Kyoto Protocol: Hazardous to Your Health?

Published January 1, 1999

The Kyoto Protocol–designed to protect humans and the environment from the effects of global warming–could cause as many as 183,000 deaths in the United States alone because of increased highway fatalities, worsened indoor air pollution, and poverty-related conditions.

“The climate policies currently under consideration, which are largely designed to decrease energy use, would create new risks and almost certainly cause more health harm than they would benefit health,” according to Frank B. Cross in “Could Kyoto Kill? The Mortality Costs of Climate Policies.”

Cross, who is the Herbert D. Kelleher Professor of Business Law at the University of Texas at Austin, prepared the study for the Washington, DC-based Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Arguing that any tax-supported public policy that reduces disposable income is likely to have “significant adverse health effects,” Cross warns that adopting the Kyoto Protocol could be a public health catastrophe.

He estimates the cost of implementing Kyoto at $7 billion to $1.8 trillion, and he concludes, “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.”

Taking to task the environmentalists’ reliance on the precautionary principle, which argues “it is better to be safe than sorry,” Cross addresses the direct and indirect public health costs tied to reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

Direct Health Costs of Climate Policies

  • Automobile energy efficiency. From the Sierra Club to Vice President Al Gore, environmental activists emphasize that fuel efficiency is the ticket to curbing global warming. To achieve fuel efficiency, cars must be made lighter . . . and lighter vehicles have proven to be less safe than older, heavier models. Highway fatalities and injuries have increased with the advent of lighter vehicles, according to several studies.
  • Home energy efficiency. In order to reduce energy use for heating and cooling, homes will have to be designed to minimize ventilation. The result will be the buildup of such indoor pollutants as formaldehyde, carcinogenic volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, particulates, and nitrogen oxides. The planting of shade trees to help keep houses cool is also hazardous, Cross claims, because high levels of outdoor shade can boost indoor concentrations of mold spores responsible for certain human diseases. Mold allergens are a major contributor to asthma.
  • Industrial energy efficiency. Though there is little evidence that federal initiatives encouraging industrial energy efficiency have cost lives, Cross notes, such efforts are unnecessary because state and local programs tend to be more productive.
  • Fuel switching. More expensive electrical power will probably result in some homeowners opting for solar heat or wood-burning stoves. Both alternatives, however, produce their own variety of pollutants. The use of ethanol or alcohol-based products as automotive fuel also has drawbacks, noted Cross.

Indirect Costs of Climate Policies

  • Here and around the world, wrote Cross, people at the lower end of the income scale will be the biggest losers in any scenario that mandates the reduction of greenhouse gases. In this country, according to one estimate, more than 900,000 jobs would be lost by 2005 should Kyoto become a reality.
  • “Study after study demonstrates that richer is safer, that increasing income causes less death and illness,” Cross wrote. “Money spent on increased energy costs is unavailable for the purchase of smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, bicycle helmets, and other product that protect health. Greater wealth also increases access to health care and education.”
  • While much attention has been given to the negative aspects of global warming, Cross argues that warmer temperatures may actually benefit humans and reduce death rates. Crop production, because of increased rainfall, longer growing seasons, and higher levels of CO2, also would be enhanced.

“Regardless of whether natural forces are cooling or warming the planet, there is reason to believe that heating would be good for public health. Global warming does not necessarily mean dangerous summer higher temperatures–much of the heating that purportedly has occurred has come in the winters and at night.”

One study, he noted, showed that a warmer climate of 2.5 degrees Celsius would reduce deaths nationally by 41,000.