While a pandemic and protests against racism have our attention, we are still suffering global heating. Fortunately, there are some people who continue to work on saving the planet.
In December 2019, a nonprofit law group in the United Kingdom called ClientEarth issued a call to ban fossil fuel ads. Their cause is not much different than the move to stop cigarette advertising, which succeeded in ending broadcast ads of cigarette companies on television and radio in the US in 1971. They are all legal products, and economic drivers, which were originally thought to be safe.
Can similar restrictions to the ones that have long existed for tobacco be applied to products that emit greenhouse gases? ClientEarth is working towards tobacco-like restrictions on advertising and lobbying, and warning labels for fossil fuel products.
The effectiveness of advertising restrictions is not in doubt. While researchers determined that smoking causes lung cancer more than 70 years ago, for decades the public was bombarded with advertising and they continued to smoke, including in restaurants over their meals and at their desks in offices. The laws and public policies passed since 1971 helped reduce the demand for cigarettes; 43 percent of adults in the US smoked in 1965, while only 14 percent smoked in 2018. The tobacco policies saved tens of millions of lives.
The greenhouse gas emitting industries spend tens of billions of dollars marketing and encouraging the increased consumption of their products and services. The automobile industry spent $35.5 billion in 14 large countries with $18 billion just in the US in 2018. And there is travel promotion, valued over $20 billion in 2019 in the US. That is a large piece of the economy and jobs, but so too was the tobacco industry in the sixties. This time, the health of the whole planet at stake. The impact of emissions could be placed on labels on gas pumps, cars, and plane tickets, like the warnings on the side of cigarette packs. With the global cataclysmic changes pushed by the pandemic and Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, it may be the best time to bring in those warning labels and marketing restrictions.
“Warning labels connect the abstract threat of the climate emergency with the use of fossil fuels in the here and now, drawing attention to the true cost of fossil fuels pictorially or quantitatively,” write Mike Gill, former regional director of public health for southeast England, and four coauthors in the British Medical Journal. Gill and his coauthors add: “They sensitize people to the consequences of their actions, representing nudges designed to encourage users to choose alternatives to fossil fuels, thus increasing demand for zero-carbon renewable energy.”
The UN Environmental Programme’s 2019 Emissions Gap Report charges that, in order to avoid dangerous disruptions in climate, greenhouse gas emissions have to be reduced by 7.6 percent every year, starting immediately, and they need to be at net-zero by 2050.
Meanwhile, Greta Thunberg, the young climate change activist, accused leaders in the European Union (EU) of skirting around the peril with their €750-billion COVID-19 recovery plan. The leaders pledged 30 percent of the recovery fund to climate policies, but with few details; Thunberg says it is not enough; she is much more ambitious.
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“They are still denying the fact and ignoring the fact that we are facing a climate emergency, and the climate crisis has still not once been treated as a crisis,” Thunberg tells the Guardian. “As long as the climate crisis is not being treated as a crisis, the changes that are necessary will not happen.”
The young people involved in Germany’s school strikes movement are also becoming more frustrated with government officials, according to Luisa Neubauer, 24, a key activist.
“We are asking our leaders to take care of the most fundamental thing: the safety of us, the safety of people around the world, the safety of our futures,” Neubauer says. “It is worrying on a democratic level when you ask for such substantial things, which seem so obvious, and yet you see how leaders are widely ignoring it, or not considering it to be as important as other things.”
The group has written an open letter, signed by 80,000 people, which includes some of the leading scientists. The letter indicates that the EU responded quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that resolve and immediacy should be used to meet the challenges of climate change, especially addressing “social and racial injustices and oppression that have laid the foundations of our modern world”.
“It is now clearer than ever that the climate crisis has never once been treated as a crisis, neither from the politicians, media, business nor finance. And the longer we keep pretending that we are on a reliable path to lower emissions and that the actions required to avoid a climate disaster are available within today’s system … the more precious time we will lose,” the letter says.
The EU revealed its Green Deal earlier in the year, with its intentions to transform the 27 countries from high-carbon economies to low-carbon, improving people’s quality of life and financial situation – with clean water, air and protecting the natural world. Thunberg said that the 2050 net zero timeline was not ambitious enough.
“I see the hope in democracy and in people,” Thunberg said. “If people become aware of what is happening then we can accomplish anything, we can put pressure on people in power … if we just decide we have had enough then that will change everything.”
Monday Thunberg was awarded the €1m ($1.15m) Portuguese Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity because she “has been able to mobilize younger generations for the cause of climate change and her tenacious struggle to alter a status quo that persists”, said Jorge Sampaio, chair of the prize jury. Thunberg has also won Amnesty International’s top human rights prize, among other awards. She immediately pledged to give the money to organizations working to stop climate change and guard the environment. She will donate the money through her foundation, beginning with €100,000 to take on the coronavirus in the Amazon through the “SOS Amazonia” campaign which is led by Fridays For Future Brazil.
It is surprising, and comforting, to know that the pandemic and the economic crisis it has caused, along with the protests in support of BLM, have not distracted those who are working to address the globe’s ongoing climate emergency.—Marian Conway