Anthropogenic Climate Change, Health and the Tobacco Analogy

Consider this statement: smoking is bad for health, and so is fossil fuel-derived anthropogenic climate change.

What a mouthful.

There are many striking parallels between these two public health issues, and of course areas where the analogy breaks down. On balance though, and with all the usual ‘health warnings’ about arguing from analogy, I think it’s a useful comparison. Either way, it seems to come up fairly frequently in climate commentary circles, so perhaps it’s worth a dedicated post here.

So— I will proceed to mercilessly flog the analogy. Like this blog as a whole, this is mostly for my own reference and is subject to additions/amendment at any time. That said, suggestions welcome. I’m sure I’ve missed lots.

Where it works:

  1. Long delay between ‘exposure’ and ‘outcomes’.
  2. Robustness of evidence.*
  3. Complexity; ‘exposures’ relatively simple (smoking/atmospheric CO2) but both have multiple outcomes with many intermediate links in complex causal pathways.
  4. Social, cultural, political and lifestyle implications.
  5. Clear near term benefits of activity (smoking for pleasure, fossil fuels for economic health and human development) pitted against less clear long term adverse outcomes.
  6. Conflict between individual freedom of choice versus expectations of society.
  7. Difficulty or unacceptability of proposed remedial measures.
  8. Involvement of vested interests and well funded lobbies.
  9. Pressure for scientists/professionals to subtly (or not so subtly) alter their role, becoming advocates/activists [follows from above].
  10. Started out as societal (fossil fuel) or social/personal (smoking) choices, became/becomig public health issues.
  11. …more to follow

*in the case of ACC, need to differentiate between evidence that ACC is real and happening (overwhelming) against evidence that it is happening and is/will be bad for health (certainly very convincing, but more dependent on personal/political perspective and time scales)

Where it doesn’t work:

  1. For smoking, individual-level exposure leads directly to adverse outcomes within the same individual (noting exceptions such as passive smoking); climate change is much more complicated.
  2. The time scales/lags in climate change are even longer than for smoking.
  3. More uncertainty in range and timing of adverse outcomes in the case of climate change.
  4. Widespread public recognition of smoking as a health issue; not so with climate change.
  5. Smoking a single behaviour/industry; while fossil fuel-derived CO2 emissions are a consequence of many (often beneficial/essential) human activities.
  6. … lots of others.

Of course climate change and smoking are completely different in many ways. I’m not interested in all the obvious differences— we’re not arguing equivalence here (I’ve probably already strayed close with some of the above)— but interested in those points that impact on the neatness of the analogy.


    One Response to “Anthropogenic Climate Change, Health and the Tobacco Analogy”

    1. Climate change, health and the tobacco analogy « Healthy Climate Says:

      […] See post here. […]

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