One Weird Way the Tobacco Industry Could Profit From Climate Change

Students are blogging about topics that interest them for Applications in Climate and Society, a core spring class.

Xixi Zhang, C+S ’19

Tobacco field (Source: widnr/Flickr)

Climate change is already having negative impacts on our society, including on big business. Most businesses are focusing on how to reduce the impacts and losses driven by climate change, but some businesses are thinking about how they could profit off climate change. 

Philip Morris International (PMI) is one of those companies. It’s ironic that a cigarette company that created the playbook for climate deniers could now reap at least a few benefits from it as rising temperatures and precipitation could improve tobacco harvests.

The company is actually a leader in climate disclosure. Earlier this year, it scored an A on environmental impact nonprofit CDP’s list of companies disclosing their climate risks and plans. It’s the fifth year PMI has received an A. The company’s chief sustainability officer said in a blog post PMI is planning to lower the greenhouse gas emissions in the curing process by 70 percent by 2020 compared to their emission in 2010. 

Climate change-influenced extreme weather events such as catastrophic heat waves and droughts could have negative impacts on tobacco production (as well as many other industries). But certain shifts in weather patterns could help companies like PMI turn a bigger profit. In their voluntary climate risk disclosure, the company submitted to CDP in 2018, PMI said that they have “medium confidence” in increased precipitation and steady rain could increase yields and save the company an estimated $10 million. The more regular rains seen in some of the countries where PMI sources tobacco from has lengthened the growing season, increasing tobacco production and quality. Warmer temperatures—another symptom of climate change—has also helped PMI save $1 million dollars per year by reducing wood burning during the tobacco drying process. 

Of course, even if PMI and a few other companies benefit from climate change financially, there’s still the fact that by large, climate change is a catastrophe for the planet, people and businesses. And for a company like PMI, those benefits also harm human health in other ways. The tobacco products they sell cause a higher risk of cancer. Smoking kills hundreds of thousands of people a year, and PMI is among the main companies to spread doubt about that link for decades. 

The negative impacts of climate change on business are tremendously important on top of what it means for society. Addressing climate change is a far more effective strategy than hoping for a few tiny benefits. That’s why it’s no surprise that even if PMI sees a business opportunity, they’re also cutting their emissions.

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