Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Loretta Lynch, Again

So I got shellacked by most commenters on yesterday's post and on Twitter.

But I still think Loretta Lynch is wrong and very misguided.

I'm at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society. There was a very interesting session today titled Science and the Perception of Climate Change. The first speaker was Andrew Hoffman of the University of Michigan. He's the Professor of Sustainable Enterprise, "a position that holds joint appointments at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources & Environment.  Andy also serves as Education Director of the Graham Sustainability Institute." He once worked for EPA, and the Amoco Corporation.

I asked him what he thought of Lynch's idea. Here are some of his reactions, paraphrased:
"Who is the aggrieved party [from climate change]...? What are the monetary damages...? Lynch's suit would be unlike the tobacco settlement because there states were paying out large amounts of money for the health care of smokers.... [They had clear standing as an aggrieved party who suffered financially from the tobacco company's lies.]
And he said
"demonizing people" would be a mistake.
In a panel discussion in the last half-hour of the session I asked the panel for their reactions to Lynch's testimony. Hoffman was on the panel and called it a "horrible idea," "a similar tactic to what was done to Michael Mann," and that people are surely already coming up with "metaphors to Copernicus."

ExxonMobile now admits the reality of climate change, and is in favor of a carbon tax. From December of last year:
As I have mentioned on a number of occasions in this space, we believe the risks of climate change are real and those risks warrant constructive action by both policymakers and the business community.
though who knows what ExxonMobile is saying (and doing) out of the other side of their mouth. A couple of decades ago, perhaps they thought the science was too uncertain to mention (and, despite what any of their internal scientists were saying, it was according to IPCC assessments I and II). Or they thought that any damage was small, or would be small, and offset by agricultural gains and other benefits. They might say that their oil used for personal and public transportation was and is a huge benefit to society? Or, in the time before electric cars, are people suffering an attack of appendicitis supposed to ride their bike to the ER? They could argue on all these points and more that their product gave more benefit than harm.

Attributing climate change harm to ExxonMobile, or any other big fossil fuel company, is nearly impossible -- just what is the damage from burning oil, per barrel? Richard Tol's ever-changing graph? It shows a benefit up to about 2 C. And don't its consumers share part of the blame? We all use fossil fuels, every day, even though we know the risks and potential consequences. I flew to San Diego and will fly back home. According to this calculator, my share of the emissions comes to 0.58 metric tons of CO2. Whose fault is that?

The drought in California -- whose fault is that? Where is the proof it is caused by AGW? Very warm temperatures certainly augment the drought by increasing evaporation rates. How much and where? Were these warm temperatures in California the result, in part or in whole, of AGW? What have been the monetary damages and to whom? Ten thousand farmers? How much each? Do we put ExxonMobile on trial, or its customers, or BP or Royal Dutch Shell or all of them? Chinese fossil fuel companies? Do we put the government on trial, for leasing land and sea for drilling and mining?

Why shouldn't we first hold the oil companies liable for the ground-level ozone created from car exhaust, or the health damages from burning coal, which causes 7,500 deaths each year attributable to fine particle pollution from U.S. power plants?

Finally, Lynch's suit would be exactly what climate contarians have been warning about for years -- the heavy hand of government putting a boot on their neck. That's the real issue surrounding climate change -- many people's set of values include suspicions of governments, of environmentalists, of scientists, of elites. Are they not allowed to have those values? (Of course they are.) Suing the likes of ExxonMobile or The Heartland Institute would make their case and exponentially increase the attention they get, the support they get, and the donations they get. I might even donate myself.

Loretta Lynch's idea is a big loser all around. She should drop it immediatly.


Lars Karlsson said...

This post makes a much better argument against an Exxon RICO case than your previous one. The questions of responsibility and victims were much simpler in the case of tobacco. PM or some other company manufactures cigarettes, some people buy them, smoke them and eventually get lung cancer. Smoking is the dominating cause for lung cancer (e.g. it is linked to 86% of all lung cancer cases in UK, see http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/). The tobacco industry is basically earning money by making people kill themselves slowly with their products.

It is not going to be as straight-forward in the case of fossil fuel companies and climate change.

William Connolley said...

I didn't realise you'd get grief for the previous post, it looked perfectly sensible to me. I've left you a supportive comment, if that helps.

> Attributing climate change harm to ExxonMobile, or any other big fossil fuel company, is nearly impossible

And it is also mostly wrong. The damage comes from people burning the fuels, not from extracting them.

Brian said...

Sea level rise. Superfund rules for contribution.

William Connolley said...


Brian said...

Sea level rise = answer to David's question on attribution. 100% due to AGW.

Superfund = method for allocating who pays what. Kind of worst-case scenario in that it's pretty inefficient, but it's better than no one paying anything for their actions.

Whether there's a legal responsibility is what the referral is trying to determine. We have reason to think that Exxon paid third parties in the 80s and 90s to say things Exxon knew wasn't true. Exxon also may have lied to the public and to its stockholders. And that's just what we have some reason to think so far - that seems a reasonable basis for further inquiry by the A.G.'s office. If for some reason it's not, then it will get quashed as was the case with Cuccinelli's completely-speculative fishing expedition against Mann.

William Connolley said...

> 100% due to AGW

But DA's question was about attributing *harm*, not attributing observed events. Plus (I think) he was asking about harm-per-barrel.

But as I said, the harm comes from people burning the fuels, not from those extracting them. And you cannot answer the "harm" question without balancing that against the +ve effects.

I've also said elsewhere (but I know we disagree on this) that I think the entire "Exxon lied" stuff is drivel. Exxon lied, but plenty of other people told the truth. Anyone who wants the truth had it available to them; the only people who were mislead were those who wanted to be mislead. http://scienceblogs.com/stoat/2015/09/22/what-exxon-knew-and-when-round-three/ and so on.

David in Cal said...

One way in which climate change differs from the tobacco case is that the oil companies had and have no special knowledge. Energy companies had climate models. Lots of others had models. None of these models were conclusive. Even today's IPCC models aren't conclusive. None of the models depended on special information possessed only by energy companies.

Nevertheless, I can imagine a big push to get a mass tort case. In the cases of tobacco, asbestos and Super-Fund, a few law firms made enormous amounts of money. Law firms have millions of reasons to pursue the case against deep pocket energy companies.

It's shameful for the Attorney General to help these avaricious lawyers in their greedy endeavor.

David Appell said...

David, good points. But I don't see any evidence that Lynch is cooperating with any law firms. In the video clip I saw, Sheldon Whitehouse seemed more motivated by blood lust.

But surely there'd be a lot of money involved. They'd pay, then we would go right on relying on the same coal and oil companies, because we currently can't power the country without them, and won't be able to for a few decades at least.

David in Cal said...

You may be right, David. I'll withdraw the word "shameful" and merely say that I find it sad to see the Justice Dept. involved in this issue.

Reminiscing about mass torts, I was reminded that the effort to create a money machine out of high voltage lines was one mass tort that didn't succeed. An article from the WSJ begins with a useful review of various mass tort efforts:

Writing about mass torts is sort of like covering plane crashes: There aren't too many happy endings. Agent Orange . . . asbestos . . . Bendectin . . . breast implants. . . . They're all tales of sleazy lawyers out for a fast buck, junk scientists who'll testify to anything, and a legal system that seems incapable of dealing with ludicrous claims when they arrive by the truckload. Many of those cases continue to clog our courts, with lawyers on both sides piling up fat fees but the alleged victims receiving little if...

Based on the history of invalid mass tort claims succeeding, I wouldn't bet that the power companies will escape scot free. At some point, I suspect a "settlement" will be offered to the power companies, which may make business sense to them.

Brian said...

"They'd pay" - yes, sounds a lot like a carbon tax.

"then we would go right on relying on the same coal and oil companies" - not at the same rate if the companies are now paying for some of the damage they caused.

Getting back to William's points, sea level rise has caused harm, and that harm is 100% attributable to AGW. Disentangling that harm from other harm may not always be easy, but that doesn't mean it can't be done at all. And preparing for sea level rise (e.g. oversizing coastal flood protection like my water district did in order to handle sea level rise) is part of the harm.

I also see a parallel to second-hand smoke in William's arguments. Tobacco companies aren't the ones who created second-hand smoke, it's the smokers who did it. I'm unimpressed with this argument.

And, other David - that sounds like a WSJ editorial, not article, and those are generally worthless.

William Connolley said...

> I'm unimpressed with this argument.

Why? Because it is inconvenient, or because there is some flaw in it?

Brian said...

I do think smokers bear some responsibility for second-hand smoke, but I don't think that absolves the tobacco companies at all. I bear some responsibility for my GHG emissions, a lot actually, but the average consumer isn't an expert in the product, the oil company is.

I'd see a more evenly balanced argument between equally-sized entities, say coal mining companies and utilities that buy their coal. The resident who flicks on a light switch, not so much.

William Connolley said...

I don't think that makes any sense. Similarly, you could argue that gun companies are responsible for murders, not those who fired the weapon? I think you've got a desired conclusion and are just arguing towards it.

David Appell said...

Brian wrote:
""They'd pay" - yes, sounds a lot like a carbon tax."

No it doesn't. End users pay any carbon tax, not the fuel producer. Whatever the producer might have to pay gets passed onto the consumer. WHich is fine and fair as far as I'm concerned.

David Appell said...

Brian wrote:
""then we would go right on relying on the same coal and oil companies" - not at the same rate if the companies are now paying for some of the damage they caused."

Of course we would. Just because ExxonMobile had to make a big payment on day N doens't meant we consumers suddenly need less oil and gas on day N+1. We'd keep buying it as if nothing had ever happened. So would Loretta Lynch.

Look at all the people who still smoke, years after the tobacco settlement.

David Appell said...

Brian wrote:
"Getting back to William's points, sea level rise has caused harm, and that harm is 100% attributable to AGW. Disentangling that harm from other harm may not always be easy, but that doesn't mean it can't be done at all."

I don't see that it's easy. I don't see how it could be done at all.

What's the net damage along the Long Island shoreline from 1975-2000? 2000 to present?

How would you even start to figure these out?

And then, is Lorette Lynch then going to sue ExxonMobile or Peabody Coal for the dasterdly crime of helping people heat their homes, and getting to work on time?

What was the benefit of sleeping soundly and cooking a warm breakfast that morning, as opposed to the damage due to sea level rise that day?

David Appell said...

Brian wrote:
"We have reason to think that Exxon paid third parties in the 80s and 90s to say things Exxon knew wasn't true."

What is the basis for such a "reason?"

Because you and I and Loretta Lynched believed it isn't enough to show that ExxonMobile believed it.