Stop Global Warming - At What Cost?

Opinion piece urges California Air Resources Board to make sure there is a link between auto emissions and climate change before consigning residents to premature deaths in small cars...

Published: 14-Oct-2004

lass=small12>The global-warming alarmists haven't managed (yet) to bring on the worldwide economic paralysis that would result from implementation of the Kyoto Treaty, but they are about to score a lesser victory that will result in the loss of thousands of human lives.

The California Air Resources Board has approved a plan that would sharply reduce, over the next 11 years, vehicular emissions of carbon dioxide, which some scientists contend is partly responsible for what they believe is a recent rise in global temperatures. (Other scientists disagree that world temperatures are rising, let alone that increases in carbon dioxide caused by human activity are responsible; but the media, feeding the same public anxiety that not long ago fastened on nuclear winter, acid rain and the ozone hole, has turned "global warming" into a worldwide cause celebre.)

The regulation, which would phase in from 2009 to 2016, would force each year's new cars and trucks to meet increasingly stricter limitations on emission of carbon dioxide and other gases supposedly linked to global warming. The board's own staff estimates this will add about $1,000 to the cost of each new vehicle, but contends that savings on gasoline would, in the long run, more than make up for this. (Would, that is, if the initial buyer drove the vehicle for more than 100,000 miles, which few do.)

Industry spokesmen disagree with the cost estimate, putting it at from $2,000 to $3,000 - far more than any gasoline savings. If so, car manufacturers will do the only thing they currently can to keep prices at an affordable level: downsize new vehicles. (Hybrid cars won't solve the affordability problem because they cost, at least currently, up to $4,000 more than similar conventional cars.)

Well, what's so bad about downsizing? Do Americans really need the mid- and larger-sized passenger cars that clog the roads today? Mightn't we all be better off if forced to drive smaller and lighter vehicles?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. While sport-utility vehicle rollover deaths have increased (up by 200 deaths between 2002 and 2003), a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that vehicle downsizing in the 1970s and 80s, in the name of fuel economy, resulted in 2,000 deaths and 20,000 serious injuries. The National Academy of Sciences confirmed the finding, and USA Today, extrapolating the results to all years in which fuel economy standards have been in effect, found that vehicle downsizing caused 46,000 deaths.

The increased risk run by people in small cars is one of the best-established statistics in the whole field of car safety. As Ralph Nader himself put it in 1989, "Larger cars are safer." And Joan Claybrook, the La Pasionara of auto safety as Administrator of the NHTSA, put it this way: "The increased risk for small car occupants who are in collisions with larger cars are easily recognized. But, it is also true that even in single vehicle crashes, there is increased risk of serious injury or death."

It would be bad enough if this were California's problem alone, since The New York Times credits that state with a fifth of national car sales. But New York, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont make it a policy to follow California's car rules (which are considered superior to the federal Clean Air Act), and the Times reports that New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut have announced that they intend to start doing so. Together they add up to about 30 percent of the American car market.

Is it unreasonable to ask the California Air Resources Board to delay dooming untold thousands of Americans to death in small-car accidents until the effect of carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles can be linked with far more certainty to the alleged menace of global warming?

The earth's temperature has risen and fallen, far more dramatically than anything in the projections of the global-warming doomsayers, throughout its 4 billion year history. For mankind to imagine that we have the power to stop these fluctuations, and determine to the fraction of a degree the temperature at which we choose to live, is an act of almost unimaginable hubris.

William Rusher is a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy.

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