How Anti-Smoking Campaigns Can Offer a Blueprint for Tackling Global Warming

by Auden Schendler, excerpted from his LA Times op-ed

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.

We are also slowly but surely chipping away at cultural norms with advertising and other media. The movie “An Inconvenient Truth” was a watershed in this effort, but many other examples abound…. A good maxim is that when a social debate reaches a charged state at the dinner table, the battle is nearly won. Think about civil and gay rights.

Last, science is slowly but surely taking back the game. When the Wall Street Journal published a series of baseless lies about climate change in January, it was debunked rapidly and widely by third-party groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists. Other science arbiters, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Academy of Sciences, have also made overwhelmingly clear the need for action.

Sure, there’s a long way to go. Denial is rampant, and the money behind the effort to delay action is as plentiful as civilization has ever known. But one only need recall the despair of the “nonsmoking” section of an airplane to remember that often sea change laps at the edges of convention. It really is darkest just before the dawn.

You can read the entire piece on the LA Times website.

Auden Schendler is the author of “Getting Green Done” and a board member of Protect Our Winters.

6 Responses to How Anti-Smoking Campaigns Can Offer a Blueprint for Tackling Global Warming

  1. I totally agree. For starters we should put warning notices on all gas pumps, like cigarette packages, saying that burning gasoline is increasing droughts, floods, heatwaves, forest fires, storms, and catastrophic climate chaos (or something like that).

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Remember that scene in the Congressional committee room where all of the tobacco company CEO’s said under oath that smoking did not cause cancer?

    Well, they’ve still got their jobs. We cannot allow this to happen with those who are running our fossil fuel and utility companies. The ones promoting global warming denial should be prosecuted and fined. Some of us are tired of getting punked by those guys.

  3. Lou Grinzo says:

    I certainly agree with the overall comparison here, and I do think the same general game plan can be followed and will work.

    The key problem is one of timing. If you get fewer and fewer people to smoke over time, then society gets a growing benefit (with a time lag, obviously) as fewer of them get cancer or other diseases and conditions. Healthier population, less money spent on medical care, etc. Great outcomes for everyone except the tobacco companies.

    But with climate change there’s a ratcheting up of the impacts as we continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere. If we slow down that rate, it’s certainly better than holding it constant or seeing it rise, but the impacts will continue to grow for decades even if we aggressively reduce our emissions. Once again, it’s that nastiest of details, the long atmospheric lifetime of CO2.

    This is one reason why I thin it’s hard to get people on board with taking action to combat climate change: We can’t honestly say, “Look, if we reduce our emissions by 25%, then all that extra, man-made CO2 in the air will also decline by 25% within a year, and 25% of the global warming will go away.” The unfortunate truth is that we’ve locked in decades of further warming and ocean acidification, even at current CO2 levels, and we’re now choosing between staying on a business as usual path, which leads to a nightmare scenario, and one where we take aggressive action and wind up suffering environmental impacts that are merely bad.

  4. Dick Smith says:

    When I hear the MSM start using the phrase “Pigovian tax” (aka Pigouvian)in casual conversation I’ll know it’s game over for the deniers. It drips with onomotopoeia.

    Moreover, Pigovian taxes work. We need one on carbon. We don’t need the revenue. We can pass it today, and delay implementation for a few years if your worried about it being an economic drag.

    But, start your Pigovian tax small, and increase it annually, and the carbon era will be over by 2050. Businesses making decisions, 10, 20 or more years down the road would start making smarter decisions immediately in their largest capital investments.

  5. David F. says:

    Still looks like we have a long way to go before we can declare victory in the war on tobacco, based on this report (see link below). And the reality is people are still dying while the fat cat tobacco execs continue to line their pockets, so I don’t which side is really winning.

  6. J4zonian says:

    Interesting insights and a decent strategy. But we have several problems that make it harder than solving tobacco (which by the way isn’t solved yet, decades after starting).

    Oil, coal and gas companies, with interlocking boards and common interests, are far larger and spread out through a majority of states instead of the relatively few that tobacco interests control(led). More people depend on oil and coal for more integral parts of their lives than tobacco, and more politicians depend on their money.

    The huge profits of these and other companies and the country’s reaction to September 2001 (and the actions those in power have taken using those attacks as an excuse) have put in place many laws and institutions that make any change or protests far harder. The country is more conservative, the media is more controlled, government and corporate warlordism more intertwined, and representatives and senators in almost every state are willing to lie and do whatever else it takes to keep power and preserve profits and the campaign money that flows from them.

    The number of middle class people with enough money and leisure to pursue political activism and self-education, but not too-well embedded with the elite to desire change, is far smaller. Conservative lies and framing on every issue (those relevant, and those only relevant because they are used by conservatives to keep and expand power) have been whispered (shouted, more like) into the ears of the US public for half a century.

    Climate change is harder to understand than lung cancer, and easier to obscure.

    On the positive side, we have more people more aware of the horrors of climate cataclysm than smoking, and a small but dedicated corps willing to sacrifice for change. We may have a larger group willing to sacrifice a lot for a cause they consider paramount in a way tobacco never was or could be. While the truth of climate change will become clearer over time in a way tobacco hasn’t and won’t; on the other hand, while the effects of delay on tobacco are thousands of deaths and illnesses a year, the effects of climate catastrophe are well, worse. And although we don’t know what it is, we have a hard deadline on climate change.

    I’m not saying we can’t do it; on the contrary we have to. I’m just hoping people realize now how hard this is going to be. If we expect to succeed, we have to consider the possibility of fanatical resistance, including violence and mass oppression. We can’t let that stop us or let it make us violent ourselves.