On cars and climate change

September 17, 2010


For months, claims that Toyotas could not be stopped from accelerating, putting millions of drivers and passengers in danger, were a front-page and prominent evening-news item. Lots of exaggerated stories appeared, all skipping experience with a similar scare two decades ago about Audis, which ultimately showed that pressing the gas pedal instead of the brake was the real problem.

In the end, federal regulators found no evidence of electronic defects though Toyota admitted that gas pedals did stick on floor mats. The worst-case claim was that 93 people were killed by Toyota defects — an awful number, though the toll is likely not that high, since it comes from plaintiffs’ lawyers seeking fees and awards.

My point here is that the mainstream media gave enormous attention to a claim that 93 people in cars might have been killed. Then it turned out 3,298 people in cars were not killed. And that’s no story!

Last week, federal statistics showed that 2009 traffic fatalities lowest since 1954, despite far more people driving far more miles. There were 3,298 fewer roadways deaths than 2008, tens of thousands fewer than if fatality rates of previous decades had continued. If people weren’t driving improved cars with air bags, seat belts, antilock brakes and crash-survival chassis engineering, highway deaths would be been higher. That is — overall deaths declined because people were driving late-model cars including Toyotas.

Most news organizations gave little prominence to declining road deaths, though this is a tremendous social achievement: improved cars, and crackdowns on driving and drinking, are the main causes. The peak for road risk came in 1966: you were 3.4 times more likely to die in a car crash in 1966 than in 2009. We’d be safer still on the roads if laws against cell phone use behind the wheel were enforced.

But declining death is not a story. Unsubstantiated claims that cars can suddenly develop a mind of their own — now, there’s a story.

Climate Change:
Two months ago, yours truly said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations global warming study outfit, had lost its credibility by becoming a self-promotion vehicle for Al Gore. Your columnist believes global warming is scientifically confirmed but exaggerated as a threat; that greenhouse gas regulation is justified, but not an emergency need.

Now the Inter Academy Council, an independent council that represents the major science academies, says the IPCC looks bad. The council warns, “straying into advocacy can only hurt the IPPCC’s credibility.”

When some emails by pessimistic global warming researchers were hacked, and an inquiry cleared the researchers involved, many newspapers put this on the front page. The hacked emails were always a sideshow — worst case, they concerned private grumbling by a small number of extremists. The far more important Inter Academy Council assessment of the IPCC, a balanced and credible work regarding a United Nations affiliate, has received less attention — because it fails to conform to the end-of-the-world media storyline about global warming.

Recently, Science magazine noted that the first IPCC assessment report had 400 authors, and the latest has 1,350 — small wonder this outfit is out of control. The Western nations should dispense with the politicized IPCC process and focus on the energy-conservation and fossil-fuel-reduction steps that are justified regardless of climate trends.

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