Smoking cessation, carbon emission cessation: what’s the diff?

Today I attended an excellent learning session hosted by some public servants that are really dedicated to providing smoking cessation services to British Columbians. is the main point of contact for the public and health professionals to get resources on quitting smoking, and it is delivered as a partnership between the provincial government and the BC Lung Association.

The team working on this program have some really cool “tactics” for supporting behavior change:

  • A text to quit now tool, where smokers sign up to get tailored text messages that support their quest to quit.
  • A quit now hotline for smokers to talk to coaches when they are having trouble.
  • A contest to “win your lungs” and monetary prizes.
  • The use of social media tools for promotion of the resources.

The social media tools, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube act as portals to the resources, but also provide an online community for would be quitters to support each other. These tools also provide ways to connect other societal influences (holidays, the hockey game) to the objectives of the program.

The initiative has demonstrated some impressive results, and the testimonials are really excellent: people are very excited about what they have accomplished and they can see the benefits. Wouldn’t it be great to have the same results for climate action?

So, as my team and I are always considering new and improved ways to reach out to people to help us reduce carbon emissions, I wonder, is there anything we might be able to apply from the success QuitNow has had? First though, I question, what’s the difference between smoking cessation and carbon mitigation?

Here is my brief bucket list of things that set smoke and carbon apart (you might be able to add more):

  • Smoking is a very close, personal action that has immediate impacts on the person; climate change is generally “out there”, and many carbon emissions related to a person’s choices happen at a distance (the power plant, factory etc).
  • Smoke and nicotine are simply obvious nasties; carbon emissions require some science to really understand.
  • The impacts are mostly directly tied to the perpetrator/smoker; carbon emissions are from nearly everyone and are creating a global problem and the major loser might not always be the major emitter.
  • Quitting smoking is a single action (don’t buy/consume cigarettes); quitting carbon has multiple pathways (home, vehicle , industrial, technology, products, etc).
  • Cigarettes are a single consumer item that generate revenue for private companies (and government through taxes); fossil fuels underly nearly every economic transaction in society.

Now here are some parallels I see between carbon emissions leading to climate change, and smoking leading to ill health:

  • A smoker’s loved ones suffer if/when they succumb to the impacts; future grandchildren will experience most of the harm of climate change.
  • The government stands to lose lots of money in healthcare costs due to smoking; the government is going to have a hard time paying to keep up with the impacts of climate change.
  • Cigarettes are taxed to discourage it; in BC carbon is taxed to discourage it.
  • Smoking is a choice/habit; emitting carbon is often a choice/habit.
  • Quitting smoking saves you money; you can save energy and money by quitting carbon.
  • Quitters can encourage smokers to be like them; carbon crusaders can demonstrate the benefits of low-carbon lifestyles.

I’m sure there are more (feel free to comment and and your own thoughts below), but this illustrates, I think, that there is the potential to think about climate change parallel to ill health – “We want to prevent it. Here are the reasons why… Here are the tools to do it….”

Notably, my bucket list of how carbon is different from smoke also happens to be a list of reasons why climate change is difficult to communicate and gain “action traction” on. Here, I’d like to point so some excellent and related work coming from a fellow of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions on the Psychology of Climate Change (Click here for the online lecture).

Research indicates that talking about the need to save the world is too “psychologically distant” for people to act on, and the more “close” you can make climate action, the better. Also, the more positive we can be about taking these actions, the better (i.e. do it and you benefit, versus, don’t and we’re doomed).

We can’t change the facts of climate change (it’s just not the same as smoking) and it will remain complex – BUT we can be effective if we provide solutions for action that are personally relevant and accessible to the audience.

Can you think of initiatives that have been particularly successful at doing this? (I’ve got some… but am running long in this blog already!). Please share!

Here’s to a new world waiting,



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