Climate change is a white swan
At the advent of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal force in the human heart: one very reasonably invites a man to consider the nature of the peril and the means of escaping it; the other, with a still greater show of reason, argues that it is too depressing and painful to think of the danger since it is not in man’s power to foresee everything and avert the general march of events, and it is better therefore to shut one’s eyes to the disagreeable until it actually comes, and to think instead of what is pleasant. When a man is alone he generally listens to the first voice; in the company of his fellow-men, to the second. – Tolstoy, War and Peace.
There is a spectre haunting our society, our world, our common future: the spectre of a ‘slow’ anthropogenically-induced climatically-induced cataclysm. Why call it a ‘spectre’? Because it seems unreal to us. An air of unreality hangs pervasively over our situation. If climate change were really as bad as all that, then we’d really be doing something about it…right? Can it really be that we are on the verge of committing human civilisation to oblivion? Surely it would take a true ‘black swan’ event to accomplish (sic) that?
A ‘black swan’ is a radically unexpected event. Much of my work in recent years has concerned the impact of such improbable or rare events that can be ‘determinative’, wiping out the effects of decades or millennia of normality or ‘progress’. For instance, my work alongside Nassim Taleb, arguing this case vis a vis financial crises, or genetic modification: (report here). We’ve argued the same case vis a vis climate: Black Swan Report.
For, thinking precautionarily is the best way to do a successful ‘end-run’ around the tedious obstructionism of the climate-denialists: one doesn’t need to prove with certainty or even beyond reasonable doubt that human action is causing dangerous climate change, in order to have at hand a watertight precautionary case for radical action to rein in climate-destabilisation.
But there is also a basic way in which the case of climate is very different from the case of finance, or that of GM (or that of nuclear, or that of ‘the singularity’; and so on). It is this: it has been shown beyond reasonable doubt that anything remotely like a BAU path puts us on course for climate-nemesis. See for instance:
Ever-worsening man-made climate change (ever-worsening, that is, barring a system change, a radical and swift transformation in our attitude to our living planet: Shock Message) is not a potential ‘black swan’ event. It’s a white swan, an expected event. It is, quite simply, completely what anyone with a basic understanding of the situation should now expect.
True, there are some significant grey-flecked feathers in the white plumage. We don’t know the exact climate-sensitivity of the Earth system (Harsh Realities) and we don’t know all the feedbacks that are likely to kick in, nor just how bad (or, if we’re very, very lucky, good) most of them will be. We don’t know how long we’ve got. Crucially, these uncertainties, properly understood, underscore the case for radical precautious action on climate (see Tackling Uncertainty, Climate Letter & Talking Philosophy): for uncertainty cuts both ways.
It may end up meaning that the fearful problem one was worried about turns out to be relatively tractable… Or it may end up meaning that it turns out even worse than expected (From Bad To Disaster). There is an asymmetry here: for the worse the worst-case scenario for something potentially ruinous gets, the more strongly we need to guard against it. Uncertainty around climate means that we might well still be underestimating the scale of our exposure to ruin (and perhaps drastically so: Brave New Climate).
So, even the grey matter among the swan’s plumage changes the situation not one bit – except to underline how we not only (very probably) have a (broadly) predictable catastrophe facing us but furthermore one that may exceed most of our models and even our imaginations.
It is beyond reasonable doubt that we are driving ourselves over what is probably a cliff, maybe one with a fatally larger drop below it even than our best current science suggests.
Catastrophic climate change is a white swan; and even the odd grey or black feather only underscores how badly we are exposed to it. To catastrophe.
This raises deep questions…
Are we, as the great ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle claimed, rational animals?
How can we look our children in the eye, while we contemplate this cataclysm in the making? (Maybe this is why we typically don’t look our children in the eye, on this determinative issue. Why virtually all of us, and not just a fringe minority who we love to hate, are – in practice, most of the time – in climate-change-denial.)
How can we be woken up? How can we learn, as I’ve put it previously here on Medium (Why I Fear For Us All) to be ‘wise frogs’; how do we learn to jump out of the saucepan before we boil ourselves?
The coming cataclysm is bleedin obvious: how can we be enabled to see and to act to stop the bleedin obvious? Given that, apparently, it’s being obvious is not enough. To deny the bleedin obvious takes much more effort than to deny the unclear (and this of course is why for years now nefarious self-interested business interests and their shills and useful idiots have been trying to pretend that the climate situation is not clear: (Climate Memo Blog). And yet virtually all of us are complicit with such denial, much of the time…
The uncomfortable truth about anthropogenic climate change as a white swan, you see, is that it means that we almost certainly actually have much more in common with the relatively small minority of outright climate-denialists than we like to think.
The coming catastrophic climate change – inevitable unless we act rapidly, intelligently, together, in an unprecedented manner – is a white swan, an expected event. If, as at present seems likely, we let it approach and overwhelm us, no-one can say we weren’t plainly and straightforwardly warned. To not see this nemesis coming is akin to putting a telescope to one’s blind eye, or to mistaking black for white.
The likelihood of nemesis seems especially great given the awesomely-terrifying, literally-incredible fact that at this most pressing of moments in human history, a full-alt-fact denier (and his team of similarly-irrational denialist imbeciles) has taken occupancy of the White House (Trump The Climate Denier). It is as if we were living a century ago, at the time of the infamous ‘Monkey Trial’ in the U.S. (Monkey Trial) when Darwinism went on trial for the right to be taught in school (and lost).
The differences are (1) A century has passed; have we learnt nothing?; (2) The ‘Monkey Trial’ concerned a benighted southern U.S. state government; while nothing less than the most powerful nation-state in the world is signed up to climate-denial; and (3) While it is unfortunate when evolution gets denied, it is catastrophic when climate-reality gets denied. This 3rd point is much the most consequential.
There is no scientific matter of more immediate import to humanity having a future, than the science of climate-change being acknowledged; or at minimum of a suitably precautious policy-line being taken re climate, even if one is not yet convinced (The Most Terrifying Video You Will Ever See).
As I set out above: when science involves us being exposed to huge hazard, then it is absurd to wait for or demand absolute proof. The rational thing to do – if we are rational – is to move much faster than that. And yet we are moving like snails, if that.
The situation we are in is an unprecedented one. It indicts us all, and indicts our ‘leaders’ perhaps most of all. We are staring now down the barrel of ecocide, which means a mass-suicide into which the voiceless and powerless and unborn future generations and most of our animal kin will be dragged down with us. It’s like Jonestown, only on a scale thousands upon thousands of times bigger. We’re all slowly drinking the Kool Aid, but this time it isn’t only those drinking it who are going to suffer or die. (And of course, to make the metaphor more accurate, it will tend to be those in ‘Third World’ countries who are as it were force-fed the Kool Aid on our behalf – they will, typically, suffer or die first.)
But yet… perhaps there are still grounds for hope in what I noted earlier. Perhaps some hope can be found in the very fact that (the truth is that) we ordinary people, we environmentally-minded normals, are much less different from climate-denialists than we tend to suppose. Perhaps, recognising our common failure thus far to face plainly the ‘white swan’ proceeding smoothly toward us bringing utter devastation with it, we might come together to confess our common failings, and then at last be in this together?
True, perhaps climate-criminals such as Exxon are beyond the pale; but perhaps the vast majority of us at least can seek to share our common fears (and failings, to date), and then start to rise to the occasion?
I have been making a habit of asking people over the past few years what they think the future will be like; I find many – most – who are somewhere between fairly and horrifically scared about it, so much so that they are overwhelmingly ‘primed’ to go into ‘denial’.
There are, I now firmly believe, millions upon millions of us quietly desperate about the future, feeling lonely in this desperation; but what if we were actually to risk starting to talk to one another about it, and what if we were then to find that we have more in common with each other than we’d realised? In particular in our terror, and the desire to do something with it rather than just suffer it. I think one of the things that we have to do now is to find more and more spaces where people can voice their suppressed anxiety about what we are doing to our planetary home, (and thus) to ourselves. This can be the first step, perhaps, toward a new sanity.
In a sequelar piece to come soon, I’ll be writing, along these lines, about how we might yet stop the slide into climate-cataclysm. How we can yet be wise; how we can rise to the awesome responsibility history has placed upon us – and inherit adequately the great gift of living at a time when humanity is in unprecedented peril. How is this a gift (and not just a curse)? Because it means we have the chance of being instrumental in building down that peril.
But for now I think I will leave this here. For first, we need to ponder. We need to reflect some on the extraordinary fact that the most likely future for humanity strongly appears to be not a steady progress – nor an unexpected destruction – but a steady, expected self-destruction.
The incipient climate chaos is a white swan. It would be the ultimate marker of sheer stupidity, as well as of shame and short-termist selfishness, if humanity succumbs to it.