Kirk Smith air pollution researcher

Remembering Kirk Smith

Editor's note: Kirk Smith, founder of the modern field of indoor air pollution studies, died last week at age 73 after suffering a stroke.

John Holdren, President Obama's science advisor and the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard University, was Smith's Ph.D advisor when the two were at the University of California, Berkeley. Holdren wrote this reminiscence as a letter to friends. We are republishing it here with Holdren's permission.

Kirk Smith, who was only three years younger than I am, became my first Ph.D. student shortly after I arrived at UC Berkeley in the summer of 1973, as a newly minted assistant professor, to launch the campus-wide graduate program in energy and resources (soon the Energy and Resources Group, ERG).

Kirk and I quickly became close friends, together with our life partners Cheri Holdren and Joan Diamond.

Some of the fondest early memories of our offspring, Craig and Jill Holdren and Nadia Diamond-Smith, were formed in joint activities of the two families. We explored the Berkeley hills together; walked the beaches of Point Reyes and Kailua together; backpacked together; snorkeled and scuba-dived together; and, of course, Kirk and I worked together on energy and environment projects big and small.

Kirk had three co-equal advisors for his doctoral dissertation. The other two were West Churchman of the Business School and Bob Spear of the School of Public Health. But even three of us were not enough to be wholly on top of the amazing breadth and depth of Kirk's scholarship.

The title of his dissertation was "The Interactions of Time and Technology: Propositions Suggested by an Examination of Coal and Nuclear Power, Hazard Indices, the Temporal Judgments of Law and Economics, and the Place of Time in Mind and Myth."

I kid you not.

When Kirk finished his Ph.D. in 1977, I connected him with one of my own most significant mentors, the geochemist and international scientific statesman Harrison Brown.

Harrison promptly hired Kirk to create the energy program at the Resource Systems Institute that Harrison had just founded at the East-West Center in Honolulu. Not long thereafter Kirk started his pioneering work on indoor air pollution from primitive stoves in poorly ventilated huts in the Third World, entailing months-long forays in the countrysides of South Asia, East Asia, and Latin America to make pollution measurements and, later, to track the health impacts that his pollution measurements indicated would be there. (They were.)

Kirk's work was the first to establish that the impacts of indoor air pollution on health worldwide were at least comparable to, and plausibly larger than, the impacts of outdoor air pollution.

Kirk was, in essence, the founding father of the now flourishing field of indoor air pollution studies, but that was hardly all he did. He made important contributions to understanding the causes, consequences, and equity implications of global climate change; the potential and limitations of biofuels; comparative environmental assessment of energy and non-energy hazards; and more.

His achievements were recognized by his appointment as Professor of Global Environmental Health and Chair of Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley; Director of the Collaborative Clean Air Policy Center in Delhi; appointment to honorary professorships at universities in China, India, and Mongolia; election to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the International Academy of Indoor Air Sciences; award of both the Heinz Prize for Environment and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement; and a share of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded in 2007 to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But all of that doesn't fully capture the person Kirk was.

The best compact picture I can offer is a line from the note that Cheri wrote to Joan shortly after Kirk passed away: "He was so very special, humane, funny, warm, brilliant…and leaves an enormous hole in our hearts and lives."

All who knew Kirk are poorer for his passing. As is the world.

John Holdren is the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and was President Obama's Science Advisor and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Banner photo: Kirk Smith. (Credit: http://www.kirkrsmith.org/)

Looking back at the life and achievements of the pioneering air pollution scientist.

Biden releases five-year offshore leasing plan Friday

Biden releases five-year offshore leasing plan Friday

President Biden’s administration opened the door Friday to offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters over the next five years.
Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

Meat, monopolies, mega farms: how the US food system fuels climate crisis
www.theguardian.com

Meat, monopolies, mega farms: how the US food system fuels climate crisis

From a beef-heavy diet to growing crops that don’t feed people – the biggest challenges facing the agriculture industry
Mustafa Santiago Ali:  Supreme Court's Clean Air Act decision weakens EPA, worsens injustice
www.usatoday.com

Mustafa Santiago Ali:  Supreme Court's Clean Air Act decision weakens EPA, worsens injustice

This grievously wrong decision should be understood first and foremost as a clarion call and invitation for action.
Climate data gathering on Everest
Allan Grey/Flickr

Climate data on top of the world: Wyoming students trek to Everest

Five Fremont County college students traveled to world’s highest peak to test climate sensors in partnership with historic all-Black expedition.

World Bank approves $200 million IFC loan for industrial agriculture in Brazil’s Cerrado

Corn, soy and cattle ranching have been connected to a long list of human rights violations, as well as the acceleration of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.

From our Newsroom
environmental injustice

Centering biodiversity and social justice in overhauling the global food system

“The food system is the single largest economic sector causing the transgressing of planetary boundaries.”

Global Warming: Why the problem is worse – and solutions simpler – than you thought

Global Warming: Why the problem is worse – and solutions simpler – than you thought

Noted ecologist John Harte offers a fresh take on the dire topic of climate change.

Colorado fracking

Colorado is the first state to ban PFAS in oil and gas extraction

The toxic “forever chemicals” are used in fracking wells across the country.

gun control

Peter Dykstra: Gun and climate change delusions

Millions here suffer from twin hallucinations: Guns don’t cause our mass shootings, and the climate isn’t changing.

Op-ed: An engine for social justice leads the way to change

Engine for social justice leads to change

Virginia Organizing's 27-year history as a role model for The Daily Climate

Using comedy to combat climate change

Using comedy to combat climate change

The Climate Comedy Cohort aims to help comedians infuse climate activism into their creative work.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.