The Black Swan and Global Warming

If you average your net worth with Bill Gates’, you’re both billionaires.

What’s this got to do with global warming? When the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues their Fourth Assessment Report early next year, the headline will be their forecast of global average temperature increases in 2100 (which has been widely misreported to be 2°-4.5°C, as noted).

This time around, the IPCC is trying to do a better job of looking at regional effects, but if the past is prologue, the press, politicians and policy-makers will center debates about how to respond to global warming on the global average temperature increases and the Global Warming Delayers will gleefully join them.

There are lots of problems with this. For one, Australian climatologist Barry Pittock (among others) has shown that the IPCC projections are almost certainly too low. Yet even if the IPCC’s global figures were accurate, they could do more to misinform than to inform. To understand why, we need to understand the power of “outliers” and the Black Swan.


As author Nassim Taleb notes notes, “A black swan is an outlier, an event that lies beyond the realm of normal expectations. Most people expect all swans to be white because that’s what their experience tells them; a black swan is by definition a surprise.”

The polar regions, which are warming up to three times as fast as the rest of the planet, are our black swan.

With increasing evidence that the warmed world faces the release of massive amounts of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, from a superheated tundra, this particular black swan will drive what happens in the rest of the world.

If we continue to focus on “global averages,” the Fifth IPCC Assessment (circa 2013) is likely to be little more than an evaluation of how we could have been so wrong in Fourth Assessment, which largely ignores the impact of amplifying feedbacks from the tundra.

5 Responses to The Black Swan and Global Warming

  1. Keith L. Talley says:

    You mis-use the term “Black Swan” as an outlier and by equate that to warming in the polar regions. Please read Mr. Taleb’s definition in full of his “Black Swan” concept. Global Warming at the poles is known and therefore is not a “Black Swan”. What is not known are long-period events in the geological earth, solar system, and cosmic events that may contribute to warming and therefore melting. Such warming events have been occuring over thousands and millions of years and will continue without Man’s interference. When did the last major global ice-age end? Ice has been melting since then… The current pleasing confines of Fenno-Scandia are evidence of that, as are much of Canada. And there weren’t many foks around to start that melting. Better to focus on what began the melting some 14,000 years or so ago, and the consumate rise in sea-level of some 300+ feet, than to worry about modern society’s irritating contribution to CO2 levels and such. The Black Swan is what you don’t understand..which is, I think, a lot… Man’s ignorance is that he is much more ignorant than he thinks… Please re-read Mr. Taleb’s book…

    Kind Regards,

    Keith L. Talley

  2. Hi Keith,

    what makes you think that you know what the black swans are? You could be more humble in your ignorance.

    I do not think that Joe Romm abuses the word, or abuses it more then you do – though I don’t know whether he would have needed the symbol for his message.

    And for the readers that don’t have Mr. Talebs definition at hand, I’ll quote the first of the three parts, the part you are referring at: ‘First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility.’ Please notice the words ‘regular’ and ‘convincingly’ here – your reaction is already a clear sign that the impact of global warming at the poles is not convincing:-)

    The impact of global warming at the poles is not known neither. New scientific reports show that the melting of the ice is much faster then expected, the impact of the methane from the permafrost is unknown but feared and yes it might very well be that other unknown consequences might show up but that does not automatically comfort me… It might be that some unknown effects restore the old equilibrium, but the past is seldom restored.

    Now coming to your use of ‘better’: what would be better would we focus on the 14000 year process and neglect the 150 year process that added so much to the 14000 year process?

    Kind Regards

  3. TAC says:

    I found this site through Googling “black swan” and “global warming” — an interesting combination for sure. Unfortunately, I agree with Johan and Keith (#1 and #2): This post seems a bit confused. I think we all need to pay closer attention to what the “black swan” concept really means.

    Incidentally, it would be a good idea to take a look at the data
    before asserting that “The polar regions … are warming up to three times as fast as the rest of the planet.” In fact, temperatures have been declining at the South Pole for the past 5 decades: In particular, every one of the 10 coldest years since 1956 occurred after 1982 — in the second half of the record.

    Kind Regards

  4. John says:

    Gobal Warming is well settled science and the skeptics have been silenced, Borj Lomborg vilified. The modelers won the battle and the models show with a high degree of probability that we are doomed unless draconian action is taken. The author of this article is equating global warming with a “the black swan”. I’m confused.

    The title of the book is “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable”. It follows, therefore, the Gobal Warming is highly improbable. Time to move along nothings going on here.

  5. john says:

    The follwing observation was made on three separate issues at the recent AGU conference: X is occurring 10 times faster than models forcasted —
    with x being : acidification of oceans; melting of sea ice; loss of permafrost.

    Nassim’s point is that it is often the long tail events that make the most difference, and that models, cost-benefit analysis etc, are shaped and constrained by what the modeler can imagine and what he or she expects. Thus we end up with a negative synergy — models which are built to exclude events, and long tails which are consigned to the realm of unlikely.

    In duscussions with Nassim, he indicated these were among the kind of things he was talking about in his essay.