What we can learn from anti-smoking advocates
Jamais Cascio — late of Worldchanging, now ensconced in a snug new blog home — has an intriguing post up arguing that there are parallels between the climate-crisis debate and the smoking debate of yore, and furthermore that those pushing the climate-crisis issue have much to learn from anti-smoking advocates.
I think he’s right on both counts. But I also think he’s being rather optimistic about both the parallels and the lessons. Consider this:
But as the public grew more comfortable with the idea of a complex, long-term result from current behavior, and the evidence grew for the big-picture smoking-cancer connection — even while the cause-and-effect for a given example could be no more certain — the culture (in the US) shifted, and the cigarette industry lobbyists stopped trying to undermine the science and started trying to hold off lawsuits.
It’s late, so I won’t try to make this argument in any particularly nuanced way. Let me just say: I don’t think the public became comfortable with complex, long-term results from current behaviors. I think individual members of the public became convinced — not just intellectually, but viscerally — that if they smoked, they would probably get lung cancer. The argument that swayed the public was as lizard-brain as you can get: you smoke, you die.
Did anti-smoking advocates mislead, either explicitly or implicitly, implying a more direct causal connection than was scientifically supported? Probably. But I can’t help thinking some fudging on their part was justifiable, given the thousands, probably millions of lives saved thanks to the reduction in smoking. These transitions in public sentiment don’t take place on a cognitive level. They are emotional, gut-level changes, and emotional, gut-level images and narratives drive them.
I doubt a sophisticated sense of risk analysis had anything to do with it.
Thus the problem for the climate-crisis crowd. The link between smoking and lung cancer is tenuous, but it is measurable. There is real individual danger, and within a comprehensible span of years. The link between emitting CO2 (by, say, driving) and a heat wave in Europe is orders of magnitude longer and more tenuous. And, crucially, the danger an individual faces from his or her own emissions of CO2 is basically negligible.
They are both, in some sense, collective action problems. But the dangers of cigarette smoking are vastly more immediate, more quantifiable, and more personal than the dangers of emitting CO2. Vastly.
And we don’t just have to do what anti-smoking advocates did. We have to do something 100 times larger, with fewer emotional tools available, much, much faster.
Crap, now I’ve depressed myself.