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Our ‘Grey Swan’ Climate Crisis: Nonlinear, Predictable, and Unprecedented

Zoë Schlanger writing for the Atlantic: Prepare for a ‘Gray Swan’ Climate.

The way to think about climate change now is through two interlinked concepts. The first is nonlinearity, the idea that change will happen by factors of multiplication, rather than addition. The second is the idea of “gray swan” events, which are both predictable and unprecedented. Together, these two ideas explain how we will face a rush of extremes, all scientifically imaginable but utterly new to human experience.

It’s the nonlinearity that’s always worried me about the climate crisis — and is the main source of my skepticism that it’s “fixable” at this point. Think about another nonlinear grey swan event: the Covid-19 pandemic. When was it possible to stop the whole thing in its tracks? When 10 people were infected? 50? 500? With a disease that spreads linearly, let’s say that stopping the spread when 20 people are infected is twice as hard as when 10 are infected — with nonlinear spread, it’s maybe 4x or 10x or 20x harder. When you reach a number like 20,000 or 100,000 infected over a wide area, it becomes nearly impossible to stop without extraordinary effort.

In thinking about the climate crisis, whatever time, effort, and expense halting global warming (and the myriad knock-on effects) may have required in 1990, let’s say it doubled by 2000. And then it didn’t just double again in the next ten years, it tripled. And then from 2010 to 2020, it quadrupled. An intact glacier in 1990 is waaaaay easier and cheaper to save than one in 2010 that’s 30% melted into the ocean; when it’s 75% melted in 2020, there’s really no way to get that fresh water back out of the ocean and into ice form.

It’s like the compounding interest on your student loans when you’re not making the minimum payments — not only does the amount you owe increase each month, the increase increases. And at a certain point, the balance is actually impossible to pay off at your current resource level.1 It’s hard to say where we are exactly on our climate repayment curve (and what the interest rate is), but we’ve not been making the minimum payments for awhile now and the ocean’s repossessing our glaciers and ice shelves and…

  1. Think also of the story of the inventor of chess asking for a reward of a single rice grain on the first square of a chess board and double the amount on each successive square. After a week, he’s got only 127 grains. After four weeks, he’s got himself several thousand pounds of rice. Another week or two after that, he owns the whole kingdom. (And if the multiplication factor is only 1.2, he still gets the kingdom in fewer than 2 chess boards.)

Discussion  2 comments

Scott Lynch

Stephen Markley did an amazing job of portraying this climate nightmare (fires, storms, heat) in his fictional but horrifyingly plausible epic The Deluge, set between today and 2038 or so, plus the whole rise of fascism and economic collapse thing.

Katharin Miller

I just finished reading The Ministry for the Future. While I desperately want to believe its message that the changes we need to make are plausible, I also struggle to see how a world that is obsessed with crypto and then AI; or the pimping out the next "flashy" water bottle to make $$; or legislating inconsequential cultural issues like reproductive rights, Drag Queens and trans kids; or restricting learning about all sides of history including the ugly parts; or killing each other with war, genocide and needless gun deaths is capable of pulling its head out of its ass and righting things.

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