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Climate and Cigarettes: Will the National Climate Assessment Spark Real Action?

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OIL REFINERY
Bloomberg via Getty Images

This Tuesday, the White House released the most comprehensive (and frightening) report yet on the impacts that climate change is already having on the United States.

"Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present," wrote the scientists who authored the National Climate Assessment, a massive undertaking that brought together over 300 experts across the country. The report looks at every region of the United States and each sector of the economy, laying out in clear and powerful prose the dangers climate disruption poses to our planet and way of life.

Forty years ago, the government put out another similarly dire report. It was called the first Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health. The landmark study was the first federal report government report that linked smoking with lung cancer and heart disease -- and it was a bombshell.

The Surgeon General's findings exploded the myth that cigarette smoking was a harmless pastime and laid the foundation for all the tobacco regulations since. In 1965, Congress started requiring Surgeon General's warnings on all cigarette packages. Six years later, all broadcast advertising for cigarettes was banned. The fight against Big Tobacco still continues today, the Surgeon General's 1964 report was the beginning of the end for the industry's total domination of our political process.

Will the National Climate Assessment have a similar impact? We clearly won't be able to count on Congress to start requiring warnings on gas pumps next year. And it's unlikely that all oil industry broadcast advertising will be banned anytime soon.

But Tuesday's report should send a shockwave through the American public. And it should electrify the growing movement that's challenging the Big Tobacco of our generation: the fossil fuel industry.

For years, the fossil fuel industry has used the tobacco industry playbook to mislead the public about climate change. They've intentionally promoted pseudo-science and spread misinformation. They've polluted our political process with hundreds of millions of dollars in spending. And they've fought tooth-and-nail against any effort to regulate carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas that's fueling the climate crisis.

In order for us to see real progress on climate change, our politicians need be just as embarrassed to stand next to the CEO of ExxonMobil as they would be to stand with the head of Philip Morris.

The Surgeon General's 1964 report on smoking helped spark the sea change in public opinion that ultimately led institutions like Harvard University to sell their stock in tobacco companies in the 1990s. Then Harvard University President Derek Bok wrote that the decision "was motivated by a desire not to be associated as a shareholder with companies engaged in significant sales of products that create a substantial and unjustified risk of harm to other human beings.''

Now, a new fossil fuel divestment campaign, modeled on the divestment efforts that took on apartheid South Africa in the 1980s and the Big Tobacco in the 1990s, has already spread to over 400 colleges, universities, cities, states and religious institutions across the country. 11 colleges, over twenty cities, and a number of churches have already committed to divest. Oxford University has called the Go Fossil Free effort the fastest growing divestment campaign in history and said it poses a "far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies."

The current President of Harvard, Drew Faust, has said repeatedly that climate change is a different issue than tobacco and the University has no responsibility to divest. But the National Climate Assessment makes it clear that the fossil fuel industry is even more dangerous than the tobacco industry. Harvard should be just as ashamed of their investments in Chevron as they were of their holdings in Philip Morris.

It's been 40 years since the Surgeon General's report. Let's hope that 40 years from now, we look back at the 2014 National Climate Assessment as a similar turning point. A report that helped public opinion reach a tipping point and sparked real, bold action to address the climate crisis.

There are some promising signs. As I was writing this blog post, we got the news that Stanford University is divesting from the 100 coal companies targeted by our divestment campaign. It's not the full divestment from coal, oil and gas that we'll keep pushing for, but it's a huge win and could open the floodgates for more commitments. The timing couldn't be better.