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Fatalities of Kyoto

Mises Daily: Tuesday, June 15, 1999 by

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The Journal of Commerce
June 15, 1999

In December 1997, the Clinton administration signed the Kyoto Protocol, a United Nations treaty committing developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. It is potentially a very expensive agreement on several levels.

If ratified, Kyoto would require the United States to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. This amounts to a 35 percent cut from levels it would generate if it took no additional steps toward CO2 abatement. Fearing rejection, however, the administration has yet to submit the treaty to the Senate for ratification.

Several studies have attempted to estimate the impact Kyoto would have on the U.S. economy. Since meeting the terms of the protocol would require a massive reduction in energy use and, therefore, significant energy price hikes, these studies overwhelmingly foresee large declines in gross domestic product. The administration's own Department of Energy projects economic losses of $397 billion (in 1992 dollars) by 2010.

And what would Kyoto provide in return? If implemented with 100 percent participation and compliance, it would reduce global temperatures .07 degrees Celsius (.13 F) by 2050 -- an amount so small that it could not be reliably measured with ground-based thermometers.

Economic growth and job creation are intertwined. If one suffers, so does the other. Thus it should be no surprise that DRI/McGraw-Hill recently concluded that Kyoto would boost unemployment.

Assuming that 77 percent of U.S. CO2 reductions come from curtailing fossil fuel usage, DRI estimates the average annual job loss during the 2001-2007 transition period would be 900,000 jobs. From 2008-2012 this number rises to 1.1 million. This implies an average increase of 980,000 unemployed individuals per year between 2001-2012.

These impersonal numbers have human consequences. Recent risk-analysis studies have examined how changes in economic variables -– such as the level of employment or economic growth -– have an impact on health and mortality. They concluded that negative changes in these variables tend to make life riskier. Combining these findings with the impact Kyoto would have on the economy sheds new light on the treaty's human costs.

One study by Bernard Cohen in the Journal Health and Physics concludes: "By far the most dangerous occupation is no occupation" –- in other words, being unemployed. Indeed, he calculates that unemployment reduces one's life expectancy. It is, he says, "roughly equal to the risk of smoking 10 packs per day while unemployed."

Cohen attributes many unemployment-related deaths to heart attacks, suicides, homicides, and alcohol-related cirrhosis of the liver. Additionally, he found that unemployment substantially increases the likelihood that a person will be admitted into a mental hospital or prison.

The Kyoto Protocol would expose an average of 980,000 additional people annually to these often fatal risks.

The employed will also face a more dangerous life if the Senate ratifies Kyoto. Slower rates of job creation reflect less overall demand for labor. Thus the treaty would lower wages and, therefore, incomes.

For many, reduced incomes mean greater health risks. One often cited study by Lutter and Morrall in the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty suggests that a reduction in national income, expressed by GDP, of $9 million to $12 million (in 1991 dollars) will lead to the loss of one life.

Why? Lower incomes cause people to live in more dangerous neighborhoods and reduce their ability to obtain health care and related services.

When this risk analysis is combined with the Department of Energy's conclusion that Kyoto would reduce GDP $397 billion by 2010, the results are startling. Based on Lutter and Morrall's findings (adjusted for inflation), Kyoto would result in 32,000 to 42,000 additional deaths per year by 2010. Unfortunately, because these deaths would be seemingly random, linking individual deaths to Kyoto could prove extremely difficult. Thus, while morally unacceptable, these deaths won't be politically damaging.

No advocate of the Kyoto Protocol has yet to mention any of these potential losses in their cost-benefit calculations. If the case for Kyoto is to be made, advocates must acknowledge how many lives it will take to reduce the threat of global warming. Furthermore, Vice President Al Gore and the treaty's other supporters should explain why the benefits from an earth less than one degree cooler in 2050 are worth the carnage Kyoto would generate today.

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Roy Cordato is Lundy professor of business philosophy at Campbell University in North Carolina and an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute. James Carter is an economist with the U.S. Senate.

c) Copyright 1997, The Journal of Commerce


Also read Government and the Weather by James Sheehan, from the December 1997 issue of The Free Market.