ACS Industry

Sometimes the Axes Are Just Orthogonal

Blog Post created by ACS Industry on Dec 16, 2015


The gas mileage of a car does not depend on the paint color.  They are orthogonal variables, independent of each other.  There is no functional dependence of one to the other and there is no mathematical function that connects one with the other.  We encounter many such relationships and, since they are unrelated, they go largely unnoticed.


Humans have an aversion to chaos and seek to create order.  We explain things, sometimes through rational means, frequently by creating order where none exists.  We see patterns and ascribe importance to them.  Our drive to find order led to elaborate ritual and mythology around things we appreciate, like wine and beer.  In the pre-Pasteur centuries, connections were made and practices developed that appear silly now that we recognize and understand the microbiology at the foundation of both wine making and brewing.  We still have craftsmen that seek to recreate some of the charm of past eras, but the majority of wine and beer are now made industrially using well studied and optimized processing and microbiological systems.  Science usurped the mythology.


I am still amazed when I see a horoscope taking up valuable newspaper real estate.  It is clear that there are some who fail to recognize the orthogonality of the position of the stars on the date of their birth and what will happen to them today.  There are also those who fail to recognize when variables are linked.  My observations lead me to believe that my children fail to recognize that when they drive more, it costs more.  If I try to make mention of the impact on the planet, it resonates even less.


My kids are very intelligent young adults.  They should clearly see the relationship between their driving and cost, both financial and to the planet. I have concluded that it is not that they don't understand, they just don't want to be bothered.  In the moment, getting to where they want to be take precedence over what happens in the future, whether it be the cost a fill-up or global warming.  Some speak of the indirect costs of petroleum use.  Externalities like the cost of the military, wielded to maintain oil supply, are not included in the price we pay at the pump.  The cost for caring for people with respiratory disease made worse by emissions during production, refining or consumption of fuel are not included in the price we pay at the pump.  The cost borne by future generations for our fuel use is not included in the price we pay at the pump.  That cost is far harder to understand and far more abstract, easier to ignore, orthogonal to what is happening now.


Fortunately, we have economists to guide us on the journey to connect these seemingly orthogonal variables.  An economist would not even work up a sweat calculating the direct cost of driving that eludes my kids.  Gasoline costs some number of dollars per gallon and the car gets some number of miles per gallon.  Divide to get dollars per mile.  The gasoline cost is exact, but mileage may vary, for any number or reasons.  There is an error bar.  Within the error, driving can be connected to the money in their pockets.


Economists tackle considerably harder problems and error bars are put to the test.  The EPA has recently proposed new ozone limits that have kept the economists busy.  The proposal will mandate ozone reduction from 75 ppb to between 65 and 70 ppb.  The ozone in question is not made by direct industrial activity.  Ozone is made by the action of sunlight on air containing hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and other compounds, some also coming from combustion, but also naturally occurring, and from other anthropogenic sources.  Combustion is the big reason. That is certain.  Chemically the same as the beneficial ozone in the stratosphere, this is ground level ozone.  The health effects of elevated ozone levels at nose-level are well documented.  There is no credible argument in favor of ground level ozone.  We should all want it minimized.


There is a benefit of reducing ground level ozone, but there is also a cost.  Society has finite resources and we cannot spend infinitely to solve any problem.  There are at least two groups of economists that have now tackled the calculation and the numbers are so far off that you might think they are looking at different problems.  EPA estimates that compliance costs are $15 billion for reaching 65 ppb, a good deal, according to them, because the health benefits are $38 billion for attaining that level.  The National Association of Manufacturers commissioned National Research Associates Economic Consulting to study the same regulations.  That study concluded that compliance costs would cost $1.05 trillion dollars through 2040, with the loss of 1.4 million jobs.  Battle lines are drawn.  The power industry and its allies, including chemical industry groups, argue both that the revised standards are unnecessary and too costly.  The science behind the revision is being questioned.


Two groups of qualified economists looked at the available data – the same data - and drew very different conclusions.  Ozone levels and the condition of the economy look orthogonal.  This debate points out that they are connected by equations that are elusive.  We know that from scenes of blistering smog in China that air quality impacts the economy.  We, in the US, have the luxury of discussing something that is pretty good already and attempts to make it even better.  There is an asymptote and a general rule is that each step toward an asymptote becomes more difficult.  More effort is expended to get the same change.  It is no surprise that attempts to link economic conditions and air quality have big error bars, error bars that don't help make the decision.  They also don't help the credibility of scientists with the public that ultimately must support the decision, pay the price for compliance and reap any benefit.


The historic COP21 agreement completed last week seeks to balance economic and environmental impact in the context of greenhouse gases.  Ozone and carbon dioxide are very different chemically.  Ozone is a problem of today, an acute health hazard.  Carbon dioxide is the cause of climate change that is far off in the future.  Today, no function cleanly connects either ozone or CO2 to economics.  They are orthogonal.  I hope we have the resolve to realize they are connected and take the steps to internalize those externalities, eliminating the orthogonality.  Once economics are impacted, solutions will follow.


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Mark Jones is Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow at Dow Chemical since September 2011. He spent most of his career developing catalytic processes after joining Dow in 1990. He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Colorado-Boulder doing research unlikely to lead to an industrial career and totally unrelated to his current responsibilities.