Climate Matters: How to start an anti-carbon campaign


22nd in a series

What can we learn from public health campaigns that will help us make progress on climate-change prevention?

As a society, we have previously made good progress against several apparently intractable problems: youth and adult tobacco use, motor vehicle crash fatalities, cervical cancer fatalities, childhood infectious diseases, tuberculosis. We implemented multifaceted, evidence-based campaigns and vigorous measurement of progress. I will use anti-tobacco campaigns as an example.

Making major change in tobacco use has required both thousands of individual actions to quit or reduce tobacco use and numerous policy changes that encourage non-smoking behaviors (like higher taxes or smoking bans in restaurants). Success in a campaign to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels will similarly happen when many thousands of individuals and organizations make decisions that move us there. The decisions will be both direct (like replacing an aging fossil fuel boiler with an electric heat pump), and indirect (like making sure electric vehicle chargers are everywhere).

Successful anti-tobacco campaigns have included elements that rely on financial incentives (like tobacco tax rate increases), direct regulation (like proof of age for tobacco purchase) and persuasion and education (like school curriculum, mass media campaigns, or doctor’s advice to quit). All of these measures work together to change social norms around tobacco use, so that it is no longer cool or even socially acceptable to be a smoker.

The basic model that public health workers carry around in their head is that people are all at various points along a spectrum of tobacco use. The spectrum stretches from confirmed smokers, through smokers thinking about quitting, smokers trying to cut down, smokers who have already attempted to quit, people who have quit and are maintaining their tobacco-free status, and never-smokers. Some people who have never smoked are firm in their resolution, while others think that they might or will start someday.

A public health approach, at a community level, is to try to align all the social, economic and legal incentives and reinforcements so that they help smokers move along the path to quitting, and help committed non-smokers stay that way. We want people who are trying to quit to get positive reinforcement at every turn. People’s individual decision-making about tobacco use happens in a community context, and also shapes that context for others.

You can probably see the analogy to climate-change prevention. We need both individual decisions and community context. Our warming planet is the greatest public health crisis humans have ever faced.

A quick summary of the biggest greenhouse gas reduction strategy is:

Electrify everything and decarbonize the electricity!

Or, even more concisely, no new fossil fuel machines!

For financial incentives and regulation designed to reduce greenhouse gas production, most of the action is at the state and federal levels. Education and persuasion are really important at the local level. We all can work in our homes, schools, workplaces and towns to make needed changes in fossil fuel use and to shift people’s decisions away from fossil fuel use. You can make a difference with specific projects, and importantly you can also help to move community norms toward favoring such decisions. You can be alert to opportunities yourself to do things like:

  • When it’s time, replace your gasoline or diesel car or truck, and your gas lawnmower and other equipment, with electric equivalents.
  • Tighten up and insulate your home.
  • When it’s time, replace your home or business fossil fuel heating system with cold-climate electric heat pumps.
  • Talk to your school board members and administrators about replacing fossil fuel building heating systems with electric heat pumps when they need replacing.
  • Also talk to them about finding a school bus contractor who will transition to electric buses.
  • Talk to your selectboard members and town managers about getting to net-zero: heat municipal buildings with heat pumps, weatherize them and replace worn-out gas and diesel vehicles and equipment with electric equivalents.
  • Share your electrification success stories with anyone who will listen.
  • Support local projects to generate fully renewable electricity or do it yourself.
  • Talk to school boards and selectboards about building or buying into their own renewable electric-generating capability.
  • Elect local and state officials who are committed to moving us all to energy net-zero.
  • If you are fortunate enough to have investments, move your money out of fossil-fuel-intensive businesses.

Other kinds of actions are also worthwhile: household and commercial recycling, supporting local farms, avoiding unnecessary fossil-fueled travel, mowing less of your lawn and letting the forest grow back, planting trees along the edges of wetlands and streams, speaking up to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists when local roadway and sidewalk decisions are being made.

But the big-ticket items are to replace our fossil-fuel machines and equipment with electric equivalents and to make sure our electricity is as carbon-free as possible. You can make a difference both by your own decisions and by creating a context in which it will be easier for others to make similar decisions. If we attack problems with sustained, long-term, evidence-based, multifaceted actions, like those from successful public health campaigns, we will make important changes over time.

Dr. Richard Hopkins is a retired public health official. He spent 35 years in several state health departments as an epidemiologist and program manager. He is a member of the Middlebury Energy Committee and sits on the board of the Climate Economy Action Center of Addison County.

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