Before the discovery of Australia, Europeans believed all swans were white. After all, their experiences up until that point had been that every swan they had encountered in all their history has been white. Nevertheless, upon the discovery of Australia and the accompanying discovery of black swans (Cygnus atratus), Europeans were forced to reassess their previous conclusions.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a wonderful statistician and philosopher who I have had the pleasure to work with in the past, developed the metaphor of the Black Swan (building on the work of Karl Popper) to embody hard-to-predict and rare events that are beyond the capacity of contemporary science and technology to predict. Taleb states that Black Swans have 3 features; they act as outliers to regular expectations, they carry an extreme impact, and they can be understood (only) in hindsight.
Thus, when we talk about Black Swan events, we are discussing largely unpredictable events of an enormously greater scale than the standard events of their type. We may predict when we are likely to experience a high number of Black Swan events, but their magnitude, impact, or temporality is impossible to predict. For example, look at viruses. Viral diseases are a standard part of life, with coughs and flus coming and going each year at a fairly standard and manageable rate, until a pandemical Black Swan appears. This outlying Black Swan event can be pretty catastrophic, like in the case of the Spanish Flu or, more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic. We understand what makes Black Swan events more likely: high population density, poor sanitation practises, novel forms of interaction with animals, inadequate preparations for crisis, etc. Thus, in my book ‘This civilisation is finished’, published in 2019, I suggested that it was likely that our civilisation would be tested with an outlier pandemic. But nevertheless, we cannot predict when Black Swans will occur, and how impactful they will be. As such, we should exercise precaution rather than a rigid evidence-based approach, because if we wait for all the evidence to be in (i.e., after the Black Swan event has occurred) it will be too late to do anything sufficient about it.
You may have already tweaked the application of Black Swan events to climate science; we know that a future of climate chaos is coming but the specific events that make up this more chaotic future are impossible to pin down. Furthermore, while being evidence-based, we must also recognise that there is inherent ambiguity in climate modelling and predictions, and from this basis the values of our society play a vital role in how we deal with uncertainty. Active precaution, for example, is one way to respond to such uncertainty, and is in my view by far the most sensible response. Unpredictability is an inescapable component of our lives, and the unpredictable nature of the climate system – in terms of weather (aka climate chaos), in terms of parameters (e.g., vis a vis our not knowing what the ‘climate-sensitivity’ of Earth is; how much overheating will eventually be produced by a given increase in carbon levels), and in terms of tipping points – is often not given the consideration it needs.
Black Swans in ecosystems have a particular potentially catastrophic character: they often cannot be localised to one part of the system, and instead threaten to bring down the entire holistic network. Where such system-threatening Black Swans may be present, it is essential to uphold the precautionary principle. This is the role of philosophy; whilst science predicts as best it can and is obviously an indispensable tool in tackling dangerous human-triggered climate change, philosophy dictates how we deal with the inescapable uncertainties. In this case, the upmost precaution should be exercised to avoid the most devastating of consequences: global ecological collapse. (However, our current society, with its ‘scientism’ devotion, and widespread ‘technophilia’, favours the adoption of new technologies by default, which runs counter to the precautionary principle.)
But now we come to the crucial question: is climate breakdown really a Black Swan? Surely not if a Black Swan is something unpredictable. Climate breakdown, with current evidence, is the expected outcome. In this regard, it is not a Black Swan; it’s a White Swan. For the enormous, extreme impact we are experiencing is expected. In its fundamental outlines (albeit not in its detailed effects — see above) it can be understood in advance. Whilst a Black Swan runs counter to what we expect to see, a White Swan is exactly what we expect to experience. Catastrophic climate change is exactly the experience we can expect to have, unless something extraordinary is generated; anything even remotely similar to business-as-usual will deliver us this catastrophic environmental breakdown. In other words, unless we see a rapid and unprecedented effort across every aspect of life to decarbonise, then catastrophic climate change is virtually inevitable; and this predictability is what makes it a White Swan. It is, however, a White Swan comprised of multiple smaller Black Swans, as the specific events remain unpredictable; whilst the overall climate breakdown is very much expected.
How, then, do we cope with this fact? It’s no secret that most of us don’t cope very well. Many engage in ‘soft’ denialism, that manifests itself in statements like ‘I’m sure it won’t be that bad; if it was going to be, then governments would be doing more about it’ and ‘are you not being a little extreme?’ Indeed, most of us, myself included, engage in a soft ‘climate denialism’ of sorts from time to time.
However, maybe there is hope from the recognition that we all struggle to give climate breakdown the gravitas it deserves. Maybe such a recognition could show our solidarity through common failure with everyone who fails to acknowledge the White Swan coming for us.
Perhaps the best method for confronting the White Swan of catastrophic climate change starts with just that; confronting, rather than avoiding. Most people I talk to express an anxiety about climate, but most people mostly suffer in silence. We must make sure that there are spaces where people can come to terms with climate reality, and this will snowball into a greater level of climate awareness, and then soon there is a mass, motivated, popular movement of people concerned enough, angry enough, determined enough and indeed desperate enough to take the steps necessarily to instil widespread political change. After all, once one recognises the White Swan, there really is no excuse for not doing everything one can, save for simply not caring. And: you care. So, gaze into the eyes of the White Swan; and act like you have never have before.
Prof. Rupert Read teaches eco-philosophy at the University of East Anglia. This piece teases one theme from his new book, WHY CLIMATE BREAKDOWN MATTERS, out with Bloomsbury. Thanks to Joe Eastoe for research and editorial assistance.