A searching, sobering, sometimes-scary look at an overlooked carrier of climate change.
Since time immemorial, humans have been burning fires. As science journalist Mingle notes in this earnest first book, at some point during the day, each of us will spark a fire of some kind, burning coal and other substances to fuel our cellphones and cook our food. “We can turn wood, coal, and even our own waste into gas that becomes heat and light and motion and the thrumming binary dreams of supercomputers,” he writes, or overwrites; the narrative sometimes has the onrushing quality of a melting glacier. All these fires produce black carbon, something that, Mingle writes, is very real and very dangerous; the melting glaciers are liquefying in good measure because of the soot that is its measurable and visible manifestation. The best parts of the book are the on-the-ground reports, beginning in a remote Himalayan village and ending in the halls of the Capitol. It’s not for nothing that James Inhofe, the leading climate change skeptic in the U.S. Senate, has co-sponsored legislation to study and police the world’s rising mountains of soot, acting as “simultaneously a flagrant climate [change] denier and a black carbon hawk.” Conversely, the weakest parts of the narrative are obvious and too-long bits of filler: We don’t really need another retelling of the myth of Prometheus, for instance, to know that fire can have adverse effects. Still, Mingle is a solid interpreter of complex science, explaining, for example, how soot generated far away has deleterious results at the North Pole—says one of his sources, “reducing Arctic black carbon concentrations sooner rather than later is the most efficient way that we know of to retard Arctic warming”—and the workings of the Asian monsoon, which is also feeling the weight of too much particulate pollution.
If you weren’t worried about climate change before, this is just the book to kindle your angst. A promising debut.