The Heat Is On

President Clinton’s Environmental Protection Agency recently kicked off its national campaign in Boston to “convince the American people that the climate change problem is real and imminent.” The EPA gives the impression that nearly any natural catastrophe can be attributed to global warming. The agency has predicted that global warming will increase extreme rainfalls and, thus, promote more flooding. If floods don’t result as predicted, the EPA insists that severe droughts will occur. That’s right, global warming supposedly means drier and wetter weather.

Nastier hurricanes will thrash those living along the seaboards. Global warming will also cause more intense blizzards. No section of the globe will be afforded sanctuary from nature’s fury, unleashed by human hands. Species tottering on the edge of extinction and unable to adapt to rapidly changing climates will be given the final push, we are told. Global warming will also increase the spread of infectious disease, bringing diseases such as malaria back from near extinction in the United States, according to the EPA.

Environmentalist activists say economic prosperity has come at the detriment of our planet’s health. Emissions caused from burning fossil fuels are creating a runaway greenhouse effect, they explain. Climatologists, however, don’t agree on the existence or the importance of human-influenced global warming, which discounts any claims of increased natural disaster. Nevertheless, the heat is on — at least in Washington.

President Clinton remains convinced that something must be done. Addressing the United Nations, he reaffirmed America’s commitment to a binding agreement that cuts emissions of greenhouse gases, but stopped short of detailing the amount of CO2 we’d have to cut. Europeans are calling on Americans to stem their use of fossil fuels by more than 30 percent, but even these reductions would hardly impact the total amount of industrial CO2 emissions. While the U.S. accounts for 22 percent of carbon emissions today, developing countries — who aren’t required to make any reductions under the current treaty — will be responsible for 75 percent by 2040.

That goal may be beyond America’s reach, however. To achieve such reductions in CO2 emissions, the economy would have to be drastically restructured and the American lifestyle forever altered.

Although the administration has remained silent on the price tag, some clues do exist. According to the Department of Energy’s Argonne Laboratory, electricity prices will have to increase by 50 percent, while coal prices will more than double. Natural gas and fuel oil prices will increase by 70 to 80 percent.

Energy is consumed during the production of anything that can be bought or sold. When energy prices escalate, so do prices on everything we consume — not just transportation, heating and cooling. According to a DRI/McGraw Hill study, the nation’s economy would lose up to $350 billion annually while up to 4.8 million jobs would be lost. Another study by the CONSAD Research Corporation estimates that achieving the reduced CO2 emissions will place 700,000 jobs at risk in the area covered by Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and New Mexico. The human cost will be measured in many fewer dollars available for education, health care, food, heating, cooling and other basic needs.

The nation has experienced energy price shocks before. During the oil crisis of the mid-1970s, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found higher electricity prices caused the elderly poor to shut off their air conditioners — even in heat waves. Many ultimately succumbed to the heat. Far from rare, heat waves kill nearly 400 people annually — more than any other natural disaster, including hurricanes, tornadoes, and blizzards. According to a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine, the most important factor in preventing such deaths is access to air conditioning. In fact, the EPA found that air conditioning saved 3,500 lives from 1964 to 1988.

Heat waves, of course, were around long before global warming and will continue to occur. In the earlier part of the century, before the advent of air conditioning, thousands died from heat strokes while others suffered from other heat-related illnesses. Ironically, higher energy prices from greenhouse gas regulation will make it more difficult to protect Americans from the summer heat.

While proponents of the global warming theory have good intentions, they have given little thought to the unintended consequences of their actions. Fortunately, time is on the side of science. Climatologists won’t have any real answers about climate change for decades. Prudence dictates keeping a cool head until all the evidence is in.