 20 years ago?

  12. kakatoa says:

    The wood burning cook stove that was used to heat our 1883 house was removed between 1960 and 1980. If the flue was still around I would be tempted to look into some of the newer wood burning furnaces (or a sauna stove would work for our relatively modest home- sq ft wise, the sauna stove would be more than big enough if we ever upgrade out of the electric heaters in our in-law quarters) as the flue gases are greatly reduced with certain newer technologies- one example:


    Living in the foothills above Placerville, our housing density is low enough that the use of wood burning stoves isn’t as much of air pollution issues as it is down in the valley. Certain locations in the foothills the geography is such that wood smoke does not dissipate so some particulate issues have been reported.

    The primary air pollution in my specific location, in the winter, occurs during “burn days.” The wet biomass that many folks in the foothills dispose of via burning, doesn’t burn hot enough it seems as the particulate levels can be similar to when the occasional big forest fire affects the quality of the air up here in the foothills.

    The high price for propane has led to a bit more wood burning in my neck of the woods over the last few years. You can tell that the economy in the foothills hasn’t improved to pre-recession levels as the oak limbs that come down during high winds and snow/ice storms are usually salvaged within a few days. I am not a fan of folks using wet wood to heat with, but it has been happening.

    I was recently presently surprised by how a cabinet maker in my area found a good use for some dry clear cedar that was left over from a job he did for us (he trimmed the width of some siding for us so we could use it for different project at our place). Rather than recycle the 1.5” by 8,10 or 14 foot lengths of cedar (which would of ended up in the Sacramento county landfill and some years later the decomposition gases would of ended up in natural gas lines at the Keifer dump) he cut some of the scrap to fit into his wood burning stove for use at his shop and he took about a third of the material to the local approved homeless camp for their use. All in all I was thrilled with his approach to the scrap.

  13. Tony says:

    Aren’t you confusing pollution with climate change? They are not the same thing. When you burn wood you convert it to co2 quickly. When you put it into landfill it converts to co2 and methane slowly. The latter process actually produces more methane than the former and methane is a more potent greenhouse gas. The end result as far as climate change is concerned is that it is better to burn wood than let it rot..Not so?

    • Burning wood creates in an enclosed stove emits CO2, CO and methane (CH4) in various proportions depending on the combustion temperature and the setting of the stove’s air control. In most cases, the CO and CH4 emissions will cause more global warming (between now and the time when the world is likely to have exceeded the 2 degree temperature increase most people want to avoid) than heating a dozen similar houses with gas or an electric heat pump.
      If the wood is left to decompose naturally in the open air it probably won’t emit significant amounts of methane over the critical period when we need to beat global warming to avoid a 2 degree temperature increase. Glen Ayers, author of ‘The Methane Myth’ writes: “Forest debris left in the woods will produce very minor amounts of methane, if any, unless it is squashed into a swamp or buried in a stump dump. In fact, un-chipped slash is very slow to decompose, taking many years, and is unlikely to produce any measurable methane” http://www.greenfieldbiomass.info/uploads/The_methane_myth.pdf

  14. CG Dong says:

    It seems that the substitutive technology for wood fire already exists; so the problem distills down to a behavior question. We need creative marketing and fast enough deployment.

  15. David Lea says:

    Maybe the problem is how your local community is asking for no-burn days. Noah Goldstein (UCLA) just gave a talk here at UCSB illustrating how descriptive norms can be very effective at getting folks to change their habits. Maybe if the request had been stated as: “Won’t you join your neighbors, who during previous alerts have shown 75% compliance, and help preserve the environment by following our no-burn request”, cooperation might have been higher.

    • Tony says:

      Part of the problem is the nutty way they have implemented their no burn rule in the Bay Area. They treat the entire area from Napa to Gilroy as one single locality. If there is a pollution problem in Gilroy but Napa 60 miles away is fine, Napa is still not allowed to burn until Gilroy clears up. Who can have respect for a rule like that?

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  17. Brian Steel says:

    As always, the conversation spawned by the great blog posts from the Energy Institute is terrific. For me, the core of Severin’s post was the following statement: “Most people react by denying the problem or denying their ability to have any impact on it.” However, I think that “or” could have been replaced by “and,” underscoring the intractability of this challenge while suggesting that it is even more consequential.

    These all-too-human dynamics are at the heart of other climate-related challenges, whether one considers the net GHG impact of people flying cross-country to a climate change event (e.g., the wonderful upcoming ARPA-E summit in Washington D.C.), creating a warming effect equivalent to 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person, or the average California household sprinkling 115,000 gallons of potable water annually to maintain green lawns and other drought-intolerant plants. (Although, to be fair, the vast majority of the water use in California is for agriculture, industry, and power plants.) The vast majority of people, even those who acknowledge the problem, are very reluctant to change their habits and traditions in a significant manner.

    The solution set will necessarily comprise a mix of technologies (to allow people to do what they’ve been doing with fewer GHG emissions) AND regulation (from use limits/requirements to more sensible pricing signals to a carbon tax).

  18. Phil Plaza says:

    I live on a small organic farm in rural Oregon that is surrounded by what we preserve as living space for wildlife. There are trees that are decades old and fall or rot. I do cut some down and for every tree we burn I plant 10 more.We are near the poverty level, have no natural gas out here and propane is not our option. For every thing we do we try to be sustainable and recycle or reuse almost all material for our building needs. Our wood stove is Oregon state approved, cost us $4,000 to install and is about 87% efficient. The electricity comes from hydro power from the Columbia. Please let’s recognize that there is a place for efficient wood stoves, especially for poor rural elderly folks. All the talk about R%D, politically correct lifestyles, fossil fuel emissions are basically lifestyle choices, especially for “middle class” Americans. Let’s be sure to keep things in perspective.

  19. Gus says:

    For those city folks with their weatherized homes, a rip-roaring fire is a double-whammy. It can back draft their flues if they have a gas furnace or gas water heater. So, not only do they dump particulates in the air, they can foul the air inside their homes, unless they open a window. But, who opens a window when it is 10 degrees outside?

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  22. Stan Hadley says:

    Here’s a skeptics quote I’ve seen that resonates and adds to the difficulties in making progress on climate change with those on the fence. “I will believe there is a crisis when the people who say there is a crisis, act like there’s a crisis.”

  23. Matthew says:

    I consider wood smoke pollution to be a huge injustice and the sooner wood burning is completely banned the better. As prohibition is the only mitigation scheme that has been proven to work, and the need for clean unpolluted air so fundamental, I am still surprised 99.999% of the population isn’t with me yet. I put it down to ignorance and increasingly sheer selfishness. The science is settled, as you say both for the health effects (and deaths) it causes, and for it being the main source of winter particulate pollution.

    A lot of the excuses they use are because the wood burning industry has been lying for years. The biggest lie is of course that new “clean” certified stoves are better than old ones. What that doesn’t say is that they emit 1,000 times more than a gas fire. So yes certified stoves need complete banning as well.

    So great blog post Severin.

    Here’s my clean air website – http://cleairnz.com

    • Ernie says:

      wood burning/gasification is renewable, but natural gas/propane is not.

      going ‘electric’/clean in a country where electricity is primarily generated by burning fossil fuels is hardly positive. in most places, driving a prius/tesla = burning coal. i’m always amazed that this fact is ignored/suppressed.

      unlike electric “solutions”, self-sufficiency/sustainability can get you/family off the grid, which is a REAL positive change. urban dwellers need to remember that approx. 50% of the population is RURAL – very different lifestyle that is no less valid/important than urban living.

      i sympathize with people suffering from respiratory/asthma conditions, but expecting/demanding absolutely clean air in densely populated urban areas is rather naive. if you need clean air, then move/live someplace where you can have it, because imposing behavioral controls (esp. at higher cost$) on the many for the sake of the few is a losing battle, imo. not disagreeing with your point/efforts, just trying to inject some realism to the discussion.

      btw, the kuuma vapor wood gasification furnace recommendation above is on-point. wonderful, sustainable heat/energy technology for rural & suburban living.

      • Matthew says:

        And if you forget about particulate pollution you have completely failed to understand.

        Clean air is for the sake of all, not the few. If you demand the right to pollute in an urban environment then you have lost the moral argument. It is a selfish argument about you, and bugger the rest of us. Absolutely there should be a complete ban on all solid fuels in every residential area. Anything short of full prohibition is moral and political cowardice.

        The only technology that makes wood burning clean enough to be used in a residential area has never been invented.

  24. Marcos says:

    Please just stop burning crap. It’s that simple. As a person with asthma, I can attest that even the smallest amount of wood smoke, even from a so called EPA clean burning stove with dry wood etc., I feel actual physical discomfort and pain.

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