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).

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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.

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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.