Tobacco and climate change

For years now I’ve seen references to the analogy between the link between tobacco smoking and deaths from lung cancer and the link between the burning of fossil fuels and catastrophic global warming. A common theme is to say something like this: ‘climate change’ deniers are also people who deny that smoking causes lung cancer. Another is to explore the backgrounds of critics of the orthodoxy and argue that they have links to the tobacco industry.

I smoked from 17 to 26 and gave it up to concentrate on sport. I never resumed, and came to detest the smell of cigarettes and their smoke. Australia is immeasurably better for non-smokers than it used to be, and while I had and still have worries about the uniform cigarette-packet laws, I do look forward to the day when no one smokes. I put in this autobiographical stuff because anyone who departs from the orthodoxy in this area is likely to be labelled a denier too.

Having said all that, the assumption that the two links are comparable, even the same, seems to me quite fatuous. Let’s start with smoking. About 80 to 90 per cent of those diagnosed with lung cancer are smokers, and between 10 to 15 per cent are not. Not only that, the more cigarettes smoked the greater the risk of lung cancer. A smoker is about nine times more likely  to die of lung cancer than a non-smoker. So the relationship is probabilistic, not direct. Some who smoke won’t die of lung cancer, and some who have never smoked will die of the disease. Smokers also have a greater risk of an early death from cardiovascular disease, from emphysema and from other causes that could be indirectly related to tobacco smoking. There is no doubt that smoking is bad for you, and ‘the science’ can tell you quite a lot about why exactly it is bad for you.

The link between smoking and cancer is directly relevant to individuals, like me and you. If I smoke, there is a greater risk of my dying of lung cancer, and of my dying earlier that would be the case if I did not smoke at all. The risk is not absolute, but it is high, and a rational person would take it seriously. Governments are interested in the link, because smoking leads to expensive surgical interventions and hospital care that would otherwise not be necessary. We spend about 9 per cent of our GDP on health, broadly defined, and the proportion keeps rising, so governments everywhere are interested in reducing it.

Global warming or ‘climate change’ is a different kind of horse altogether. To begin with, it doesn’t matter at all what an individual does. Changing our light globes, riding a bicycle instead of driving a car, not flying — these decisions make no difference to the proportion of carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere. We are simply insignificant as individuals in this domain.

So the first real difference is that in the case of smoking the effect is directly relevant to an individual, while in the case of ‘climate change’ the effect is said to be to the planet itself. It follows that the response to the threat of the effect of global warming has to be on a global scale. It now appears, however, that there is not much we can do about it. As former Commissioner Flannery came to admit, even if the whole of Australia followed the decision to cut greenhouse emissions by 2020 we would not as a nation make a discernible difference to carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Even if the whole world followed our example, the change in CO2 levels would not be a great one.

The second difference is that in the case of smoking, while scientists are still unable to say why some people smoke and don’t die while others do, they can tell why smokers do die, when they do. In the case of ‘climate change’ or global warming, ‘the science’ is altogether more rudimentary. There is a well accepted view, based on radiative physics, that doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will, other things being equal, increase global temperature by 1.1 degrees Celsius. Just about everything else is conjectural.

Other things are plainly not equal, if only because of the long pause in the rise of global temperature — and, as I argued the other day, if ‘natural’ factors can slow down the effect of radiative physics, it’s entirely possible that some of the warming that seemed to take place in the 1980s and 1990s was also due to ‘natural’ factors. In fact, we really don’t know a lot about how climate works,  and it is a puzzle that the Australian Academy of Science and other such bodies continue to suggest that we do.

In short, any reasonably well-educated person can work out for herself that it is most unwise to develop a taste for cigarettes. Equally, she can work out for herself that our present knowledge about the earth’s climate does not require her to change her own lifestyle, let alone support her government’s requiring us all to do so, on the proposition that unless we do so humanity is doomed.


Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • whyisitso says:

    Sorry to see you lapsing into political correctness in your last sentence.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      I was not suggesting that we are doomed, only that that a citizen can work out for herself that there is no need to follow this proposition, because the evidence for it is weak.

      • whyisitso says:

        I was referring to your use of the feminine case in your pronoun when you were clearly referring to all of humanity. Unfortunately this is tendency among many who genuflect to the politically correct regime we all are enslaved by in our use of language. I know a number of inner urban sandalistas (sorry, Gerard, for stealing your term) who want the terms “husband” and “wife” banned, for example.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Sorry, I missed the point. I use that form once in fifty times, just to remind myself that there is another possibility!

  • sabena says:

    “smoking leads to expensive surgical interventions and hospital care that would otherwise not be necessary.”Correct-but that does not mean there will be a saving of money if smoking related deaths are reduced.Life(or rather death) is a great deal more complicated than that.
    It is axiomatic that we will all die-the question is when and what the cost of treatment will be.One of the increasing causes of death is Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.That cause does not require expensive treatment.However it does usually mean an extended stay in nursing care which is probably as expensive or more so that treatment for lung cancer.The second issue is life expectancy.Unless a smoker dies before the age of 65(and that is becoming less likely),the cost to the community in terms of loss of their ability to work diminishes.
    The above example shows the need for caution in public policy even if there were no dispute that global warming was occurring and the effects of the warming were all negative.For the most part preventive measures are not economically sound and liable to fail.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Saving of money is only one likely benefit. There is also the freeing up on hospital places. Is Alzheimer’s a cause of death or a condition that the dead person died with? (I’ll look it up.)

  • robertirish says:

    When we didn’t know for certain that smoking kills, we waited until it did, and then looked back and could understand the reason for it having done so.

    If climate change is happening, if scientific conjecture is correct (and as you say it may not be-neither you or I know for sure) then should we wait until it is so bad that it is undeniable (or to continue the analogy, until we are absolutely certain that we have cancer) to do anything about it?

    Unfortunately we don’t get the luxury of knowledge in hindsight on this one. As you have so correctly pointed out, smoking affects one. If climate change is happening, it will affect all of us; we don’t get a trial run.

    The expense, which seems to be your concern with taking action on climate change, I’m sure would be immense. But it seems to me to be a better course of action than to wait until it is potentially too late to act. With the scientific consensus suggesting that something is happening, and with the weight of the conjectures put forward, we should be taking this more seriously than we are.

    • Don Aitkin says:


      ‘Climate change’ isn’t getting worse, and that is part of the reason that I distrust the doomsayers. Doom was prophesied 15 years ago, and lo! warming has stopped (paused, if you like), food production is up, tornadoes are not increasing, and so on. If we studied natural variability in climate instead of assuming that the villain was carbon dioxide, we’d get a long way further, in my view.

      Expense is not my concern — it is the utter waste of time, energy and (yes) money in trying to limit carbon dioxide emissions when you can work out for yourself that even if we succeeded we would not reduce global temperatures by a discernible amount. In short, why would we be doing this? Even of the rest of the world followed trail-blazing Australia the result would be barely discernible.

      It seems nutty to me.

      • robertirish says:

        Definitely not nutty. As we can both agree it is at this stage unclear: the research is immature.

        I suppose I would rather err on the side of caution when it comes to the fate of our planet. We have only got one!

        • Don Aitkin says:

          You mean that it’s not nutty to do something quite complicated and expensive that can have no discernible result? Cutting greenhouse emissions seems to fit that description.

          • robertirish says:

            Don, any reasonable person can agree that the science is not settled. My common sense tells me it is more reasonable to act before we have a very real, visible problem than to wait until it is too late to act at all.

            You seem to be upset, but calling my opinion ‘nutty’ is hardly a way to respond. I have tried to be very reasonable with putting forward my view; I am sick of the name calling. It’s not helping anybody.

          • donaitkin says:

            I think I’ll handle this issue best in a post, and will do that for Saturday. I wasn’t upset, and was not referring to you as ‘nutty’. If you go back you’ll see it is a reference to what governments and the orthodox have proposed. I beg your pardon for not having made the reference clearer.

  • Peter Bobroff says:

    I did see somewhere recently that the additional cost to the Australian health care system caused by smokers is about 1/5 of the tax collected on cigarettes. If this is true, smokers more than pay their way.

    • Don Aitkin says:


      I would generally agree that smokers have paid a lot already. Whether it is enough to pay their extra medical and health costs at the end (and on the way through) is problematic.

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