Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Was Sandy systemically caused by CO2?

Anthony Watts wrote down a nice table describing which folks believe or at least pretend to believe that CO2 "caused" Hurricane Sandy and which people don't. If I simplify it a little bit, activists, liars, and crackpots such as Al Gore support the link while scientists don't. I am kind of pleased to see that for the first time, most of the media seem to agree that the people promoting the hurricane-CO2 link are hacks.

I was intrigued by a member of the former group, hardcore leftist activist Mr George Lakoff, who wrote the following text for the Huffington Post:
Global Warming Systemically Caused Hurricane Sandy
He introduces a new problematic term: "systemic causation". He believes that fossil fuels "systemically caused" Hurricane Sandy (and other weather events we don't like). The description makes it look like the construct "A systemically caused B" means "A increased the odds of B" – note that my alternative wording is equally long, much more accurate, and not requiring any new contrived phrases.

Except that Mr Lakoff believes that AIDS is only "systemically caused", not "directly caused", by the HIV virus. That's pretty interesting. Either he is an HIV denier or his definition of "systemic causation" is internally inconsistent. But let's ask two questions: Was Sandy "systemically caused" by CO2 emissions? And forgetting about the answer and focusing on genuine "systemic causes" of bad events in general, is it legitimate for the society to outlaw them?

My answer to both questions is No, although the latter question deserves a subtler discussion.

Unless you believe in astrology and similar things, you will surely agree that it's not in the power of CO2 or any other indirect hypothetical causes to adjust some "highly internal" and "seemingly random" characteristics of tropical storms such as the population of the city that the storms target. ;-)

So the fact that Sandy managed to flood some tunnels in the New York subway system, among dozens of related achievements, is pretty clearly a coincidence that can't be explained by any well-defined long-term "cause", not even a "systemic cause". Most hurricanes avoid New York, some hurricanes get there, and only the proportion may be measured or theoretically calculated. In other words, when we talk about unknown future hurricanes, we may only predict their ability to target New York or other great cities probabilistically. And we may only estimate the probability that the most important hurricane of 2013 will make landing at most 4 days before the Halloween.

(The same comment, "only probabilistic predictions are possible", obviously applies to earthquakes in Italy, too.)

Needless to say, exactly the same words apply to Katrina and New Orleans in 2005. Katrina was a big story – much bigger than Sandy (surely by the number of casualties) – because it hit a large and relatively vulnerable city of New Orleans. Sandy was a relatively big story because it affected the "greatest city in the world" although not as much as Katrina did harm New Orleans. Let's agree that the targeting is a matter of chance.

But if you subtract all the "special characteristics" of Sandy that are related to its random path, there is almost nothing left. In fact, by the Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE), Sandy isn't even the largest storm of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season. It's not even the second one. It's not even the third one: Sandy is just the fourth largest Atlantic tropical storm of 2012. That shouldn't be shocking because it has made it to the Category 2 and only marginally and for a short time.

One may look for various detailed properties of Sandy – its trajectory, its area, its pre-Halloween timing, and so on. But I think it's clear that trying to attribute some "message" (I would say "divine message") to any of these detailed properties is a sign of medieval superstitions. People who try to interpret these properties as divine signals may use a quasi-scientific vocabulary but the vocabulary isn't the essence. The essence is the logic behind their thoughts and beliefs and it is equally unscientific as any other generic medieval superstitions.

The fact that Sandy went to New Jersey is a coincidence – one that could be predicted a few days in advance but one that has no implications for any knowledge or mechanisms that are relevant outside the end of October 2012. The fact that Sandy hit before the Halloween or before the U.S. presidential election is another coincidence. It's totally scientifically implausible to assign "causes" or "systemic causes" to such microscopic accidental characteristics of a tropical storm. Such links are equivalent to astrology and other superstitions. There isn't any conceivable natural mechanism that could impose such causal links – and there's even no conceivable mechanism or explanation that could significantly increase the chance that a hurricane is more Sandy-like if the CO2 concentration is higher. I am convinced that everyone who has been given basic scientific education – or who has a basic scientific intuition even in the absence of any formal education – must know that.

So we are back to the usual questions whether the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may be increasing or decreasing the number or hurricanes or their average or maximum intensity. I think that the data speak a clear language: no such dependence, whether positive or negative, may be extracted from the data that seem to be fully explainable by "noise", essentially "white noise". In the future, the datasets will become more extensive and perhaps more accurate and people may see a signal we don't see today. That's why it makes sense to ask whether we may predict what they will see. I think (based on arguments I have been repeatedly explained by Richard Lindzen in particular) that if they will ever see such an impact, it should be a negative impact – fewer hurricanes or weaker hurricanes. It's because storminess and other activity is driven by temperature (and other) gradients and in a hypothetical warmer world, the equator-pole temperature difference should be smaller because the poles should warm up faster. The gradients should decrease and because the gradients power the cyclone activity (and other things, including temperature variations in general), the cyclone activity should go down.

That's my prediction but I don't know how strong the effect is. It's probably very weak and it may remain invisible for centuries and perhaps forever because "global warming caused by CO2" will most likely never have an observable effect that would go beyond a modest shift of the global mean temperature.

Even when you look at the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season which became another heavily overhyped one, you will see that the Accumulated Cyclone Energy is just 121 so far, just marginally higher than the historical average around 105. The ACEs for individual seasons are never constant. They belong to some statistical distribution. It's inevitable that sometimes, the ACE ends up being above the average, sometimes (in many years after 2005), it ends up being below the average. There's nothing shocking about either outcome: it's a law of physics that such things are not constant although left-wing, egalitarian activists often have a problem with this totally basic concept underlying all of science.

Standing doctrine vs systemic causes

Despite all the hype, there's no evidence that something is changing about the statistical distributions that encode the number, strength, and geographical location of tropical storms and there's surely no evidence that this unobserved change of the distributions has some particular reasons such as a changing CO2 concentration. We've spent way too much time with this stuff. If someone isn't able to see that my conclusion is the only one that is empirically defensible, he or she probably suffers from some hopeless mania of superstitions and it's probably impossible to rationally talk to such a person.

But I want to continue with my second topic, namely the right of "systemic causes" to lead to bans. Are bans justified by "systemic causes" i.e. causes that only affect undesirable effects probabilistically desirable and compatible with some legal principles of civilized countries based on the rule of law? I would say that the answer is mostly No and if it's Yes, it shouldn't be "complete bans" and the legislation behind some "incentives" shouldn't be dogmatic but it should be based on a careful cost-and-benefit analysis.

What do I mean?

In 2006, I informed about a Massachusetts vs EPA lawsuit that ultimately ended by the unbelievable verdict that CO2 was a pollutant that EPA has the duty to regulate. So far, thank God, this pernicious verdict hasn't been fully exploited but it's a time bomb that may still explode sometime in the future.

In 2006, I discussed an important legal technicality, the standing doctrine:
It says that the plaintiff in front of the federal courts must show that her injury is "concrete and particularized" as well as "actual or imminent". The founding fathers wrote these wise sentences exactly in order to make things like suppression of the freedom of speech or suppression of life and the work of companies with the help of hypothetical accusations impossible.
Using Mr Lakoff's new terms, a person who thinks he has been affected by a "systemic cause" has no standing in the federal courts! Indeed, it's very important that only "direct causes" may be used as arguments against a "culprit". Mr Lakoff's suggestion that we should suddenly start to fight against "systemic causes", i.e. against all kinds of acts and events that have been hypothesized to increase the chance of some undesirable "systemic consequences", is therefore extremely dangerous for the life in the U.S. and elsewhere. Such a program would have a huge potential to restrict the very basic freedoms of the citizens and corporations – well, indeed, this may be the very goal of Mr Lakoff and his comrades.

Our laws are actually already full of various regulations that are meant to suppress "systemic causes", i.e. processes that may increase the chances of undesired consequences. The laws protecting people against passive smoking may be picked as an example.

Science hasn't resolved the question whether passive smoking increases the odds of various bad diseases. There are many theoretical reasons to think that the answer should be Yes. There are also some "maverick" reasons that the influence could actually be going in the opposite direction – explanations emulating the proverb "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" (those things are believed by some in the case of weak radioactivity in particular). I personally think that the former – passive smoking is somewhat unhealthy – is more likely to be true.

However, this uncertainty is often presented using big words and the possible consequences are often presented as far-reaching ones. But this is a complete distortion of what the scientific research has already found out. We don't have reliable data showing that second-hand smoking increases the probability e.g. of lung cancer; and we don't have reliable data showing that second-hand smoking decreases the probability of e.g. lung cancer.

But we actually do have lots of evidence to say that if any of these two influences exists, it's very small! This conclusion of many studies that asked this very question is often being obscured, overlooked, and censored. But it's damn real. If \(p_\text{no smoke}\) is the probability to "catch" lung cancer if you are exposed to no cigarette smoke at all, the probability for second-hand smokers is related to it by something like\[

p_\text{second-hand smokers} = (1.1\pm 0.2) p_\text{no smoke}.

\] This is a number comparable to the results of various surveys. It's not the number from any particular survey but this result is as compatible with them as any single survey from the list of actual surveys and I think it's good to offer you my own number so that you won't overestimate the importance of any particular paper in literature. There is some error margin and the results are compatible with the hypothesis that there's no influence. And they are compatible with the hypothesis that the second-hand smoke slightly increases the risk or slightly decreases the risk (for the latter, the compatibility may be worse).

But the experiments are not compatible with the hypothesis that passive smokers have a doubled risk (or, on the contrary, halved risk) of lung cancer, for example!

That's an important point that will lead you, if you're rational, to realize that the change of lung cancer risks isn't a rational reason to avoid second-hand smoke! There may be other reasons but this simply ain't one of them because if the influence exists, it is weaker than the "noise". Because of genetic and other differences, you may have a 4 times higher risk or 3 times lower risk to develop lung cancer than your friend. You don't really know what the chance is but whether you change the risk by 10% isn't a real issue and if you're unpleasant to your environment because of this small correction to the noise, you may be rightfully viewed as an intolerant jerk. This may increase the chances that someone will kill you so you may be actually shortening your life by being nasty to smokers around you.

But such "systemic causes" that increase the chances of something bad do exist. I could surely find better examples than the second-hand smoke. The society wants to thrive "statistically" so it may invent various policies that "encourage" the systemic causes of good things and "discourage" systemic causes of bad things. But it's important that such legislation shouldn't be dogmatic, black-and-white, and mindless.

Various processes we have may have "good systemic consequences" (good events whose probability is increased by the cause) as well as "bad systemic consequences" (the bad events whose chance is increased by the cause). Both of them must be taken into account. I think that if the "good systemic consequences" prevail – e.g. if we measure them in dollars – it's utterly irrational and counterproductive to legally discourage such "systemic causes".

Needless to say, even if Sandy were fully caused by CO2 emissions in 2012 – in reality, not even 1% of it is "caused" by any carbon dioxide, whether one emitted in 2012 or any other previous year – it would still fail to imply that it's irrational to regulate CO2 using this Sandy justification. The damages caused by Sandy are of order $20 billion. Imagine that this happens every year. However, the damages caused by a full ban (or near-complete ban) on CO2 would be several trillion dollars a year just for the U.S. So even if you believed the totally indefensible hypothesis that "CO2 is the systemic cause behind most Sandy-like hurricanes", it would still be indefensible to introduce laws that (almost) outlaw the carbon dioxide. The actual cost-and-benefits analysis implies that the ban would be at least 3 orders of magnitude more costly than the "damages" it tries to mitigate.

In some cases, we may find out that it's plausible that some acts contribute as "systemic causes" to some undesired consequences. In those cases, it could make sense to create laws that would force the "perpetrators" of the acts identified as "systemic causes" to pay for a corresponding fraction of the damages of the consequences that were "partly or statistically" caused by the acts.

Let me give you an example. Imagine that there's some breakthrough or change and evidence accumulates that 10% of hurricanes like Sandy are caused by the CO2 emissions. If this were true – and I don't believe that the current science suggests anything of the sort but just imagine that it will do so in the future – then it would make sense to introduce legislation that would force the CO2 emitters to pay 10% of the damages caused by future hurricanes similar to Sandy. (Without a new law, prosecution must remain impossible. A judge simply can't prosecute someone for some previously unencountered "systemic causes" because the "guilt" can't be reliably demonstrated so any "guilty" verdict would conflict with the presumption of innocence!)

For "another Sandy" whose damages are $20 billion or so, the "club of all the world's CO2 emitters" would be ordered to pay $2 billion to the fund for the victims of "another Sandy". It would save some money to the insurers and others.

You surely see where I am going. My point is that even if science accumulated evidence that CO2 helps to strengthen similar hurricanes or increase their number, the extra fees that the CO2 emitters after a similar hurricane would have to pay would be totally negligible and they wouldn't change anything whatsoever about their business. Every year, the world's CO2 emitters would pay some extra $2 billion for an Atlantic hurricane, perhaps another billion for another weather event that would be partly blamed on them, and so on. So they could share a $5 billion fine a year.

That's totally negligible because they – and we – collectively waste hundreds of billions of dollars a year by carbon markets and similar policies to regulate the CO2 emissions.

Even if you decided that the largest hurricanes we experience are partially – significantly – "systemically caused" by CO2, the damages would still be vastly smaller than the costs of the war on CO2. The insane people who defend the policies regulating CO2 need much more than an indefensible attribution of weather events to the gas we call life: they need to invent tons of events and devastation that doesn't exist at all. They need a full, unrestricted demagogy. They are living outside the reality and their survival depends on their complete separation from the reality and from the truth.

It's very important to keep all those events and hypothetical causal relationships in the context and to assign them numbers. Even if human lives are at stake, you must talk about numbers. You either count the human lives separately or identify a human life with XY million dollars, whatever the right number is, but it's totally critical to do so and to preserve a rational thinking at every step. The failure to do so opens the door to the demagogy by unhinged medieval superstitious assholes such as the scum that wants to fight against the carbon dioxide. And once these jerks see the open door, they won't hesitate to scream that an influence that is actually very insignificant, cheap, and de facto negligible (for the mankind and for the CO2 emitters) is practically infinite and Universe-threatening and enough for them to demand everything, ban anything they want, and become de facto dictators of the society.

We mustn't allow anything of the sort. We must preserve the rational and quantitative reasoning. If we manage to do so, we will inevitably protect our legal systems and habits from counterproductive policies such as the carbon regulation – and from many other bad rules that refer to "externalities" and similar things that are actually negligible if looked at properly.

And that's the memo.

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