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Cigarettes' lessons for climate change

Successful anti-smoking efforts of decades past offer a blueprint for how we might tackle global warming.

March 04, 2012|By Auden Schendler
  • The cooling tower of a coal-fired power plant in Dadong, Shanxi province, China, is seen on Dec. 3, 2009.
The cooling tower of a coal-fired power plant in Dadong, Shanxi province,… (Andy Wong/AP Photo )

In the 1970s it seemed like we had problems we could never fix — and I'm not talking about white polyester disco suits and the band Air Supply. The '70s presented America with the residue of a catastrophic war, soaring inner-city crime rates, runaway inflation and subjugation to Middle East oil. To punctuate the dismal vibe, everybody smoked, or so it seemed if you were sitting on an airplane at the edge of the DMZ between the smoking and nonsmoking sections, gagging and hacking as the guy a foot away from you chain-smoked filterless Camels.

The very idea that an airplane could have a "nonsmoking section" any more than a tear-gas chamber could have a "no cry" zone encapsulates the cynicism and malaise of that time. It seemed as though we were stuck with systemic problems we could never solve. Which may explain why we wore the disco suits.

But then something funny happened. We tackled those problems.

A move toward more fuel-efficient vehicles, plus Alaskan oil and geopolitical changes, gave us a breather from the tyranny of oil. Slowly we began reviving our inner cities and battling crime. We got out of Vietnam and created military doctrines to prevent such things from happening again (at least in theory). And most emblematic, we made huge strides in kicking a habit that had been part of human culture for centuries: smoking.

How'd we do it? The answer is worth considering as we struggle with a problem even harder to solve but with many similarities: climate change. In this case, we're addicted to consuming the Earth's fossil fuels in a way that's not just deadly to individuals but to the whole planet.

There are limits to the parallels between smoking and climate change, of course. People can live quite well without smoking, while society does need to consume energy — even if not in the amounts it now does or from such damaging sources. But there are nevertheless ways in which our experience with tobacco can help us grapple with the overwhelming problem of climate change.

First, let's examine some of the ironies here. As Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway point out in their book "The Merchants of Doubt," the fossil fuel industry and the hard right have used the same tactics as the tobacco industry to seed doubt about the danger of climate change. In fact, they've often used the same people and institutions to deliver that message. Although that's depressing (fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me), it's also hopeful, because we beat tobacco — or at least we're winning, with smoking rates having dropped from 45% of the population in 1954 to less than 20% today.

First, we implemented policy solutions. The "sin taxes" levied on tobacco in most states made it increasingly difficult to afford the habit and created incentives to quit. Yes, those were regressive taxes, but some of the tax revenue has been used to support health and smoking-cessation programs.

Second, we used the courts to take on tobacco for willfully and knowingly hurting people. And we started to win those lawsuits.

Third, we changed cultural norms through advertising, in many cases funded through tobacco taxes.

And fourth, we embraced real, third-party, arbitrated science, blessed with the imprimatur

of the U.S. surgeon general, as a tool for moving public policy forward.

And we won, even though nobody on an airplane in 1975 would have thought it possible. So let's consider how we might apply those same techniques to solving climate change.

For starters, a revenue-neutral carbon tax could serve as a market mechanism to not only incentivize efficiency and clean energy but also as a way to create a free market for the first time, one that puts a price on the external costs of carbon. Even Canada's oil-rich Alberta has such a tax. Such levies encourage efficiencies because reducing emissions leads to lower taxes.

As to legal action, we are already seeing a burgeoning movement to use the courts to hold polluters accountable for the harm they have done — and continue to do — to the air, the climate and our health.

"Atmospheric trust litigation" calls on the judicial branches of governments to force emissions cuts based on their fiduciary responsibility to protect the public trust.

NASA climatologist James Hansen recently filed a statement to a British court in support of an effort seeking to disclose who is funding the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a London-based climate skeptic think tank. Meanwhile, there is a growing conversation about who is liable for climate change. Businesses, shareholders and insurance companies are taking notice.

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