Is global warming a black swan?

Is the Japanese nuclear disaster?

Year after year the worriers and fretters would come to me with awful predictions of the outbreak of war. I denied it each time. I was only wrong twice.

-Senior British intelligence official, retiring in 1950 after 47 years of service

One of the defining characteristics of humans is our ability to ignore or downplay facts that would shatter or overturn our world view.  At the same time, we tend to favor or selectively recall information that confirms our preconceptions, which is called “confirmation bias.”

blackswan2.jpgI bring that up because, these days, pretty much everything that seems anomalous is called a “Black Swan,” a term popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in writings such as, “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.”

And so we have both the Washington Post and Foreign Policy writing major pieces on Japan’s “black swan.”  But how exactly can a nuclear accident in Japan be a black swan.  The Japan Times ran an article whose lead sentence was “Of all the places in all the world where no one in their right mind would build scores of nuclear power plants, Japan would be pretty near the top of the list” back in May 2004 — seven years ago!

The article warns “that Japan has no real nuclear-disaster plan in the event that an earthquake damaged a reactor’s water-cooling system and triggered a reactor meltdown.”   It even notes, “there is an extreme danger of an earthquake causing a loss of water coolant in the pools where spent fuel rods are kept.”  It was written by “a geoscientist who worked at the Lawrence Livermore Nuclear Weapons Laboratory on the Yucca Mountain Project,” and has this quote:

“I think the situation right now is very scary,” says Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismologist and professor at Kobe University. “It’s like a kamikaze terrorist wrapped in bombs just waiting to explode.”

So again, how precisely is the current accident a black swan?

In the first chapter of his book, Taleb writes:

Before the discovery of Australia, people in the old world were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans….

What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes.  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. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability.

Ah, you see the sleight of hand.  The summary doesn’t match the original definition.

“Rarity” isn’t the same as lying “outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility.”  Indeed, come to think of it, the fact that “nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility” isn’t quite the same as being “outside the realm of regular expectations.”

People often warn of things that lie “outside the realm of regular expectations.”  Global warming comes to mind.

If you Google “global warming” and “black swan” you’ll get nearly 2 million results — which is in its own way evidence that global warming isn’t a black swan.  Yes, the post at the top of that search is one of the earliest pieces I wrote on CP, “The Black Swan and Global Warming,” back in 2006, when I was young and naive, posting but once a day.

I quoted a Taleb essay that began, “A black swan is an outlier, an event that lies beyond the realm of normal expectations.”

Taleb argues at length that 9/11 was a black swan, stating:

ad a terrorist attack been a conceivable risk on Sept. 10, 2001, it would likely not have happened.

But that is a dubious claim at best.  Indeed, even Joel Achenbach in his WashPost piece, “Japan’s ‘black swan’: Scientists ponder the unparalleled dangers of unlikely disasters” notes:

People debate what qualifies as a black swan. Most alleged black swans turn out to have obvious precursors and warning signs “” the Sept. 11 attacks included. Nothing comes out of the blue, truly.

Was Pearl Harbor a black swan?  Were the oil shocks of the 1970s.  In my 1994 book Lean and Clean Management, I write about the strategic planners at Royal Dutch Shell, who anticipated those shocks (see here).  As for Pearl Harbor, consider this, from my book:

The Japanese commander of the attack, Mitsuo Fuchida, was quite surprised he had achieved surprise.  Before the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, the Japanese Navy had used a surprise attack to destroy the Russian Pacific Fleet at anchor in Port Arthur.  Fuchida asked, “Had these Americans never heard of Port Arthur?

So Pearl Harbor wasn’t a black swan.

The fact is that the events that we are shocked about over and over again weren’t merely “explainable and predictable” after the fact.  They were vary often predicted or warned about well in advance by serious people.  The powers that be simply chose to ignore the warnings because it didn’t fit their world view.

The Trojan horse was a black swan, if one ignores Cassandra, which, of course, was her fate.

I first had the idea for this piece after posting on Transocean, the company that operated the infamous Deepwater Horizon oil rig, who told its shareholders that it gave its executives multi-million-dollar bonuses based on the company’s “best year in safety performance.”  As Interior Secretary Ken Salazar noted, this “complacency” matched the “complacency that created an oil spill that was pouring over 50 thousand barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico a day.”

A commenter on that post then directed me to this Crooked Timber post, “With Notably Rare Exceptions,” which starts by quoting Alan Greenspan:

Today’s competitive markets, whether we seek to recognise it or not, are driven by an international version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that is unredeemably opaque. With notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global “invisible hand” has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates.

As Henry at CT then writes:

It’s best not to interpret this as an empirical claim, but a carefully-thought-out bid for Internet immortality. It has the sublime combination of supreme self-confidence and utter cluelessness of previously successful memes … but with added Greenspanny goodness. I tried to think of useful variations on the way in to work this morning – “With notably rare exceptions, Russian Roulette is a fun, safe game for all the family to play,” …  but none do proper justice to the magnificence of the original. But then, that’s why we have commenters. Have at it.

With notably rare exceptions, nuclear power is safe.  With notably rare exceptions, unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases are safe.

My point in this quote is that, of course, lots of people warned about the bubble that Greenspan himself helped create.  But even now, it appears to have been a black swan for Greenspan.

Global warming obviously is not a black swan.  It is an event “outside the realm of regular expectations” but one can’t say “nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility”:

In my 2006 post, I argued that rapid polar warming and the potential for a melting of the tundra and massive release of methane was a black swan.  I suppose, for 99% of policymakers and the media it is a black swan, but in fact even the worst-case scenario for global warming isn’t technically a black swan:

We have been warned as much as one could reasonably expect us to be warned, but we choose to ignore the warnings.  In fairness, though, there is a massive fossil-fuel-funded disinformation campaign out there trying to convince us that all swans are in fact white.  Would it were so.

41 Responses to Is global warming a black swan?

  1. We might also review the list of cognitive biases –

    Amazing that human civilization has managed to get this far. We are an imperfect species.

  2. sault says:

    “Black Swans” are really just excuses people can use to absolve themselves of failing to be observant and mitigate risk adequately. Even seemingly random lightning strikes, heart attacks and other maladies all have their risk factors. Systemic failures such as the financial crisis and climate change all need a specific set of fail-safes and observations to be either ignored or absent to cause harm.

    The funny thing is, even the “I Told you so” moment of an ice-free north pole or no more glaciers in Glacier National Park will not convince some people that are die-hard deniers. It will be already too late for a measured response to climate change by the time the deniers come around and even then, they’ll be trying to label climate catastrophe a “Black Swan” so they don’t look like fools.

  3. Kristen says:

    There was some discussion about the similarities between financial risks, black swans, and climate change at the start of the Great Recession. Here is a short piece that discusses climate change as a black swan.

  4. Dickensian American says:

    It’s a good question, rhetorically speaking. One century’s black swan is another’s common knowledge.

    With that in mind, global warming may have been a black swan to the post war economies of the 1950’s. Peak oil to the industries of the late 19th century. A 9.0 magnitude earth quake is almost always a black swan. A meteor strike in a major metropolitan area or the full reawakening of the Yellowstone caldera would doubtless be considered a black swan, even though when stretched towards longer and longer time samples, both become inevitabilities. Similarly, though Japan’s (and the globe’s by proxy) current and still unfolding nuclear, though inevitable, is also a black swan.

    But global warming, from the perspective of here and now, can no longer be a black swan anymore than mortgage default after deliberately missing three years of payments. The bills are piling up. The red ink is more than obvious. You either admit you are horribly in debt and try to sort out a means to either sustain or cut losses and find a new lifestyle–or you stay in denial till the county marshal shows at your doorstep ready to forcibly evict. Global warming may have been a rarely talked about idea back in the go-go expand-expand rebuild-rebuild post-war economies (though we all know thermal forcing was at least a 60+ year old concept by then!) but it is too much a part of our lexicon as an inevitability–and an imminent one at that!–to be called a black swan.

  5. Dickensian American says:

    edit to above: that’s meant to read

    “Japan’s (and the globe’s by proxy) current and still unfolding nuclear disaster”

  6. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Excellent post. Ofcourse these days everything is attributed to Global Warming and Climarte change.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  7. Gord says:

    Good post.

    Having been schooled in Philosophy, I’ve been interested in the Phenomenology of miracles for years. The baseline I’ve been able to discover is that miracles are impossible events that occur. Note that I don’t argue that they are highly improbable … for given enough time all such events will occur (with a nod to Douglas Adams). No, this phenomenon comes ‘out of the blue’ to those who experience it.

    However, one man’s impossibility is another man’s improbability. And the difference between them could be simply knowledge about the world, that is, knowledge about the system in which the miracle occurred.

    The Black Swan can be understood as a miracle. In this sense then, I conclude that the Black Swan can exist, there is nothing to indicate that it can’t, however, our understanding of the Black Swan, Qua Black Swan, is entirely limited. We cannot be sure whether we are experiencing a Black Swan or the limitations of our knowledge of the peculiarities of the system in which it occurs.

    It is entirely possible that Black Swans exist and occur but cannot be known about.

    This is like the ancients defining ‘chaos’ as the ‘first ordering’ with the argument that true chaos would be incomprehensible. If we experience phenomena which we conceive as being chaotic, they must be already in an ordered state.

  8. EcoLIbertarian says:

    Fukushima didn’t kill anyone, and there have been only a handful of injuries. And despite dire predictions of tens of thousands of deaths, the actual truth is that Chernobyl only killed 50, including cancers. The World Health Organization concludes that air pollution, mostly from coal/fossil, kills TWO MILLION people each and every year. Why is there a double-standard for nuclear. Is one nuclear death equivalent to thousands of “conventional” deaths? Bhopal killed 3000. Are we phasing out chemical plants? Then there’s the “what if” contingent who dream up Bruce Willis movie scripts featuring nuclear power plants. Try this “what if” on for size: CLIMATE CHANGE. Every nuclear plant that isn’t built gets a coal plant in its place. You can dream about wind/sun/geo all you want, but their combined output is only 1% of US supply, with only perhaps 3-4% by 2020. Nuclear provides almost 20% today. Keep dreaming. No one in the USA has ever been harmed by radiation from all commercial nuclear power plants, in over 50 years of operation. Yes, that’s a fact. What is your definition of safe?

    [JR: Safe is not a nuclear meltdown. And I ain’t a fan of coal, if you’d read this blog.]

  9. EcoLIbertarian says:

    TMI was a meltdown. No injuries in the public resulted, nor would they even if there hadn’t been an over-reactive evacuation. Fukushima partially melted down. Very few injuries and no deaths. Coal kills 25,000 – 50,000 Americas a year. And how many of our children will be wiped out by climate change? Where is your perspective?

    Today there are only two significant choices for new baseload supply: fossil and nuclear fission. Wind/sun/geo are good ideas, but for the next few decades, the only way to retire all fossil plants is nuclear. By then maybe we can build out wind/sun/geo. By the way, nuclear is renewable. We can make thousands of years of fuel from Th and U-238 with LIFTERs. And in case you haven’t heard, in Europe they’re building a 1MW pilot plant based on nickel/hydrogen fusion which has virtually zero residual radioactivity.

    Please keep offering objections to my statements. I welcome the chance to write more.

    [JR: Please stop making comments that reveal you don’t actually read this blog. They just make you look silly and waste everyone else’s time.]

  10. Scott Kelly says:

    If you follow your argument to completion then any event no matter how extreme or “outside the realm of regular expectations” has a probably of already being considered by someone, somewhere at sometime. Any unforseeable, uncalculable high impact event is a black swan. By this definition its likely that climate change isn’t a black swan event. It doesn’ matter. We need to do something about it. The Fukushima nuclear disaster, under this defnition, was probably a black swan event. Again it doesn’t matter. The point is something should have been done about it. Minimising the risk of a black swan event is possible through the mitigation of risk. For example, by choosing not to build technologies that are known to have a probability of a high impact event i.e. nuclear technology. Its not worth arguing over definitions of what is and isn’t a black swan, the point is, risks need to be considered and minimised even more so now that we know black swan events do occur….

    [JR: But my whole point is you can’t use the reductio ad absurdum that you propose. Virtually all of the events that are supposedly black swans haven’t just been predicted by somebody somewhere sometime, but have been warned about by leading experts in the proper forums. They have just been ignored.]

  11. EcoLIbertarian says:

    What is reductionism? You assert the discovery of a black swan proves a nuclear plant will blow up and kill millions. [snip]

    [JR: You just jumped the shark with that comment. I never said anything like that. Post your nonsense elsewhere.]

  12. Bob Lang says:

    Let’s not forget that the Greenhouse Effect was discovered in 1824, i.e., 187 years ago. So Global Warming comes as no surprise.

    But this doesn’t mean that certain consequences of Global Warming can’t be Black Swans, such as the following scenario (originally posted on the “Oil Dum” and paraphrased here):

    Global Warming causes extreme food shortages and chaos in Pakistan. In the ensuing anarchy, several nuclear weapons go missing and end up in the hands of Al-Qaeda. A regional nuclear exchange knocks out the oil-producing infrastructure in the Middle East and overnight the world is plunged into economic collapse. Conditions similar to those now experienced in Northeastern Japan prevail throughout much of the world. The trucks stop rolling. Supermarkets typically carry 3 days’ worth of inventory. Much of the electricity supply relies on coal, which relies on diesel. Etc.

    The 3 Black Swan conditions are:

    (1) outside the realm of regular expectations
    (2) extreme impact
    (3) retrospective (though not prospective) predictability

    This scenario seems to satify conditions (1) and (2). Whether it satifies (3) is debatable.

  13. Joan Savage says:

    This is about time frames. Climate change is exactly like a real black swan. It comes as a surprise to some and yet it is totally foreseeable by others.

    Look at who makes decisions for a near-future benefit! Their view of risk is going to be, will it hurt me NOW? The odds are that the next swan they see will be white, and the day will end without a flood, or drought, so the short-term gains people think that is good enough information.

    In contrast, look at people who make decisions for benefits over many lifetimes. They ask will it hurt anyone EVER? For long-time-frame people, the rare event is inevitable; it is a certainty. It will happen, sometime. We will have another earthquake, drought, flood. We don’t get to pick when.

    Indigenous peoples have the time frame that is the longest of the long, longer than a few years or one lifetime. With cultural memories spanning many generations, stories about rare events, even huge climate changes, are passed down from person to person. The people today who have no doubt whatsoever about climate change are the indigenous people. Inuit, Inupiat, Quechua, Seneca, Onondaga, many people, have been reporting what they see.

    In contrast, business accounting seems to have a three-year time frame for return on investment, and Congress has a two-year electoral cycle. That does not engender long views over a decade, let alone centuries. Some are not prepared to foresee the changes coming because they have too much invested in short cycle outcomes.

  14. sault says:

    Eco, you offer a false choice between deadly coal or massive nuclear power investment. The wiser approach is to implement carbon emissions reductions on the basis of cost and speed of implementation. This is necessary since money sent on one carbon reduction approach cannot necessarily be spent on another and since time is of the essence when it comes to climate change mitigation.

    It has been shown numerous times that energy efficiency and conservation strategies are the cheapest and quickest ways to reduce emissions and should therefore be implemented first. Preventing deforestation and land degradation is probably the next cost-effective and quickest way to keep carbon from building up. Near-term, natural gas plants could pick up the slack and shut down some coal plants if the EPA’s new regs come into force.

    Since renewable energy plants have much shorter construction times than nuclear plants, those should be built in areas where they make financial sense. A removal of fossil fuel subsidies and a price on carbon would level the playing field so that renewable plants won’t require subsidies quite as long as they would with the energy marketplace tilted against them.

    Baseload is more a description of demand than any physical power plant on the supply side. Smart grid technology and demand shifting can reduce (but not eliminate) the preeminence of baseload demand.

    Nuclear plants might seem cheap when they are built in China, but the labor costs are much lower there and the government can mandate a plant to be built regardless of the objections. When a nuke plant is properly built and its finances are accurately reported, the costs are much too high compared with other approaches.

    Nuclear fuel is even more non-renewable than fossil carbon unless you have a supernova handy, so you’re absolutely wrong on that point. Nuclear power technology currently under development shows some promise, but that is no excuse to build current-generation plants that saddle us with a dwindling resource base, waste problems, nuclear proliferation problems, large sunk capital costs and, once again, apparent safety problems. We should install the renewable, low-carbon technologies that we know can work now to buy time for the revolutionary breakthroughs in nuclear power that MIGHT occur. Just in case they don’t, we’ll still have a growing clean power supply to pick up the slack.

  15. Jim Eager says:

    “Fukushima didn’t kill anyone”

    Yet. It isn’t over yet, punkin.

    But it has already displaced a non-trivial population at a time when all social support systems are already stressed beyond the limit by the quake and tsunami, already had a serious impact on local agriculture, fishing and manufacturing, and already imposed very substantial financial consequences on top of those of the quake and tsunami.

    Despite what happened and is still happening at Fukushima I am still not blanket anti-nuke, but ignorant, insensitive diatribes like yours are just plain stupid.

  16. Mike Roddy says:

    Joe, you read Taleb’s book, while the writers from Foreign Policy and the Washington Post obviously did not. I liked Taleb’s Fooled By Randomness even more.

    The key point in both books is that Black Swans are inevitable and recurrent, and we are always ill prepared for them. People misunderstand the concept by assuming that because black swans are rare that we should disregard them. Actually, black swans must occur in Taleb’s reasoning although, as with earthquakes, we can’t predict the timing. Similarly, we don’t know exactly when climate disruption will become overwhelming. And Taleb’s most important point is that black swans not only disrupt history- they drive it.

    Taleb and other short sellers got rich by anticipating dark days in the markets, knowing that they were inevitable and that the markets were ill prepared for them. Global warming is a similar kind of swan- I briefly corresponded with Taleb about it last year, and he understands the point very well.

    Taleb is very well versed in history and philosophy, less so in the science of cognition, though these disciplines certainly overlap. There is some question whether humans’ minds are capable of what is as much a biological as a cultural adaptation.

  17. Joan Savage says:

    World Nuclear News reports three deaths at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

    Summary: Two bodies were found of men who had been missing since March 11, and a third man died of injuries associated with a crane in operation at the time of the earthquake.

    Comment: In the world of industrial accidents, those three deaths count as part of nuclear industry history. It doesn’t matter that they were not from radioactivity. To compare, deaths of miners from a collapse in a coal mine are still coal industry deaths, even if they are not from black lung or asthma.

  18. Mike # 22 says:

    To the people in Japan responsible for ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants, this was definitely a Black Swan, as defined by Taleb. Calculations on safety were made, policies put in place, and everyone slept soundly. But the calculations were blind to events that they could not predict, and the event unfolding is terrible. The regulators were fooled by their own models.

    In this way, global warming could become the Black Swan. The globe spanning economy is governed in thousands of ways, in order to (mostly) bring about prosperity and opportunity. At every level of society, from families to the World Bank, policies are in place which are blind to consequences of abrupt warming, which are causing it. Families expect that their children will grow up into a world that looks like it does today. Schools prepare their charges for a world which only weakly intersects the gravely damaged climate/economy we hurtle towards. Our energy agencies plan on a future which runs on carbon–when we know that model cannot survive the inevitable reckoning. At almost every level, policy and thinking is blind.

  19. Merrelyn Emery says:

    As one of those who would be very surprised to see a white swan and would have to assume it had escaped from a zoo, it has become clear to me that our culture takes such extreme risks because of the way we have been taught to think.

    I agree with Joan #13 that Indigenous cultures are much saner because they do appreciate such long time frames. But they also think systemically – they know the planet is an open system.

    Our education teaches to think mechanistically and practice reductionism. If you can’t think systemically, you don’t automatically see obvious and long term connections that arise from system disruptions and pertubations. Some geologists are still claiming earthquakes are unrelated when it is obvious they come in clusters over huge areas. It is only recently that those studying the sun were suprised to discover that flares on opposite sides were related. If they didn’t think the sun was a system, what did they think it was?

    Global warming should teach us once and for all that we should put away our reductionist approach and think realistically. We may experience fewer nasty surprises and be better prepared, ME

  20. adelady says:

    Mike, I’m not so sure about those safety calculations and policies. Can’t put my hand on the reference just now, but the plant owners were advised years ago that the location’s susceptibility to tsunami was much, much higher than the chosen height of their seawall.

    And let’s face it, *any* tsunami danger should have precluded putting essential equipment in basements or other low levels of the structures. Any organisation that has just one stretcher available has not taken proper precautions – even now they’ve not acquired enough radiation dosimeters for workers in clearly dangerous working conditions and they’ve had a month to get them in. I’m certain that these items are available, the company just hasn’t made the effort.

    The essential thing about black swans? They’ve been there all along. People have just not looked in the right place or in the right way to face up to the implications of their existence.

  21. Chris G says:

    I think Bob Lang (#12) has hit it. Climate change itself is not a Black Swan. It is a stress exacerbater. It makes bad situations worse, and sometimes, or at some point, the stress will cause a “non-linear” response. Whether the first thing that happens is a war between Pakistan and India over water, a collapse of a nuclear state, civil unrest across a wide range of poorer nations because of food shortages (or even just higher food costs), which in turn could lead to regional war and instability, or something else is difficult to predict. These kind of things would be Black Swans.

    I’m no expert, but when I read that Russia had banned wheat exports last year and they generally export a lot to Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, I thought, ‘Oh, there is going to be more than the usual amount of trouble there in the coming year.’ But, I had no preconception that it would become as it is.

    The increase in heat content and that weather patterns will change is predictable; the decrease in ocean alkalinity and negative impacts on fish populations are predictable. The effects of these depends a lot on the wealth and politics of those affected, and are much less predictable.

  22. Aaron Lewis says:

    One can do the math and predict that something will occur, and still be startled and shocked by the actual event – as in the guys who first witnessed an atomic bomb explosion.

    Circa 2002, the IPCC models said that the Arctic Sea Ice would be stable for a while, but feedback system analysis suggested that the system was out of control and would soon undergo significant melt. I told my clients to expect significant sea ice melt within 10 years. Thus, I fully expected large scale sea ice melt by 2012.

    However, the 2007 Arctic Sea Ice melt shocked me to my core. One can predict something and fully believe in that prediction, and still not be emotionally prepared when it occurs. After the sea ice melt, I expected changes in the polar vortex. Nevertheless, last summer when I looked at the Jet stream pushing right across the Arctic, it was a shock.

  23. adelady says:

    Aaron, the same thing happens in private life when someone dies.

    The fact that you’re not _surprised_ when a frail 90+ grandparent or a terminally ill friend dies doesn’t prevent the shocked-to-the-core feeling that overwhelms you anyway. Hearing that someone has been killed in an accident is very little different – emotionally. Even though we might talk about and around it in a different way from the expected events.

    I’m starting to feel that chronically grief-stricken way with the accumulating stuff that _does_ come out of left field, like the phytoplankton moment and the Amazon drought *again* moment and ….

  24. Anonymous says:

    Greenspan’s comment reminds me of this from the Onion: “Nuclear Energy Advocates Insist U.S. Reactors Completely Safe Unless Something Bad Happens”,19740/

  25. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Chris G # 21. The social and political effects of ecological changes are predictable if you have sufficient knowledge of the conditions within the relevant countries.

    A friend of mine predicted the end of the USSR when the first candles went up in windows during Solidarity in Poland. People said he was crazy but he knew the aspirations of the people and their conditions and simply followed the logical consequences. Social change can happen extremely fast, ME

  26. David B. Benson says:

    I don’t care at all for the Black Swan meme. It does not help with dealing in any way with extreme events.

    Global warming being the most extreme in many millions of years.

  27. paulm says:

    Feathers can be black.
    Swans have feathers.

    What is the probability of getting a black swan?

    Unknown, but probably when you least expect it or need one.

  28. Sue in NH says:

    Funny thing is, we are warned, but still, so few people really have been exposed adequately to the warnings.

    Just try striking up a conversation with anyone, and see what they have heard about the science… about the warnings… I’ll bet they know very little.

    Surprising thing the other day to find my politically liberal, college educated, scientifically literate (by most standards) friends, haven’t much of a clue about what we all consider the basics of Climate Science.

    It’s like Darwin just published his work, and the scientific community gets it, but it will be decades,… more than a century until the knowledge filters to the populace. (and still some deny)

    And of course we don’t have much time… no time at all in fact.

  29. jyyh says:

    with notable expections, the decrease in the summer sea ice can be described linearly (sept-2007)

  30. Leland Palmer says:

    Oh, BS.

    Neither global warming nor the Japanese Tsunami can be considered black swans, by any stretch of the imagination, IMO.

    CO2 based warming has been predicted for over a century. Abrupt climate change via methane release from by clathrate gun hypothesis is newer, I guess, but still does not rate any meaningful use of the “black swan” term.

    Japan is famous for it’s Tsunamis and earthquakes. Building nuclear plants right next to the ocean was just foolish, so close to a thrust-slip fault. Not putting big earth berms or dikes around the nuclear plants to protect from any Tsunamis was foolish. Putting spent nuclear fuel pools on the third floor was foolish, instead of at ground level where they could be flooded with a damned garden hose, in an emergency.

    Our corporate press is worse than useless- it’s actively and persistently misleading.

    And all of their misleading crap comes in under the radar, for most people.

  31. Brad Pierce says:

    According to the extreme climate events of 535-536 might have been caused by a volcano. I keep hearing that an eruption of Baekdu Mountain in N. Korea could be only a few years away. What can society do to prepare for such events? And is there potential to drain away their heat to generate electricity instead of eruptions?

    According to , Iceland is generating a huge amount of electricity from geothermal and is building a huge power cable to Scotland to export it.

    Couldn’t we drain away heat from the Yellowstone hot spot, too?

  32. Jeandetaca says:

    Black swann is a powerfull metaphor, even if its precise meaning is discussed.
    Joseph Stiglitz has just published an excellent article about the financial and the nuclear meltdown, 2 black swans waiting for the third one, global warming. You can read it on the guardian web site and on:

    For me the most interesting point is showing that the learning process is broken, because the “privatisation of the gains and socialisation of the losses” system make that the people in charge don’t bear the consequences of their failure.

  33. Billy T says:

    I think that the point of the Black Swan metaphor is that it describes that most people operate in a “frequentist” mode – they assume that things will continue on in a similar way to how they’ve been going before (in their experience). Despite what the financial advisors warn “past performance is no guarantee of future performance” the way most people operate their “predictions”. So it is with a “Black Swan” – even in the illustration, of course many people in the world already knew about black swans; it was only those silly Europeans who had blinkered views. ANd likewise with any disaster – many people are actually predicting that it will happen; just that most people don’t believe them (“it never happens”…).

    Once you accept the “black swan” of course, you experience a change in your perception of the “way the world works” and realise that the previously thought-impossible event actually is possible. In that sense the Fukushima nuclear disaster almost certainly IS a “black swan” – it has caused many people to radically reassess their previous assessment of “how likely” such accidents might be (and how serious the effects).

  34. Richard Brenne says:

    Today I attended a talk by an eminent British (now Canadian) hydrologist about climate change, and I asked him what 40 per cent more water vapor in the atmosphere would look like, or the equivalent to 15 Lake Superiors (at the high end of 2007 IPCC projections by 2100, since every degree C increase increases water vapor in the atmosphere by 7 per cent, 4 per cent for every degree F increase, and 6 degrees C is the IPCC’s worst case scenario, which many scientists now feel could be worse than that).

    He said it would look like Oman, which got nine years worth of rainfall in a couple of days during a recent tropical cyclone. Only countless places countless times.

    Climate change predicts these kinds of events, but while climate models do well with temperature they do not do well predicting massive floods. Precipitation models are looking at averages, and the possibilities of floods increasing can be masked by equally severe droughts that make the averages look benign.

    My guess is we’ll see more and more events like the floods in Pakistan, Australia, Tennessee and many other places (Wikipedia has over a dozen such flood entries for 2010 alone), within the last year, only increasingly bad, and increasingly unimaginable by today’s standards.

    We can’t predict where and when these events will occur, but we can predict that their frequency and severity will increase globally. Probably most wet places will experience at least one unprecedented (in human history) flood within this century, and as in Oman many dry places as well.

    So in the sense of expecting such mega-floods, they are not black swan events to the educated.

    But they will appear to be black swan events when they happen, especially to the uneducated.

    And they’ll each be slightly less attractive than Natalie Portman.

  35. Mark says:

    AGW isn’t a black swan, being so easy to predict from the basic physics. Its effects are a different matter for most people, thanks to poor awareness of the science and the fog of disinformation. Even when they do occur (the Pakistan monsoon, Australian drought then flood, the Arctic sea ice, drought in US SW) the significance may be hidden by denialist anti-science. So we have black swans made to seem white, or perhaps like cygnets, grey becoming white with time.

  36. Black swan or not, the EcoLibertarian-style reasoning that “Fukushima didn’t kill anyone”, and therefore we should just happily build lots of nuclear plants, is just silly beyond comprehension. It’s like saying that we should wait until our house gets burglarized before we’re willing to install locks.

    As many have pointed out, there’s a difference between

    (1) a risk which is in principle unforeseeable, despite all the best efforts by people to model as many risk factors as humanly possible and to address them;

    (2) a risk which wasn’t foreseen merely because certain people didn’t even try to do any risk assessment and instead relied on wishful thinking.

    The libertarians’ blind support for capitalism tends to fall in category (2). Any mention of any risk is countered simply by saying ‘But capitalism works!’ or ‘Catallaxy!’ or ‘Nothing bad has happened yet!’


  37. Sime says:

    With reference to the EcoLIbertarian (nonsense)…

    “…The depletion of natural resources, destruction of the environment, population growth and other factors are causing unprecedented movements of population. Of the nine million refugees in the Commonwealth of Independent States (12 of the 15 states after the break-up of the Soviet Union), 700,000 had to leave their homes because of environmental damage: 375,000 people were displaced after Chernobyl; 100,000 left Kazakhstan due to pollution of 35,000 square kilometers of the Aral Sea; and more than 150,000 fled the Semipalatinksk area (north of Kazakhstan) where one of the largest nuclear test sites is located…”

    That’s 375,000 displaced because of the Chernobyl disaster and another 150,000 in the Semipalatinksk area because of nuclear testing, whis is apparently acceptable to EcoLIbertarian.

    How much misery, trauma and how many residual / indirect (i.e. not counted as directly related to the original nuclear accident e.g. individual had a heart attack because of the stress of the forced migration) deaths did that cause? Good stuff this nuclear material NOT!

    What is it with this inability for the human brain to accurately ascertain and assess risk?

  38. David Foley says:

    Perhaps these events are not well described as “black swans,” but as “predictable surprises,” as termed by Max Bazerman and Michael Watkins. The discussion begs the larger question of why the predictable should be a surprise.

  39. Colorado Bob says:

    Here’s a “black swan” –

    ” Solar panel explodes dozens killed billions in damage.”

  40. bill says:

    Colorado Bob – and don’t forget Colbert’s wonderful ‘and let’s say a windmill robbed a bank!’

  41. Solar Jim says:

    A suggestion for a cultural black swan: Oil is not a resource of energy.

    Note: It is a liquid, a phase of Matter.

    All physical phenomena on Earth may be categorized into one of two baskets, Matter or Energy. Where would you place a material, especially one mined from the planet’s lithosphere? Is oil an “energy resource” as is universally accepted? Does it matter that the planet is melting and dying from “energy?” Or are we corrupted by arbitrary economies of fraud, and sustainable “energy efficiencies” worse than zero?