In mid-October, former Vice President Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for his climate change campaigning. Two weeks later the United Nations Environment Program published its Global Environment Outlook, claiming the world was running headlong toward disaster by ignoring environmental problems, particularly climate change. Both announcements made numerous headlines, prompting myriad politicians to show off their green awareness and commitment.
Indeed, the same week the UN report was causing such hand-wringing, Members of the European Parliament were urged by environmental groups and Green MEPs to mandate lower pesticide use across Europe. The Pesticide Action Network Europe argues that children are most vulnerable to pesticide exposure and--with laughable specificity given the paucity of data of any harm from such exposure--claims children are 164 times more at risk from up to 13 organophosphate pesticides than adults.
Hiltrud Breyer, a German Green MEP, said that at 260,000 tonnes per year, Europe accounts for 25% of the world's consumption of pesticides. "We should show the red card to dangerous substances such as those which cause cancer", she said. "People in Europe don't want poison on their tables".
Breyer actually prepared the MEP's environment committee's official stance on the subject, in response to the European Commission's proposals to halve pesticide use. Inevitably, MEPs agreed to numerous measures that will make it harder to use pesticides in future. MEPs supported a general ban on aerial spraying of pesticides and heavy restrictions on the use of them near schools, playgrounds, parks, recreation grounds and hospitals.
In their well-meant desire to eliminate potential risks, MEPs have overlooked a stone-cold certainty. Infections carried by insects, especially malaria, are mankind's most successful killers. And unfortunately US officials preceded their European counterparts in ignoring the signals. When West Nile Virus arrived in New York around 1999, probably carried by a bird which had been bitten by a mosquito, widespread insecticide spraying of New York state, Connecticut and New Jersey would probably have controlled the disease. Instead, officials dithered, as environmental groups protested, arguing spraying was more dangerous than the disease. West Nile virus has now spread to every state in the union (except Hawaii and Alaska). Over 700 people have died from the disease. Meanwhile, the only people who die from pesticides are those who use them recklessly or deliberately drink it to commit suicide; the same as can be said for kitchen cleaner.
Meanwhile, mosquito experts remind us that mosquitoes can survive almost anywhere. Professor Paul Reiter, of the Pasteur Institute in Paris gave written evidence to the British House of Lords of a malaria epidemic in the Soviet Union in the 1920s which had a peak incidence of 13 million cases per year, and 600,000 deaths. Transmission was high in many parts of Siberia, and there were 30,000 cases and 10,000 deaths in Archangel, close to the Arctic circle. Professor Reiter insists that the principal factors involved in the alarming increase in malaria are deforestation, new agricultural practices, population increase, urbanization, poverty, civil conflict, war, AIDS, resistance to anti-malarials, and resistance to insecticides, not climate - worrying about the weather is a tragic distraction.
Donald Roberts, emeritus professor of tropical disease at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Maryland, in evidence to a Senate Committee hearing in October, tried to explain these real risks. But the chairman Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) was only interested in hearing how a warmer world would bring more disease-carrying mosquitoes.
Some MEPs and US legislators are surely old enough to remember that malaria persisted in many parts of Europe and US until the advent of DDT. One of the last malarious countries in Europe was Holland: the WHO finally declared it malaria-free in 1970. Unlike West Nile virus, malaria is easily spread among humans. Outbreaks are occurring with increasing frequency (notably in Virginia) and we may be neutralizing our capacity to protect ourselves.
Green self-fulfilling prophecies are upon us. Unless we expose them today, we will suffer at the hands of more dangerous policies in the future.
Roger Bate is a resident fellow at AEI.