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Toxic Cooking: smoky fires in very small spaces

Interview With Belinda Luscombe of Time Magazine
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State
Via Telephone, April 29, 2011

SECRETARY CLINTON: Hi, this is Hillary Clinton.

MS. ROBERTS: Hello, Madam Secretary. It’s Julia.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Hi, Julia. How are you?

MS. ROBERTS: How are you?

SECRETARY CLINTON: I am great, and I hope you’re doing well.

MS. ROBERTS: We’re really well. We’re really well. Thank you.


MS. ROBERTS: Thank you. So Belinda from Time Magazine, Madam Secretary.

QUESTION: Thanks for introducing me, Julia. Hello, Madam Secretary.


QUESTION: I’m Belinda Luscombe from Time.


QUESTION: Thank you so much for doing this.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Oh, I am thrilled to do it, and I’m very happy that Julia is going to become our wonderful special global ambassador for the Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, and I’m thrilled by that.

QUESTION: Now, it is kind of – a Secretary of State and a superstar are kind of an unlikely couple. What brought you two together? What did --

MS. ROBERTS: (Inaudible) together. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I started out as a great fan of hers before I ever knew her, and then luckily, I have gotten to know her over the years and am an even greater fan, and also now a friend. And she did this fabulous special which I guess is going to be on television around Mother’s Day, right?

MS. ROBERTS: Yes. Mother’s Day, yeah.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes. And so we got to spend more time together, and when she was here, I was deep in the work to establish the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and she became so interested and focused on it that we spent a lot of time talking about and there’s been this continuing conversation that we’ve had ever since.

QUESTION: Now, cookstoves, to the – to an outsider, they seem like a pretty small nail for two very big hammers like you guys. Why this issue, Julia?

MS. ROBERTS: Well, it’s not small at all, actually. I mean, it speaks to so many issues that are really huge concerns of mine and very present in my day-to-day life. And I was so excited when Madam Secretary brought this to my attention.

I was horrified and shocked at some of these statistics that go on, basically, around mothers and women around the world trying to care for their families. And the toxins that they’re exposed to, the dangers, the environmental dangers that they’re exposed to, the human dangers that they’re exposed to all surrounding trying to provide food for their family and cook for their families. You think something that’s such a joy and a privilege to my life every day is this incredible, horrific danger to women around the world every day, and I was stunned.

So it’s a very big, far-reaching issue with this small word “cookstove,” but it really is about environment and about human safety and human kindness, and just really reaching out to others and providing cost-efficient and really kind of new technology for these women to embrace and make their lives just have such a greater quality of safety and happiness.

QUESTION: The problem is the kerosene or the wood, it’s not the equipment?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, it is several things, and that was such an eloquent description of why Julia and I are teaming up on this along with many other countries and international organizations from throughout the world, because at first, it does seem like such an obvious thing. Everybody has a meal that is cooked, some of very meager, some of it very elaborate. But nearly 2 million people around the world, mostly women and children, die each year from this activity we all take for granted, because they are breathing the fumes and the smoke from using solid fuels, such as wood, or dung, or crop residues. That’s almost as many people who die each year from malaria and tuberculosis combined.

And of those people around the world who still cook on open fires or on crude stoves, it’s about 3 billion people, nearly half the world. And the 2 million who die from the respiratory infections and diseases that come from breathing in this burning material is about one person every 16 seconds. That’s more than die each year from malaria and tuberculosis combined. And in addition to the very real health dangers, as Julia said, there’s a human safety issue because most of these women around the world go out looking for the fuel, putting themselves in many dangerous positions as they seek and find firewood or collect the residue or the dung that they then burn.

And we then also see the impact on all the rest of us, because about one-fifth of the world’s black carbon emissions, which is a very potent contributor to climate change, come from cookstoves. So this – when I began looking at this issue, it’s rare that there is an issue that affects so many people, both directly and indirectly, and Julia immediately got it, because as a mom, and as she just said to you and as she and I have discussed, one who loves to take care of her family and cook for them, we thought, what would it be like if we were living in Latin America or Africa or Asia where these cookstoves are predominant? And what we were doing to keep our children healthy and alive was perhaps contributing to their sickness and even death.

QUESTION: Now, did you guys make a deal? Julia agreed to be the goodwill ambassador and in return, you, Secretary Clinton, said, “All right, I’ll go on your Extraordinary Moms special,” or --

SECRETARY CLINTON: No, I agreed to the special before we ever started talking about cookstoves just because --

MS. ROBERTS: We were together – after we had done the special, we were just sharing time together, and as we do, you just kind of share the things that are on your mind and the things that you’re working on. And she shared with me this idea of the cookstoves. And like I said, I was just struck, and it’s something that is on my mind so much. So when they asked me to really get into it and get involved with it and participate, I was only thrilled because, like I said, it’s so shocking.

And it’s interesting that you started by saying it seems like two big hammers on a small nail. One of the reasons why I was glad that you wanted to talk to us together and to talk about this and to promote this is that people should see it’s not a small nail; this is an incredibly far-reaching issue. I’m sorry, we’ve moved into, like, carpool time here. (Laughter.)

It’s really --

QUESTION: Is it your turn to carpool, Julia? Because – (laughter) --

MS. ROBERTS: It’s really – it’s real, and I picture it when I’m sort of studying and doing research on it, that the cookstoves is like the palm of your hand and there’s all these fingers that it reaches out to that have a huge impact on all of us. So it’s a big deal for me to be part of this, and it’s exciting and it’s --

SECRETARY CLINTON: And it’s also a big deal for Julia to do this because she will draw attention. And because it’s an issue that hasn’t gotten a lot of understanding or exposure yet, to have Julia be the global ambassador is thrilling for us, because we’re determined with this alliance we’re putting together around the world to really make a big dent. We want to try to aim for having cookstoves that are affordable and more efficient in a hundred million homes within the next several years. We would love to do that even faster. But we’re taking our experts’ advice about what people will accept, what kinds of cookstoves they will find pleasing to them or affordable to them.

So this is a big, big deal, and it’s part of what I’ve tried to do as Secretary of State, where it’s not just government-to-government relations, but it’s people-to-people relations. And I think moms like Julia and me try to help moms who are struggling to raise their kids under very different and difficult circumstances sends a message that our country is not just concerned about what’s in the headlines but what’s in the trend lines as to how we can help improve people’s lives.

QUESTION: Well, you had me as they – when you said they have to cook with poop. I was onboard as soon as you said that.


MS. ROBERTS: Well, and also, some of the photographs that I have looked at when I was at the State Department, where you see these beautiful women, these, like, loving faces, and they’ve got these gorgeous babies strapped to their back, and they’re hovering over this very smoky fire in this very small space, and that’s their life. And I think, like anything, if you teach people a better way, they will be completely open to a better way, to a safer way, to a healthier way. That’s all any mom wants to do is take good care of her family.

QUESTION: Now, speaking of --

MS. ROBERTS: And part of helping provide that information of how to do that is exciting. It’s exciting to really feel like you can be part of a solution when there are so many problems that we all face every day, to be part of a far-reaching solution, is thrilling. And I think to show people pictures, because I think pictures are so powerful, pictures of what it looks like around the world to make dinner. You can’t even fathom it until you’ve seen it, I think.

QUESTION: You’re both working mothers, although Hillary’s in a different stage of that, and you’ve got this Mother’s Day special coming up, Extraordinary Moms. Do you have advice for working mothers as Mother’s Day approaches?

MS. ROBERTS: Well, I think Mother’s Day is the day for breakfast in bed, right? (Laughter.) I have to say Madam Secretary said a great thing when I was talking to her about being a working mom and this whole idea that is part of our culture of sort of the, quote, “having it all” idea of being able to work and take care of your family.

And with such kindness and gentleness, and I felt great insight, she told me you just have to let some things go. There are – you just – you slowly and gently reprioritize your life and your day and where your energy goes and where your attentions go. And it was such a great relief to hear someone who has accomplished so much and raised this beautiful daughter and has this incredibly fulfilling, vital career say just really relax about it is the key. And I have taken that into my mind so many times because you do try to do a lot of things, and I think that mothers everywhere just need to collectively give themselves that time to exhale and just gently reprioritize the days as they come.

QUESTION: Did either of your reprioritizing involve watching the royal wedding this morning?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Oh, it did for me.

MS. ROBERTS: I sat with Hazel in my lap watching it. It was very exciting.

SECRETARY CLINTON: I was on email with my daughter and my 92-year-old mother lives with us, so the three generations of women in my family were watching the royal wedding.

MS. ROBERTS: It’s exciting.

SECRETARY CLINTON: It is exciting, put a big smile on my face. I deal with so many very hard, difficult, painful decisions about what’s going on around the world every day, and just to relish the happiness of these two young people who carry a lot of the hopes of not only their fellow countrymen and women but people around the world who tuned in, it was very exciting and it was very joyous.

QUESTION: Now, Hillary, I don’t know if you know this from your interview, but did Julia tell you that one of her first acting roles was as Liddy Dole? Have you shared that? (Laughter.)

MS. ROBERTS: It wasn’t (inaudible).

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, Liddy Dole is a friend of mine, and so I haven’t seen – I have not seen her in that role, however.

MS. ROBERTS: It was part of a political experiment in my school, so it wasn’t really acting. It was politics. It was exciting.

SECRETARY CLINTON: (Laughter.) Funny.

QUESTION: That sounds like backpedaling to me, actually. (Laughter.) Your special is called Extraordinary Moms, Julia. Do you guys consider yourself extraordinary moms?

MS. ROBERTS: I think every mom is extraordinary. I do. It’s an incredible privilege to be a mom, and it’s 24 hours a day every minute of the day. I think to meet those minutes in your life is extraordinary.

SECRETARY CLINTON: I think it’s been such a privilege and I – as I told Julia, I think that each of us does the best that we can as we learn how to be a mother, because no one is born with the instruction manual imprinted in their brain. You have to, as I told my daughter when she was a newborn baby, “I’ve never been a mom before and you’ve never been a baby before, so we just have to figure out how to do this together.”

And then you go through the different stages of your child’s life, and for me it’s been a great privilege being Chelsea’s mom. I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to balance family responsibilities and outside responsibilities. And I’m really pleased that Julia is doing this special because we shouldn’t ever take for granted the challenges that every mom faces. There’s no one who hasn’t had to deal with issues and parenting, and I think it’s important to remind ourselves of that. But it’s also good to be reminded of how fortunate women like Julia and I are because of our situation, and therefore, as moms ourselves, what we can do to help others be the best moms they can be and to overcome the challenges they face every day is part of what gets me up in the morning.

QUESTION: Do you think there’s more pressure, societal pressure, on mothers than there used to be?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, Belinda, I think there’s always been pressure and I think that it’s different perhaps today and it’s different in our country than it is in other parts of the world. When I went to the Eastern Congo and saw what moms there were going through trying to just survive, I can’t imagine any more terrifying dangers and difficulties that anyone could face, because you get up every day just scared to death that your child may not survive or that you may not survive to be able to take care of your child. And then you’ve got conflicts all over the world today where women and children are too often the primary victims, leaving children orphaned or leaving mothers bereft.

So I think it’s always hard, but we ought to be not only celebrating the extraordinary work that most mothers do every day, but we ought to be looking for ways to perhaps make it less difficult, less dangerous, in so many parts of the world, which, of course, is why we’re so committed on this particular project about something that seems so simple as a cookstove but which carries so many perils.

STAFF: Belinda, on that note, we’re going to have to let both the Secretary and Julia go.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for your time, guys.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Good to talk to you. Thank you.

QUESTION: Good to talk to you.

SECRETARY CLINTON: And I suppose as a person of English descent, I should say hurray.

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah. Well, we – still a subject, so I was reading for the most of today.


QUESTION: Thanks a lot.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Bye, Julia. Happy Mother’s Day. Take care.

MS. ROBERTS: Happy Mother’s Day to you.

QUESTION: Happy Mother’s Day. Bye.




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