The media have been touting 1998 as a year of weather extremes. In fact, none of the hyped stories the heat of the Texas summer, the hurricane that devastated Central America, or the cold of the late fall and early winter is particularly unusual.
Last summer, Texas sweltered in scorching heat, which contributed to 128 deaths over a 75-day period. About half of those were illegal immigrants attempting to cross the desert under a blistering sun. A number of the dead were poor people with air-conditioners who were unable to pay the cost of running them. Politicians and climate activists were quick to blame the heat on global warming, even though last summer was not as hot as the summer of 1980. Eighteen years ago, North Texas suffered from 42 straight days of over 100-degree temperatures and exceeded the century mark for a total of 69 days. In contrast, the temperature in 1998 reached three digits for only 29 straight days, 41 days in total. It was hot last summer but not record breaking!
At the start of 1999, winter descended with a vengeance on the Midwest. The worst blizzard since 1967 buried Chicago under 22 inches of white stuff. It was a killer. Over a three-day period, sixty people died from the blizzard and cold. In comparison, the heat of Texas was mild; it led to less than two deaths per 100-degree day while, in the Midwest, about 20 died per day during that long New Years weekend.
After that early January storm, temperatures plunged in Illinois, setting new records for cold. Reportedly it got so bad that many complained that Al Gore was just another politician who failed to deliver on his promises, in this case, global warming.
In the late fall, when the eastern half of the United States was basking in warm weather, Europe was suffering from the coldest and deadliest Arctic blasts to punish that continent in four decades. Between November 16 and 25, over 95 people died, mainly the poor and the homeless. By the end of the month, the total had risen at least to 130. The cold killed all across Europe, from Russia to Paris and even to southern Italy. Moscow, which is used to extreme cold, counted 39 dead from the sub-zero temperatures. By the middle of January, Polands death toll from the cold had reached 172, more than triple the number that died during all of last years warmer winter.Hurrican Horrors
Last summer also witnessed one of the deadliest hurricanes to pound the Northern Hemisphere, blamed, of course, on global warming. Although the numbers are in question, estimates of deaths in Central America have ranged from 8,000 to 12,000. Actually last years hurricane season was comparatively mild, with very few of the big storms. Only Mitch deserves note. In fact, over the last few decades the number of hurricanes has not only not increased but the severity of such storms has actually declined.
The worst hurricane to strike the United States -- the devastating storm that struck Galveston, Texas -- occurred almost a century ago in 1900, long before manmade gases could have had any impact on climate. That violent storm took over 6,000 lives in the small southern town. In 1906, a typhoon killed 10,000 Hong Kong residents. In 1942, a hurricane wiped out 40,000 Indians in Bengal. Windstorms annihilated 22,000 in Bangladesh in 1963 and another 30,000 in 1965. A cyclone swept away 300,000 Bangladeshis in 1970!Weather or Not
What does all this mean? It does not mean that the climate is warming or changing. The weather brings heat, cold, ice and snow, as well as periods of sunny skies. Although Mitch was a terrible storm, inflicting much suffering and death, the hurricanes devastating punch cannot be attributed to climate change. For as long as we have records, long before anyone could blame climate change on human activity, weather extremes have levied death and destruction.
Now suppose the globes climate warms, either through natural fluctuations or from human causes. Most models suggest that any such warming would be greater in the winter and at night than in the summer during the day. As a result, the United States and Europe should suffer fewer blizzards and less extreme cold and perhaps some increase in the number of hot days in the summer. However, as the numbers show, eliminating just one winter storm, such as the latest blizzard in the Midwest, would prevent many more deaths than hot summer days might produce. Thus global warming could be expected to save lives, not increase deaths!When Policy Kills
While global warming would actually reduce mortality, fighting it would lead to more people dying. Kyoto would boost energy costs and electricity prices. The heat wave in Texas was deadly in part because a number of poor elderly individuals were reluctant to run their air-conditioners. Higher energy costs would only compound that problem.
Environmentalists and others have recommended that the government impose stricter corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, the goal being to force manufacturers to produce cars that get 40 miles to the gallon. Although the aim sounds worthy, the auto companies would meet it by making and selling smaller vehicles. Virtually everyone agrees, however, that light cars are more dangerous than heavier, large vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that past weight reductions, stemming from CAFE standards imposed earlier, increased fatalities by about 2,000 annually. Academic research indicates that boosting CAFE to 40 miles per gallon would also boost highway deaths -- by an additional 1,650 per year.
Many environmentalists have concerns about most sources of energy and therefore recommend conservation. Certainly conservation has a nice ring to it and sounds appealing until one looks at the details. Since everyone would prefer to spend less on energy, why dont people conserve? Conservation is costly. It may, in fact, endanger your life. Reducing energy use for heating and cooling sounds good, but not if it means turning off your air-conditioner on a hot day or your heater on a cold one.A House Polluted We Cannot Stand
But what about insulation? Wouldnt that save on energy? The most effective way to insulate your home is to reduce the hot or cool air escaping to the outside. Unhappily, the more airtight houses become, the more indoor pollutants, such as, formaldehyde, carcinogenic volatile organic compounds, radon, carbon monoxide, particulates and nitrogen oxides, will build up. Cutting ventilation by 50 percent will mean a rough doubling of those pollutants in the home. We have all heard of "sick" offices; now we will hear of "sick" homes.
Planting trees sounds healthy and energy-saving; but outdoor shade increases mold spores, a leading cause of asthma. Coupled with reduced home ventilation, the combination can multiply indoor exposures by ten, which in turn can cause a significant rise in such an affliction. Together with the increase in cancer and other problems that would result from more energy efficient homes, Frank Cross, an expert on environmental law and economics, has estimated that this reduction in air exchange between the outside and the inside would cause around 10,000 more people to die each year.
In contrast, the effects of global warming, should it occur, are likely to be benign. In addition to decreasing bills for down jackets, it will most likely reduce weather-related deaths in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Trying to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, on the other hand, will boost mortality, that is, it would kill people. Moving forward on Kyoto would be a major mistake.
Frank B. Cross. "Could Kyoto Kill? The Mortality Costs of Climate Policies." Competitive Enterprise Institute, Environmental Studies Program, October, 1998.