11/05/2010 11:53 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Smoke Baby, Smoke!

Here's what I don't get about the "debate" over manmade climate change (I put debate in quotes because I'm using it in the absolute loosest terms -- let's face it, it's about as much of a scientific debate as evolution vs. creationism.). On one side are the scientific experts: 98 percent of these educated climate researchers agree that our ongoing addiction to fossil fuels like oil and coal is having a detrimental warming impact on climate patterns. On the other side are a handful of industrialists who make millions from our continuing addiction to dirty fossil fuels, like Don Blankenship of Massey Coal who openly denounces climate change as a "hoax".

But despite the overwhelming evidence that should make this a clearly decided issue, we still have to suffer the "drill baby, drill" political ideologues -- climate change naysayers like Sarah Palin and James Inhofe -- who perform the fossil fuel industry's bidding by tirelessly pushing harmful energy sources. They've handily convinced millions of Americans that anything else is un-American.

Let's put all the overwhelming facts aside on climate change. Let's pretend there's something to actually debate. Should it really make a difference in our approach to fossil fuels?

Take smoking. We all know (or should by now) that cigarettes cause all sorts of nasty health problems. Smoking harms nearly every organ of the human body. Smoking can lead to lung disease and cancer of several bodily organs, including lungs, throat, stomach and mouth. Smoking causes coronary disease, clogging of the arteries and aortic aneurysm. Smoking leads to a whole series of birth-related complications, including low birth weight and stillbirths. The list of disastrous health impacts goes on and on.

And that's why there's no "is-smoking-bad-for-you?" debate.

Now let's say that there was one harmful side effect of smoking that I just wasn't buying. For example, I read on the Center for Disease Control's website that researchers correlate smoking with increases in hip fractures in women. I'm no doctor, and I have no idea if 98 percent of the medical researchers agree with this correlation, but it really doesn't matter. Smoking and bone fractures? It sounds too disconnected to me. So, does my refusal to accept the hip-fracture statistic mean that it's OK to smoke, or that the U.S. shouldn't be putting every resource and educational tool we have into deterring future generations from taking up cigarette smoking?

Of course not. Because tobacco addiction causes more deaths each year than HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides, and murders combined. Smoking is bad for you, end of story, with or without the hip fractures.

So why aren't we looking at fossil fuels in the same way we look at cigarettes?

Simply put, fossil fuels are to our ecosystems what cigarettes are to our human body systems. Coal extraction strips away pristine landscapes, poisons drinking water supplies and kills ecosystems every bit as much as cigarettes sear into our internal organs. Oil transportation accidents devastate our coastlines and marine habitats in the same way that nicotine infiltrates our circulatory systems and clogs our blood flow. Coal-fired power plants contaminate our waterways and fish with toxic mercury and fill our skies with asthma-inducing particulates in the same manner that tobacco smoke fills our lungs and destroys our tissue.

The National Academy of Science recently determined that the air pollution from burning fossil fuels accounts for nearly 20,000 deaths in the United States each year, costing the country $120 billion annually. That doesn't include the impacts and costs of mercury fish advisories in all our states, or coal ash impoundments, or drinking water contamination from irresponsible coal mining practices.

Climate change is among a long list of serious environmental and human problems associated with continued use of fossil fuels -- like hip fractures are associated with cigarette smoking. So why would the fact that there are some vocal climate change naysayers alter our approach to eliminating fossil fuels from our energy portfolio as soon as possible? Why aren't we doing everything in our power to wean this country off of harmful energy resources and replace them with the sun and wind and the heat contained within the earth's crust?

I'm not naïve; I know the answer. Once again, we've let the other side frame the issue and control the discussion. We've allowed the dialogue over our energy future to revolve solely around climate change when it should also be about so many other things. It's an economic issue, but not in the way most industry supporters would have you think - it's because the sun and wind are free. And what red-blooded American industrialist, or politician bought and paid for by American industrialists, wants anything to be free. So, we continue to go back and forth, arguing about climate change while coal ash, particulate matter, mercury, oil spills, dispersants and countless other ills of the fossil-fuel industry poison our planet and bodies.

So to the Palins and the Inhofes and the Blankenships, I've got a message. I may not be a medical doctor, but this hip fracture thing makes no sense to me. Until it does, you naysayers go ahead -- smoke, baby, smoke.