TCS Daily

The Killer That Matters Most

By Roy Spencer - November 18, 2005 12:00 AM

A new study by a University of Wisconsin - Madison research group has concluded that global warming is causing the deaths of about 150,000 people each year. Part of the research draws upon World Health Organization (WHO) estimates from a few years ago that addressed warming-related increases in malaria, diarrhea, flood related fatalities, and drought-related malnutrition. Poor countries, especially those in Africa, are noted to be, by far, the most affected. This new study will likely be a hot topic at the next U.N. climate conference to be held in Montreal in early December, at which representatives from countries around the world will discuss future policy responses to increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases from the use of fossil fuels.

Coincidently, at the same time this study was released, I happened to be at the Ugandan Embassy in Washington D.C. The Ambassador to the U.S. from Uganda, Edith Ssempala, spoke forcefully and passionately about the negative influence that western policies have had on her people. Due to the unintended negative consequences of policies that the wealthier countries of the world have adopted, Africans continue to die by the millions each year.

But the policies the Ambassador was criticizing had nothing to do to with global warming.

What is killing Africans in greatest numbers is poverty, and international trade policies that prevent Africans from protecting themselves from diseases that are easily preventable. The Ambassador mentioned pressure from environmentalists in wealthy nations that has prevented the construction of hydroelectric dams in Africa, denying electricity to millions of people. Two billion of the Earth's inhabitants still do not have access to electricity, leading to massive death tolls from problems such as food-borne illnesses (due to a lack of refrigeration) and pneumonia brought on by breathing air contaminated by the burning of dung or wood for heat and cooking. Anyone that has had to suffer through a loss of electricity for any length of time becomes quickly aware of how necessary electricity is for daily life.

Worries over death tolls from global warming is a case of misplaced concern and priorities. Stop using fossil fuels tomorrow and see how many people die within one month. Sure, that is an extreme example, but it raises a valid point. Even if warming does indeed cause an increase in malaria-related deaths, is it better to go ahead and use what works (safely!) to rid humanity of the disease, or to instead punish the world's production of wealth in our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? One thing history has taught us is that wealthier is healthier. As they say, those that haven't learned the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

The Ugandan Ambassador was particularly critical of westerners that have a romantic view of how Africans should live, as if the simpler life is a preferable one. How many people in the industrialized world with this view would be willing to trade places? There is a reason poor countries are much more concerned with achieving a decent standard of living than whether there might be some environmental consequences. Haven't you ever wondered why environmental concerns are almost exclusively restricted to people with a good standard of living? Those that have access to abundant refrigerated food, clean water, and health care? They can afford to spend some of their wealth to reduce pollution. Much of the world can not. As it is, many areas of poor countries have been mostly deforested as people forage for wood to cook and heat with. Is this what environmentalists want? Also, the poorest countries have the greatest rates of population growth. Is this what environmentalists want?

But, you might argue, doesn't the generation of wealth increase certain risks (e.g. global warming)? Sure! But the possibility that you might choke to death on your food doesn't keep you from eating. When environmentalists don't mention that the benefits of wealth generation far outweigh the risks, they are at best supremely naive, or at worst dishonest and inhumane. It has been calculated by many reputable economists that the cost of doing anything substantial about global warming far exceeds the cost of adaptation to it.

I am not suggesting that we do nothing, only that we be smart about what we do. And if we are truly interested in solving the global warming problem (to the extent that one exists), technological advancement is the only way to achieve large greenhouse gas reductions. And guess what it takes to make those technological advancements? Wealth.

The whole DDT issue is a good example of stupid environmental policy. Insiders say the de facto ban on DDT was the result of politics, not of overriding human health and environmental concerns. Threats of trade bans on countries that dare to use DDT, one of the safest and most effective insecticides available, have contributed to over one million malaria-related deaths each year in Africa. Literally hundreds of millions of people contract the disease each year. While the knee-jerk hostility to DDT is now increasingly being realized to be bad policy (the reinstitution of DDT use in South Africa has reduced malaria deaths there by about 95%), it is but one example of how disinformation spread by well-meaning environmentalists lead to massive human suffering.

Gradually, though, the tide is turning. More and more politicians, such as Tony Blair, are realizing that it is impractical to ask people to suffer economically for unmeasurable reductions in future levels of global warming. Governmental representatives (such as those that will attend the Montreal conference next month) that make a career out of finding new ways in which to restrict the freedom of people around the world to serve one another as they wish through market economies can not be allowed to succeed in implementing ill-conceived solutions to environmental problems.

Or, as one man from South Africa put it, Africans should not be forced to suffer simply so rich tourists can drive by in their air-conditioned Land Rovers and take pictures of their quaint way of life.



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