Anti-smoking tactics might help us fight climate change

We put warnings on cigarettes. Why don't we put them on cars?

Just before the delegates for the annual Conference of the Parties on climate change started meeting in Bonn this month, the Lancet, the leading British medical journal, published yet another major study showing that climate change is a growing health hazard.

The study revealed that hundreds of millions of people around the world are already suffering due to climate change. Infectious diseases are spreading faster due to warmer temperatures, hunger and malnourishment is worsening, allergy seasons are getting longer and sometimes it’s simply too hot for farmers to tend to their crops.

RELATED: New York City before pollution regulations

17 PHOTOS
New York City before pollution regulations
See Gallery
New York City before pollution regulations

Many Documerica photos show scenes of general life in New York City in the 1970s, but several also document environmental issues.

Photo Credit: EPA/Documerica

In the first six months of 1973, more than 300 oil spills occurred in the New York City area. An oil slick creeps up on the Statue of Liberty in this 1973 photo.

More than 800 oil spills happened in the mid-Atlantic region during the same time period, according to a 1973 Coast Guard survey.

Source: The New York Times

Photo Credit: EPA/Documerica

Air pollution was also a huge issue in the city. As seen in this 1973 photo, smog obscures the George Washington Bridge.

Photo Credit: EPA/Documerica

A historic smog event in 1966 — when a mass of warm air trapped pollutants from vehicles, factories, and chimneys — prompted New York City to update its local air quality laws in the late 1960s. Here is a 1973 photo of the Twin Towers:

Source: The New York Times

Photo Credit: EPA/Documerica

EPA's national Clean Air Act, which controls industrial pollution, was passed in 1970.

Photo Credit: EPA/Documerica

In 1973, an abandoned car sat in Jamaica Bay ...

Photo Credit: EPA/Documerica

... and another was buried in sand on the Breezy Point Beach. Today, the EPA regulates landfills and auto salvage yards, but illegal disposal still happens.

Photo Credit: EPA/Documerica

The 1973 photo below shows broken glass on the same beach.

Photo Credit: EPA/Documerica

Over the years, the EPA has spearheaded mass trash removals that focus on toxic chemicals. According to the agency, some New York City residents worried about pollution and ecological damage from the Jamaica Bay landfill in the early 1970s.

Source: The US National Archives

Photo Credit: EPA/Documerica

You can see the Twin Towers behind the trash pile in this 1973 photo of an illegal dumping area off the New Jersey turnpike.

Photo Credit: EPA/Documerica

In Brooklyn, a Gravesend Bay landfill and incineration plant served as a playground for the boys pictured below. Another landfill in Staten Island, called Fresh Kills, was the largest in the world. By 2036, it will be reclaimed as a park.

 The Gravesend Bay landfill still exists today. In 2013, The New York Daily News reported that a New York City Sanitation Department study found high concentrations of two toxins banned by the EPA.

Source: Curbed

Photo Credit: EPA/Documerica

Garbage was dumped in the marshes of Spring Creek on Jamaica Bay, as seen in the 1973 image below.

Source: The New York Times

Photo Credit: EPA/Documerica

The city didn't stop discarding sewage into the ocean until 1992, due to an EPA mandate.

Photo Credit: EPA/Documerica

Building construction has long contributed to air pollution in NYC, though the EPA now regulates emissions from construction equipment. This 1973 photo shows waste from a construction site on Manhattan's lower west side.

Source: The City of New York

Photo Credit: EPA/Documerica

Rusty oil cans piled up near a home in a Jamaica Bay neighborhood. Today, the EPA sets standards on waste produced by oil and gas industries, with the goal of limiting public health hazards.

Source: EPA

Photo Credit: EPA/Documerica

In 2010, the EPA estimated that the Clean Air Act prevented over 160,000 early deaths, 130,000 heart attacks, and millions of cases of respiratory illness.

Source: EPA

Photo Credit: EPA/Documerica

Without strict EPA regulation, New York City's past could become its future.

Photo Credit: EPA/Documerica

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

But what would happen if we treated climate change as a health problem rather than an environmental one?

As an expert in the political economy of climate change, I contend we can learn useful lessons from some relatively successful public health campaigns. Take smoking, for example.

We have successfully used advertising bans and warnings on cigarette packages to change perceptions about the dangers of burning tobacco, so perhaps a similar strategy will work to focus on the dangers of burning gasoline and diesel.

After all, most of climate change is caused because humans are burning fossil fuels at prodigious rates. This combustion generates carbon dioxide. It’s accumulating rapidly in the atmosphere, warming the planet and making storms, heatwaves and droughts an increasing problem for people in manyplaces.

 

Climate health warning

Cigarette advertising was actively promoting a hazardous product, and so the public health case was made for restricting advertising of cigarettes. Alarmed by the damage to human health caused by tobacco smoking, public authorities gradually transformed the public image of cigarettes from symbols of sophistication into objects of danger. Social life has now been largely disconnected from smoking.

Many countries require packaging that alerts smokers to the dangers of the “cancer sticks” they are purchasing, and many cartons carry dire health warnings. In some cases, images of the grievous bodily harm caused by prolonged exposure to tobacco smoke must be printed on cigarette cartons. It’s all designed to discourage smoking and make plain the damage it causes.

Now there are health hazards from another form of combustion. The health impacts of climate change are clear. So, perhaps it’s time to adapt the success of the campaign against burning and smoking tobacco to policy actions against burning gasoline and diesel in vehicles.

Like cigarettes used to be, internal combustion-engined vehicles are ubiquitous. According to advertisers, their possession and use apparently infers social status. Equated with freedom, despite the amount of time drivers spend stuck in traffic, gasoline-burning cars are supposedly the ultimate symbol of individualism, autonomy and power.

But they are hazardous to both the driver and other people as well. Internal combustion engines generate urban pollution. They cause climate change. Everyone is endangered by climate change whether they drive or not. Climate change is the automobile equivalent of second-hand smoke.

 

Ban car advertising?

So, how about a ban on advertising internal combustion engine-powered vehicles? No longer could they be shown as a symbol of glamour and sophistication to young people. Instead, the consequences of their widespread use could be highlighted.

Cigarette packaging displays health warnings, so why not have gasoline- and diesel-fueled cars decorated with images of disasters, floods, damaged buildings, hurricane devastation and the like?

Consumer choice need not be unduly restricted here. If people really want to buy this increasingly outdated technology, then regulations could easily allow each model of car to be sold with a choice of flood, pestilence, drought or fire damage decor.

The car companies would no doubt protest, as did the tobacco firms before them. But the larger public health concerns are much more important than automobile producers’ business plans.

While these practical measures alone won’t alone solve the climate change problem, they would surely help people focus on the need to move rapidly away from internal combustion engines and towards a safer and more healthy world.

Simon Dalby is the CIGI Chair in the Political Economy of Climate Change at Wilfrid Laurier University. This article was originally featured on The Conversation.

Read Full Story