Smoking Addiction and Climate Change: Denial, Resignation, and Responsibility


Image credit: Ad Council/Tim Shundo

By Edward D. Levin, Ph.D., Duke University


Cigarette smokers often show a maladaptive progression from denial to resignation. When they are young, they deny that smoking will kill them, or alternatively they say that they can stop soon enough to avoid the illnesses caused by smoking. In either case, they assume that smoking-induced disease and early death will not happen to them. This works in the short run because, insidiously, the health risks of smoking do not become fully expressed for decades.


As time goes on, however, it becomes more apparent that they cannot quit and they turn to the second maladaptive response: resignation.  It is almost as if a tipping point is reached, and denial of the health consequences of smoking turns the corner to resignation. “I know that I am addicted and I will die from smoking and I can’t do anything about it,” a person at this stage might think.


The action needed for a tobacco smoker to improve his or her health seems to be pretty straightforward: just stop smoking. But as we have seen with many smokers, achieving that goal is not so simple. It takes a variety of approaches and concerted effort by the smoker and the community to overcome the addiction. One key to motivating the smoker to quit smoking is to pry open the middle space between denial and resignation and reveal the possibilities of responsibility. Taking responsibility can allow smokers to overcome addiction without falling victim to the twin excuses of denial and resignation.


The climate change discussion, unfortunately, is proceeding along in a similar fashion. Scientific evidence has been mounting for decades that human activities, particularly related to the burning of fossil fuels, are overloading our atmosphere with pollutants that are changing our climate.  The consequences are dire and only by altering our behavior can we attenuate these adverse effects.


Like smoking, the reluctance to decrease fossil fuel use could be described as an addiction. Some deny the scientific evidence and many feel that we will not suffer such ill consequences after all.  As the consequences of climate change become more apparent, the tenacity of the denial will eventually abate.


We should be prepared for the next maladaptive response of the addict—resignation and acknowledgement of the addiction and its consequences—but we should also be prepared to face excuses and the negative attitude that adverse consequence are inevitable. As with some addicts, the documentation of the damage and mechanisms of the ill effects is not enough. It is vital to recruit the participation of the patient in their own recovery.


When it comes to facing climate change, we must apply a lever to the junction between denial and resignation in order to open a space of responsibility and positive action. It is paramount that we recognize the ill effects of our behavior and motivate ourselves to take responsibility and action to overcome an unhealthy addiction to fossil fuels.


As with smoking cessation we will feel withdrawal effects, and to some degree we will suffer through the transition in the short run, but we will be healthier for the rest of our lives. It is important to get this right the first time; unlike with smokers, our failure to open an era of responsibility between denial and resignation would not result only in the tragic loss of an individual life, but in a widespread disease across our entire planet.