Climate Alarmism hurts the poor

Today (6 December) the Tenth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meet in Buenos Aires. Concern about the devastating consequences for humanity from impending change to our climate will be interspersed with attacks on the United States for being the only major industrialised country not to have ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

There are two problems with this viewpoint. The first is that although it is claimed that human emissions of greenhouse gases are altering the climate, some climate scientists and applied economists challenge the assumption that human emissions are causing significant, irreversible, or harmful effects. The second, and more important is that we are already exposed to nearly all the alleged negative impacts of climate change, and although any man-made climate change may make these dangers worse, there are policies that can be followed that reduce today’s harm.

Knowledge of these two concerns leads one to the conclusion that what should be pursued are not methods to limit human emissions, but methods to reduce the problems that may be exacerbated by any future man-made or natural climate change. Restricting energy use is just one ‘solution’ to the climate change problem, but institutional changes to allow the poorer countries to develop and become more resilient to weather related events will be more important – the same strength hurricane killed hundreds in Haiti and a handful in Florida. A richer Haiti would be able to resist future hurricanes, even if they become more frequent or severe.

As a study entitled Beyond Kyoto that I undertook for the American Enterprise Institute demonstrates, freer economies produce fewer emissions for each unit of growth produced. For example, freeing the Chinese economy will hasten development and lower emissions of greenhouse gases per unit of growth produced. Policies that freed the economy would have a greater impact on greenhouse emissions than the entire Kyoto Protocol, and would not need 100 years, but 8 years to take effect.

On the health front, the World Health Organization (WHO) claims that climate change caused 150,000 deaths in 2003. Most of these deaths are presumed to have resulted from mosquito-borne disease in poor countries. However, this figure relies on comparative models that fail to account for the major causal factors in changes to disease frequency and severity.

Temperature is a causal factor in disease, but small temperature changes are unlikely to have a significant impact on the spread of disease. Malaria, for instance, was endemic in temperate regions (such as Europe and the United States) and epidemic in at least one part of the Arctic Circle in the early twentieth century. The reasons for its eradication are technical and developmental.

The recent increase in mosquito-borne disease is likely to be due to failed national health policies in tropical countries, as well as poor advice from the WHO. The cause of this failure is undue deference paid to environmental fears and their supposed remedies.

Trying to prevent the spread of disease by combating energy use, as advocated by the WHO, is an extremely uncertain and possibly counter-productive policy. Energy is essential to wealth generation, and health is strongly correlated with wealth. Given the uncertainties of the existence of human-induced climate change and its long run effects on disease, any health-policy decision based upon energy restriction is unwarranted.

In fact, for any development issue, restricting energy use rather than pro-actively adapting to change is likely to be a poor policy. That is the lesson that should be taught to the ‘experts’ in Buenos Aires, but its likely to be more of same – energy restriction and finger-wagging at the US.

Author Dr Roger Bate is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and the author of a forthcoming FMF Occasional Paper on climate change, disease, energy development and economics. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

FMF Feature Article\6 December 2004
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