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How IPCC Climate Reports Are Like The Surgeon General’s Cigarette Warnings

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"How IPCC Climate Reports Are Like The Surgeon General’s Cigarette Warnings"

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merchantsOFdoubt-200pxWe know that the fossil fuel companies use the same tactics in their anti-climate-action disinformation campaign that the tobacco companies did. Sometimes they even use the same people, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway explain in their must-read book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming Pollution.

I extended the tobacco analogy on MSNBC’s NOW with Alex Wagner Wednesday. She asked me about my Sunday post on the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) from the UN Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC):

ALEX: I read the analysis of the report to be honest and I found it deeply distressing as I find most environmental treatises. You say this one is “an instantly out of date snapshot that low balls future warming.” In fact, it’s even worse than this climate panel would have us think. Tell us more about that.

JR: Well, it’s a consensus-based approach. The top climatologists of the world review the scientific literature and ultimately the governments of the world, including China and Saudi Arabia, have to sign off on every word. You can imagine when you have this kind of document, it kind of is a least common denominator, what everyone can agree on. I think the closest analogy I can come up with is the Surgeon General’s warnings on cigarette smoking.

Back in the ’60s, the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee Reviewed all the scientific literature on smoking. It was very clear that cigarette smoking was hazardous to your health. They put out a caution, “cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health.” It was only several years later that they said cigarette smoke, we’ve determined. “is dangerous to your health.” And then finally it wasn’t until the 1980s that they said, if you stop smoking, it’s going to reduce risks to your health.

I think we’re getting to the stage where people — where the cumulative scientific community is saying we know that greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide particularly, from burning coal, oil, and natural gas is damaging the planet.

Watch the whole interview:

The Centers for Disease Control has a “History of the Surgeon General’s Reports on Smoking and Health,” which explains:

On January 11, 1964, Luther L. Terry, M.D., Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service, released the first report of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health.

On the basis of more than 7,000 articles relating to smoking and disease already available at that time in the biomedical literature, the Advisory Committee concluded that cigarette smoking is—

  • A cause of lung cancer and laryngeal cancer in men
  • A probable cause of lung cancer in women
  • The most important cause of chronic bronchitis

Yet as the CDC notes in its discussion on legislation dealing with smoking and tobacco, the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 gave us the inaugural warning required to appear on cigarette packages, which was merely: “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health” while other health warnings were actually prohibited. That law also “implemented a three-year prohibition of any such labels” on cigarette ads.

It wasn’t until the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969 — many years after the science was clear — that the required label was changed to “Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined that Cigarette Smoking Is Dangerous to Your Health” (and again other health warnings were prohibited). That Act also banned cigarette ads on TV and radio.

Finally, we had to wait until the Comprehensive Smoking Education Act of 1984 — two decades after the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health issued its first report — to get required health warning labels as tough and specific as:

  • SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy.
  • SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health

The IPCC has been at this for a bit more than two decades, dealing with a far larger disinformation campaign and a far greater anti-science worldview by so many conservative politicians and media outlets.

The gun-shy IPCC is still willing to say the equivalent of “quitting carbon over the next several decades greatly reduces serious risk to your climate,” but it continues to pull its punches on the specificity of its warning about what happens if we make no serious effort to quit carbon.

The consequence of the tobacco industry’s disinformation (and political) campaign has likely been millions of premature deaths and serious illnesses. If the anti-climate-action campaign continues to succeed, it will bring almost incalculable harm to the health and well-being of billions of people.

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