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Whether or not the United States should ratify an international treaty to limit greenhouse gases is the most prominent question in today’s environmental policy debate. Yet this discussion has all but ignored the most crucial policy issue – whether policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions might do more good than harm. Few have asked whether the Kyoto Protocol and other measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could be contrary to the interest of public health.
Advocates of a climate policy commonly invoke the precautionary principle – the idea that "it is better to be safe than sorry." This principle is commonly invoked by environmentalists confronted by uncertain environmental threats. The shortcoming of this argument is that action will itself create risks that may be far more certain and significant than the high uncertain risk prevented. There are substantial public health and safety risks of government regulations. The most serious concern about a global warming policy is that actions to restrain CO2 emissions could cause thousands of deaths per year.
It is now well established, if not widely recognized, that environmental policies commonly cause increases in mortality. The climate policies currently under consideration, which are largely designed to decrease energy use, would create new risks and almost certainly cause greater harm to human health than benefit. Whether energy conservation is mandated, or induced by higher energy prices or government subsidy programs, it seems likely that any prospective energy savings would have to come from three sources – reductions in automobile energy use, reductions in home energy use, and reductions in industrial energy use. Additional reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could also be achieved through fuel switching.
Increases in automobile fuel efficiency will reduce vehicle size and weights. An increase in average fuel economy from 27.5 to 40 miles per gallon, such as that contemplated by global warming policy, would cause approximately 1,650 additional highway fatalities and 8,000 more serious injuries per year.
The most effective route to heating and cooling efficiency is to reduce the ventilation rate of buildings, but this increases the concentrations of indoor air pollutants. A fifty percent reduction in ventilation will roughly double indoor pollution concentrations and hurt public health.
Alternative fuel sources are rarely, if ever, risk free. Alternative automotive fuels, such as ethanol, can increase emissions of certain air pollutants, and alternative energy sources, such as solar, create risks by increasing the production of hazardous waste.
While these costs are significant, the greatest health costs of requiring greenhouse gas emission reductions undoubtedly would result from the economic costs of such a policy. The economic costs of a global warming policy will translate directly into increased morbidity and mortality among U.S. citizens. Study after study demonstrates that richer is safer, that increasing income causes less death and illness. Money spent on increased energy costs is unavailable for the purchase of smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, bicycle helmets, and other products that protect health. Greater wealth also increases access to health care and education. As one recent study noted, "any public policy that leads to declining disposable income, such as environmental regulations, is likely to have significant adverse health effects" from injury and disease. The Kyoto Protocol, by itself, is expected to cost $7 to $1,830 billion, according to recent estimates. Using a conservative estimate that regulatory costs of $10 million induce one premature mortality shows that climate policies will result in an estimated 700 to 183,000 additional deaths each year.
Equally important, the distribution of the costs from mandated emission reductions is sure to be regressive. The poor tend to consume relatively more energy and energy-intensive products per capita, and will be the hardest hit by price increases. Placing the greatest burdens on the poor also exacerbates the public health costs of global warming policy. The studies on the health effects of income loss consistently find that the association is stronger for poor individuals, so a policy that takes money from the poor will have even greater adverse health consequences than the numbers estimated above.
Finally it is important to recognize the strong correlation between societal wealth and energy efficiency. As per capita income increases, so does energy efficiency. Increases in wealth also correlate with reductions in pollution. Economic growth is a sound environmental policy in its own right, and government actions that hurt such growth can undermine energy efficiency and control of environmental pollutants.
Adopting the Kyoto Protocol could be a public health catastrophe. Energy conservation measures could easily result in many tens of thousands of additional deaths. An even greater toll could result from the enormous economic costs of global warming policy and its effect on national income. From the perspective of the economy, public health, and even the environment, such a policy could be a lose-lose proposition.
Global warming may well entail substantial risks. But so do global warming policies. Before advocates of the Kyoto Protocol can claim that mandatory emission reductions represent the "safest" course, they must account for the substantial risks to public health that their suggested policies will cause.