La lune


Documentation > Greenhouse effect > Risks > Tobacco and climate change : a little comparison

Tobacco and climate change : a little comparison

december 2003

website of the author : - contact the author :


It is often quite difficult to have people understand that was it at stake, in this climate change file, is not that we gain a particular state of the world, but rather that "something" doesn't happen. Generally, our actions have two main categories of objectives :

either behave so that a known consequence happens (seduce someone, get a job, manage to run as fast as someone else, etc),

or behave so that a known consequence doesn't happen (slow down while driving to avoid an accident, or prevent a kid from playing with the matches to avoid a fire, etc).

But to "behave properly" in order to prevent something unseen to happen, and for which we only have computer simulations as a reference, is far more difficult : how can we know if we are on the good way or not ? It seemed useful to me to offer a little comparison between tobacco and climate change, for tobacco is probably the known risk that allows the better to understand how to manage the climate change problem :

exactely as a smoker is heavily dependant on tobacco, our civilization heavily depends on fossil fuels, that generate greenhouse gases when burnt : it seems as difficult to the smoker to do without cigarettes that it seems difficult to us to do without fossil fuels,

greenhouse gases emissions have a cumulative effect on the climate, which means that their effects add on year after year, just like tobacco smoke has a cumulative effect on our health,

for tobacco, it is much easier not to start smoking than quiting afterwards : not beginning to smoke during the teens requires a little effort (one might be seen as "totally out" by the friends that already smoke), but yields the benefit, afterwards, not to endure the bad consequences of tobacco. Just the same, getting used, as a young adult, to emit the least possible greenhouse gases (what means avoiding to base everyday's life on the use of a car, being satisfied with a modest living space, getting used to putting on a sweater during the winter rather that inceasing the inside temperature, not buying everything that is for sale, and a lot more) is much easier than voluntarily changing once we have adapted our daily life with the possibility of important emissions, which is the case with 1 or 2 car(s) per household, 30 to 40 m2 of living space, at 20 °C during the winter, per person, and a profusion of goods to buy in the supermarkets.

quickly curbing greenhouse gases emissions does not allow to "reset the counters to zero", just as if nothing had happened, just as, for a long period, a former smoker will go on carrying the heritage of his past tobacco consumption. In other words, quiting smoking does not reduce instantaneously the risk of having a cancer or a heart problem to the same level than for a non smoker. The same way, stopping the emissions will not allow for all that to suppress instantaneously the ongoning climate change, that will go on for centuries at last anyway.

but quiting smoking will always lead to a less risky situation for the future, whatever long was the smoking time, and whatever amount of cigarettes were smoked daily. Just the same, lowering the greenhouse gases emissions will always be a good thing for the future climate, whatever amount of greenhouse gases has already been emitted. Just as for tobacco, however, the sooner we lower our emissions, and the lower the future risks will be,

Saying that we will never lower the emissions is not more sound than saying that a smoker will never quit smoking : of course he(she) will quit someday, at the latest when he(she) dies ! So there is no question that our emissions will decrease one day, not because the "good" will eventually win over the "evil" (reminds you of something ?), but more plainly because the world is finite, and that the amount of greenhouse gases that accumulate in the atmosphere cannot rise indefinitely.

quiting smoking requires an effort - sometimes important - in the short run, for a large range of benefits in the medium and long run : less spendings, better health, lower risk of premature death, lower risk of having one's own kids starting to smoke, etc. Just the same, voluntarily lowering emissions requires an important effort, in exchange for a diminution of the risks later. In both cases, we have to act so that something doesn't occur later on.

for tobacco as for climate, when the problems occur it is too late to reverse the course of events. A smoker that catches a lung cancer will never have two lungs in good shape any more. At best, he(she) will loose part of his(her) breath and a bit of a lung, at worse he(she) will loose his(her) life. Just the same, once the major consequences of climate change are here, we will not be able to reverse the course of events, even with a quick lowering of the emissions, and the only certainty that we will then have is that troubles will go on rising for a century or two whatever we do.

it is impossible to say exactly when a smoker will have crossed the threshold of the irreversible and will be guaranteed a major trouble later (cancer, heart stroke, brain stroke, etc), and, in the same order, it is impossible to scientifically determine at what moment we will have crossed the threshold of the certainty of a major catastropha in the future.

one resonnably cannot blame "the industry" or "the government" for a lack of will to quit smoking, and one cannot reasonnably ak "the industry" for cigarettes that give exactly the same feelings when smoking but do not have any of the inconvenients. Just the same, we can't blame "the government" for our lack of will to fly less, drive less, heat less our homes, buy less manufactured goods, etc, and we can't reasonnably ask the industry to do all the work, when its direct emissions represent only 20 to 30% of the total. For climate change as for tobacco, a large part of the effort to be made relies on the shoulders of you and me.

when someone is smoking 10 cigarettes a day, but rising, it seems to me that he(she) can hardly lecture someone who is smoking only 2 and wishes to smoke 10, or lecture someone that smokes 20 on the grounds that it increases passive smoking for the rest of the population. Just the same, we europeans that emit 2 to 3 tons carbon equivalent per person and per year, and rising, we can't reproach to countries where the emission per capita is a fourth of that to keep rising, or to countries that emit twice that amount that what they do is bad, when we are already so much over what we should do.

the comparison stands also for the solutions : deterring by the prices is a valid solution in both cases, for tobacco as for fosssil fuels. The more expensive it is, and the less we will consume ! Anyone that approves of raising taxes on tobacco to prevent teens from starting smoking should also approve of a continuous increase of the taxes on fosssil fuels to prevent too large a perturbation of the future climate these same teens will live with.....


Back to climate change index
Back to the top