Limit Mountaintop Removal, and the World Will End…

I love this short post from James Kwak over at Baseline Scenario.

Photo by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

“Nice Economy You’ve Got There . . .”

That, I believe, was a line from Nemo in a comment long ago, on how the megabanks were holding the federal government hostage by threatening to collapse and take the financial system with them.

The coal industry seems to have learned something. Now that the EPA is recommending revoking a mountaintop mining permit (mountaintop mining is when, instead of drilling holes to get at coal underground, you simply blow the top off the mountain), the coal company in question has this to say:

“If the E.P.A. proceeds with its unlawful veto of the Spruce permit — as it appears determined to do — West Virginia’s economy and future tax base will suffer a serious blow.

“Beyond that, every business in the nation would be put on notice that any lawfully issued permit — Clean Water Act 404 or otherwise — can be revoked at any time according to the whims of the federal government. Clearly, such a development would have a chilling impact on future investment and job creation.”

No, every business would be put on notice a permit could be revoked for a project that ”would bury more than seven miles of the Pigeonroost Branch and Oldhouse Branch streams under 110 million cubic yards of spoil, killing everything in them and sending downstream a flood of contaminants, toxic substances and life-choking algae.” Which to me seems about the right message to send.

But this is the basic position of every big corporate interest: if you don’t let us do what we want to do, the economy will suffer.

(If you want to see what mountaintop mining looks like, go to this Google Maps mashup and zoom in. It’s the big gray scars in the green mountains.)

Additionally, can’t we make the case that better regulating mountaintop mining would, at the expense of some sweet profits, lead to creation of more jobs? Take heart, stockholders!!! Relatively more labor-intensive methods of extraction will not ruin you, state economies, or the U.S. economy.

Written by NICK.

Black Swan Events and the Plight of Probability

Many scientists believe that climate change will increase the likelihood of extreme weather events, but will we improve our ability to understand and react to these risks?

Photo by Zak Sherwood

Nassim Taleb popularized the term “Black Swan” to refer to outlier events that could not have been predicted by drawing from past experience—alluding to the surprise of 17th century European explorers at their first sighting of a black swan in Australia. In his book, Taleb uses the term to refer to unexpected but defining events in human history such as World War I and September 11th, arguing that while no one foresaw these events, in hindsight, human nature causes us to invent explanations of why they were predictable. Since his book, the term has been used to refer to everything from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill to a design flaw in the iPhone 4 that causes dropped calls.

For many of these unexpected events, the case may not be that no one could imagine that they would happen, but that we may be predisposed to disregard the chances that they would happen.

Behavioral economics research tells us that individuals often dismiss low-probability events, neglecting the possibility of any risk unless it is above some subjective threshold, and that we tend to be overly optimistic about our chances of being the victim of a disaster (e.g., Camerer and Kunreuther 1989). These behaviors pose significant challenges in our ability to respond to the risks of high-impact events such as extreme natural disasters. For instance, if the potential damages of a drought are very large in a region, then significant investment to prevent the damages (or insure against them) may be warranted even if chances of the drought are relatively low. Risk-neutral individuals facing a 10% chance of suffering a $1M loss should still be willing to pay $100,000 to prevent the damages. But, if they heuristically ignore any risk with a chance less than 20%, then too few prevention measures will be taken.

Another group of researchers has recently considered whether our perception of risk is different based on our personal experience with the impacts. Kousky, Pratt, and Zeckhauser (2010) conjectured that when an event occurs that we have not experienced, we tend to overreact, believing that the threat is more likely than it actually is. Conversely, when we encounter events that we have experienced before, we tend to underestimate the risk of a recurrence and may not react when familiar dangers become more risky. These behaviors, if supported by more evidence, could potentially affect many aspects of climate change decision making.

One feature of Talib’s characterization of Black Swan events is that, in retrospect, we search for explanations for the events even when they don’t really exist. Whether this is true or not for the specific cases he suggests, some evidence supports that a similar effect may lead us to disregard the likelihood that a damaging event may reoccur in the future. In discussing the Gulf Oil Spill, Stephen Brown (2010) stated that “there can be a tendency within any industry to dismiss low-probability, catastrophic events such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster as a one-off occurrence, resulting from poor judgment or human error. That tendency could mean that industry standards would not tighten by as much as society deems appropriate. In such a case, society will want higher safety standards than the industry would adopt on its own accord.”

Understanding how we are predisposed to react to low-probability disasters is a necessary key to developing appropriate measures to prevent future damages from incidents like the Gulf Oil Spill as well as extreme weather events.


Global Hazards in July

What is outside the envelope of natural variation? How are we framing risk?

Baseera, Pakistan. Photograph by Adrees Latif, Reuters

Global hazards in July, according to a NOAA report:

Severe drought plagued Bolivia, killing crops and livestock.

Three massive wildfires raged across Southern California.

Record high temperatures and sparse rainfall in Russia, killing 40% of the grain harvest, creating huge wildfires, oppressive smog, and causing many cases of heat stroke.

Hundreds of maximum high and minimum high temperatures were broken from North Carolina (U.S.) to Quebec (Canada). On July 5th, Montfort Hospital in Ottawa, Canada reported the highest number of hospital visits ever recorded in a single day.

On the 5th, temperatures in Beijing reached 105.1°F (40.6°C)—the highest recorded temperature in July for the city since national records began in 1951. That same day Beijing reported its largest single-day water consumption since tap water use began in 1910.

While heat waves were affecting various regions in the Northern Hemisphere, frigid polar air from Antarctica gripped parts of southern South America, including Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, Chile, southern Brazil, and eastern Peru.

By the beginning of July, heavy monsoon rains triggered floods and landslides in both southern (Kerala) and northeastern (Assam) India.

Torrential rainfall in northwestern China during the first week in July killed 29 people and damaged more than 6,300 homes in parts of Qinghai Province. Across the country in southern China, at least 118 people were killed and nearly 1.1 million had to be relocated due to flooding and landslides across nine provinces during the first two weeks in July.

Following one of the worst droughts on record, according to local meteorologists, 5.1 inches (130 mm) of rain fell over Hanoi, Vietnam within a three-hour period on July 13th.

Torrential rainfall on July 13th led to flooding that killed seven people in Saudi Arabia. Heavy rains on the 14th–16th also led to flooding and landslides that killed 26 in northwestern Yemen.

At least eight people were killed and seven were missing as heavy rains on July 14th–16th lashed central and western Japan. Towns and farmland were submerged under water for days due to the downpours. In Shobara, 2.5 inches (64 mm) of rain fell in one hour, breaking the hourly rainfall record for the city.

Three days of rain in Burkina Faso left 20,000 homeless after floods swept through the eastern portion of the country. In northern Cameroon, heavy rainfall and strong winds left eight people dead and 4,000 homeless. Experts reported that the heavy rains this season was causing a June cholera outbreak that had already killed 77 people.

Up to 12 inches (305 mm) of rain fell across parts of eastern Iowa, northwestern Illinois, and southeastern Wisconsin during a 48-hour period on July 22nd–24th. The Lake Delhi Dam in Iowa failed as floodwater from the Maquoketa River bore a 30-foot wide hole in the earthen structure…Dozens of homes and businesses were affected and damages were initially estimated by a local official to exceed $34 million U.S. dollars.

During the last week of July, heavy rainfall associated with the annual monsoon in Pakistan brought a deluge of water, creating extreme flooding, particularly in the northwest regions of the country. Over 12 inches (302mm) of rain fell between July 28th and 30th in the Peshawar province…20+ million displaced, crops and wells destroyed, more than three million children at risk of diseases carried by contaminated water and insects.

Written by NICK.