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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

Kirk Smith, the world loses a rational and compassionate person

Kirk Smith died on the 15th of June of a heart attack and stroke. The stream of emails I'd been getting from him since 2008 had gone quiet ... but it wasn't till June 24th that I saw a NYT obituary and realised he was gone. The world has lost a scientist of extraordinary depth and compassion.

I came across Kirk Smith's work in 2008 ... about 4 years after I realised that climate change was a very big deal.

I'd made a submission to Ross Garnaut's Emission Trading Scheme review along with Peter Singer and Barry Brook. We had realised that the way methane was treated in National Inventories had no physical basis and energy economist Hugh Saddler had emailed me that Kirk Smith (who had two Professorial chairs at the University of California at Berkeley) had done good work on methane. And he had ... he'd realised the problem years before.

To climate scientists this wasn't news at all. They knew how methane worked in the atmosphere but didn't seem too concerned about national greenhouse gas inventories and their grubby accounting tricks. They were more interested in ensuring that climate models got the right results ... inventories were just politics.

So Kirk never saw national climate inventories fixed so that they reflected the facts about who and what is warming the climate. Most likely they'll never be fixed. How greenhouse gas inventories got so busted would make for a great history Ph.D, but the habits of decades will be impossible to break.

Kirk did eventually publish a major paper in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (US)) on the topic in 2013. Unsurprisingly to anybody who understood the concept of climate forcing (I'll explain below), Australia tops the global league table of climate vandals when you measure the warming impact per capita. Here's his graph:

Australia comes out on top as per-person climate vandals .. mostly because we had (and still have) the highest ratio of cattle to people on the planet (as indicated by the bulk of the blue bar). You can read the details in his paper.

A climate forcing is anything which changes the ratio of heat leaving the planet to heat arriving. Forcings are often gases like carbon dioxide and methane, but they can be non-gases. A change in the area of ice at either pole will change the amount of heat reflected back to space rather than being absorbed ... so ice is a forcing. Even a shift from dark coloured roofs to light ones can have an impact ... although it would have to be done on a massive scale! Put a tonne of methane up into the air and instantly it will trap more heat than 100 tonnes of carbon dioxide, but it breaks down in 12-20 years. So it's a short sharp hit to the climate. Read here for more details.

Kirk was incredibly generous with his time and sent me copies of presentation slides and sometimes pre-publication copies of papers.

But methane and climate science was just one of his wide range of concerns. He was, after all, a Professor of Public Health as well as Global Environmental Health. He spent a considerable amount of time in India measuring air quality in some of the poorest slums on the planet. He had an immense skill for honing in on the worst of health problems and not just studying them, actively setting up programs to fix them. Kirk measured air quality around women cooking on wood stoves and found they were generating pollution equal to about 400 cigarettes a day. This was killing their children and shortening the lives of everybody in the family. He established projects with students and industry to make cleaner burning stoves and eventually shifted into promoting LPG stoves. Air quality was a lifelong concern ... because it matters.

The global toll of air pollution was eventually estimated to be about 7 million per year with indoor pollution from cooking stoves killing some 3.8 million of those. It's hard to get such problems the attention they deserve, but the biggest reductions in such tolls come from the expansion of electricity grids. Electricity and plumbing are both brilliant medicine.

Kirk's penchant for ranking problems quantitatively saw him involved in one of the biggest projects ever undertaken to measure which diseases and activities cause the most health problems ... the Global Burden of Disease project.

What I didn't know about Kirk, until I read a New York Times obituary, was that he'd began his career in the 1970s looking at the health risks of nuclear power. He soon realised that more mundane everyday things like wood cooking stoves were a much greater risk; it's nice to have something else in common with such a person.



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