Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Day After Loretta Lynch's RICO Case Concludes

I've been doing better things and traveling home, but here's a thought: suppose Loretta Lynch (or her successor) sues the fossil fuel companies, wins, and they pay several hundred billion dollars in a settlement that feeds into the bottomless pit. Because, you know, their investors would have had no clue whatsoever, none at all, about the consequences of CO2 unless they read about it in the glossy annual report from the fossil fuel company there were invested in.

Say that happens in, oh, 2020.

And then what? Then the very next day all of us, including Loretta Lynch and Sheldon Whitehouse, will set our thermostats for the day and fill up our tanks again and drive to work or the grocery store or our doctor's appointment, because there isn't much of any alternative right now and we just have to -- have to -- use that horrendous coal and oil that are so easily available and so destructive to the environment and shareholder values that we just sued the coal companies -- if there are any left then -- and the oil companies about. But it's not our fault, you know.

That will be quite the day, won't it?


Layzej said...

They provide a service that we all appreciate, but... is it OK for a corporation to spend millions to deceive the public? That's the part we're not so fond of. Maybe if there were consequences they would think twice.

David Appell said...

Layzej: Aren't all corporate advertisements an effort to deceive us?

Maybe Exxon/Mobile et al truly believed, based on their own internal scientists, that climate sensitivity is small and warming would be low.

Who's word are they supposed to accept as gospel?

Many of the previous commenters here don't seem very interested in such subtleties.

Layzej said...

I am not nearly qualified to know whether there is a case to be made, but the Attorney General probably is. I imagine even in advertisements there are limits to what you can and cannot claim.

David in Cal said...

In cases like this, the claim of "disinformation" is easily made, but it's harder to find out just what Exxon said that was false. E.g., this article says Exxon "cast doubt on whether climate change was occurring or was caused by the burning of fossil fuels."

Casting doubt is quite from denying. Climate science isn't settled. Even today, one could argue that the IPCC casts doubt on whether the burning of fossil fuel contributes significantly to global warming, because they do not set any minimum on the range of climate sensitivity. Now, one gets into the subtlety of how much doubt is being cast. Maybe Exxon cast a lot of doubt, whereas the IPCC casts only a little doubt.

I have limited confidence in our court system. I would not rule out the possibility that Exxon could be punished fore expressing uncertainty about a subject that is truly somewhat uncertain. But, I think a result like that would be a blow to science.

Layzej said...

If Exxon simply noted the existing uncertainties then they ought not be prosecuted. If they knowingly spread disinformation, and broke laws in doing so, then the case should proceed.

However the uncertainty around ECS is constrained: "ECS is extremely unlikely less than 1°C" - IPCC AR5.

There is no greater level of confidence that the IPCC could apply to that statement. Only Lloyd Christmas would hear this and say: "So you're tellin' me there's a chance. YEAH!" -

David in Cal said...

Layzej -- It's unusual for physical and chemical constants to be expressed as odds or likelihoods. E.g., one doesn't see a statement like, "The speed of light in a vacuum is extremely unlikely to be less than 160,000 miles per second." "Extremely unlikely" values aren't shown in the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics.

IMHO for the IPCC scientists to even mention the possibility of sensitivity being below 1 means that they consider that not to be utterly out of the question. YMMV.

Layzej said...

The speed of light is a physical constant: c. The meter is a function of the speed of light. This is by definition so there can be no error.

The IPCC is very careful about disclosing uncertainty. Our understanding will always be open to new evidence. The IPCC does not have a category for uncertainty that excludes the possibility of new evidence.

"So you're tellin' me there's a chance!" -

David in Cal said...

IPCC 4 said "climate sensitivity is likely to be in the range of 2 to 4.5°C with a best estimate of about 3°C, and is very unlikely to be less than 1.5°C." For IPCC 5, these ranges were changed and no best estimated was agreed-upon. One could mock these changes by observing that what was a best estimate is no longer a best estimate. In fact, no best estimate now exists. A sensitivity between 1 and 1.5 was very unlikely for several years, but is no longer very unlikely.

Seriously, Layzej, the changing ranges illustrate that "likely", "very unlikely", "best estimate" etc. are merely labels agreed on by a group of people. They don't have precise scientific definitions

The classic book, The Foundations of Statistics by Leonard J. Savage seeks to define Bayesian probability by one's willingness to bet at various odds. E.g., suppose you said your personal odds of some event were 1000 to 1. that would mean that you'd be willing to make a bet at those odds and no preference for either side. What are your personal probability that the true value of climate sensitivity is greater than 1 deg C? Would you say that the chances are are one in a million? In other words, would you be willing to bet $1 million against $1 that the true value is greater than 1? Or, if those odds are too steep, what odds would you comfortably bet at?


Layzej said...

That does not follow. We would expect that the reports would change with new evidence. It is not clear what this has to do with Exxon...

Brian said...

Government could do a lot with several hundred billion dollars, so unless the OP is nearly-literally saying throw the money into a pit, then a lot of good will have come of this.

Now to fight the hypothetical: I don't expect big damages to result from fraud to shareholders, although there may be some damage for specially-affected shareholders, in the millions. Fraud to the public and interference in regulation of carbon emissions is a big-ticket item. A lot of that money will be spent on climate mitigation and adaptation. Not all of it, but a lot of it. Again, a good thing. It might drive up the costs of oil somewhat for a year or two, somewhat restrict their funding for my oil exploration, and substantially hinder Exxon's ability to manipulate politics. Again, good stuff.