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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.



Severin Borenstein View All

Severin Borenstein is Professor of the Graduate School in the Economic Analysis and Policy Group at the Haas School of Business and Faculty Director of the Energy Institute at Haas. He received his A.B. from U.C. Berkeley and Ph.D. in Economics from M.I.T. His research focuses on the economics of renewable energy, economic policies for reducing greenhouse gases, and alternative models of retail electricity pricing. Borenstein is also a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, MA. He served on the Board of Governors of the California Power Exchange from 1997 to 2003. During 1999-2000, he was a member of the California Attorney General's Gasoline Price Task Force. In 2012-13, he served on the Emissions Market Assessment Committee, which advised the California Air Resources Board on the operation of California’s Cap and Trade market for greenhouse gases. In 2014, he was appointed to the California Energy Commission’s Petroleum Market Advisory Committee, which he chaired from 2015 until the Committee was dissolved in 2017. From 2015-2020, he served on the Advisory Council of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Since 2019, he has been a member of the Governing Board of the California Independent System Operator.

37 thoughts on “What wood smoke has taught me about fighting climate change Leave a comment

  1. 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 🙂

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

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

  5. 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.

  6. 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).

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

    • 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

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