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Earth Day Every Day: What smoking and climate change have in common

I survived the smoking wars. How does this relate to the existential threat of global climate change? Let me explain.

Once upon a time, you could light up and enjoy a smoke just about anywhere. On an airplane, in the office, in hospital waiting rooms and in the classroom. Yes! I had college courses where the students and profs puffed away while discussing the merits of Homer’s “Illiad.” But as we learned more about the dangers of breathing secondhand smoke and non-smokers became more dissatisfied with smelly hair and clothing, things changed. First came a ban on smoking in airplanes. Then other places like offices, classrooms and most work places banned the practice. But the last bastions of public smoking were bars, restaurants and the remaining workplaces.

As a community healthcare leader in the early 2000s, I was on the front lines when those last bastions were breached. Those with vested interests, smokers and the tobacco industry, loudly warned restaurant and bar owners that they’d soon go out of business if smokers were forced outside. Major campaigns were launched to stop the bans. Lawsuits were filed. Letters to the editor were published. City and county officials saw protests and heated public comments from smokers and bar/restaurant owners. It seemed that the majority opposed the ban. The voices asking for cleaner air seemed small and meek.

And then the tipping point occurred. New York City banned smoking in its bars and restaurants and something very curious happened. Business got better. Here’s why: the overwhelming majority of Americans didn’t smoke, were concerned about secondhand smoke and many had stopped going to establishments that allowed smoking. They started going out again as the air cleared. Once bar/restaurant owners learned the truth, the battle was won.

Now we’re on the front lines of perhaps the biggest battle of our lives: climate change and the need to dramatically reduce carbon emissions by shifting energy generation from fossil fuels to renewables like solar and wind. Again, vested interests in the coal, oil and gas industries have undertaken major campaigns for decades now to preserve their industries. They learned from the tobacco industry and have been highly successful at spreading disinformation. If you follow social media, it would seem that the majority of people in our communities are against moving to renewable energy or that it’s just not feasible. We’re being told it’s not possible and that it will put vast numbers of people out of work.

But our tipping point is occurring. The truth is the overwhelming majority of people in our country, regardless of their political beliefs, know that climate change is a real and present danger and that something must be done to stop it.

I’ve been following a study called “Climate Change in the American Mind,” conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (climatecommunication.yale.edu) and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication (climatechangecommunication.org). Its latest survey was conducted in December after our contentious 2020 elections.

The study finds that 53% of registered voters think global warming should be a high or very high priority and 66% say developing sources of clean energy should be a high or very high priority for the President and Congress. Further, wide majorities of people support an even wider range of policies to reduce carbon pollution and promote clean energy. These include supporting regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant (74%) and transitioning the U.S. economy (including electric utilities, transportation, buildings and industry) from fossil fuels to 100% clean energy by 2050 (72%).

And 61% say that increasing production of clean energy in the U.S. will produce more new jobs than will increasing fossil fuel production.

Make no mistake. The battle for renewable energy to combat climate change is mammoth when compared to the smoking wars. But the dynamics are the same. The loud voices of vested interests will grow louder as major shifts in energy production and use happen. But just know: you are not alone. Nature and science will tell the truth and win the day. And someday soon, we’ll look back and marvel that we were having this debate at all.

Each April since 1970 the world celebrates Earth Day. This year EarthDay.org reminds us that “When life around the globe returns to normal, our world cannot return to business-as-usual. Our global community has been shocked by the largest global crisis in a generation. COVID-19 has shown us the necessity of thinking ahead, but the next crises are already on their way. Climate change, species loss, pandemics and massive natural disasters might define the future — unless we do something now. We have the solutions, both natural and technological … we just need the will.

Earth Day Every Day

Visit our Earth Day Every Day page to find out more about caring for our planet.

This article was originally published in the April 2021 edition of Terre Haute Living Magazine.

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Lorrie Heber

Lorrie Heber

Lorrie Heber is the director of White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, a ministry of the Sisters of Providence. You can find her on Twitter at @LorrieHeber.

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  1. Avatar Marsha Speth on April 20, 2021 at 6:45 am

    Thank you! A much needed reminder to keep working for Earth!

  2. Avatar Mary Montgomery on April 20, 2021 at 9:40 am

    Thank you, Lorrie, for your leadership on the Climate Change Task Force of the Sisters of Providence, as well as being the Director of our White Violet Center for Eco-Justice! Excellent article! Have you sent this article to The Climate Reality Project?

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