Tristan keeps telling me that ozone depletion and acid rain are poor comparisons for climate change. Yes, they were major environmental problems that were identified scientifically, and then dealt with legislatively. But addressing them only really involved a small number of organizations, and processes that could be fairly readily replaced. Addressing the issues didn’t require much social or political change.
That’s fair enough, but perhaps there is an alternative comparison that is useful: smoking. Watching Mad Men constantly reminds me of how much of a transformation there has been in the public attitude toward smoking in the past few decades. While part of that was certainly driven by personal fear (smoking will kill you personally, climate change will not), the transition also involved moral arguments about the effects of secondhand smoke on unconsenting others. And it involved government imposing increasingly harsh regulations on an industry that was highly profitable, powerful, and fundamentally opposed to having its products restrained by law.
Perhaps growing awareness of the harms fossil fuels impose on others – including those in future generations – could help to drive a similar cultural shift. We have promising alternatives to fossil fuels, but our political system is still unwilling to take on the industries that want to keep us reliant on them. Perhaps smoking suggests that could change.