A black swan event

To live in the world with any degree of awareness is to understand that our life experiences will be peppered by natural and manmade disasters. Theorist Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to such global occurrences as black swan events, characterized by a randomness that can be unsettling and even chilling, but also taken for granted.

For centuries we have viewed extreme weather as simply black swan events — droughts, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, forest fires, floods and snowstorms. Devastating to be sure; harrowing outliers, part of the fabric of life, to be endured and then relegated to the historical past. Extreme weather happens.

Examine, however, what has occurred in just the last calendar year regarding extreme weather and it becomes increasingly difficult to conclude that these are simply random black swan events and not climatological changes, part of a global pattern that will affect all inhabitants of earth. Greenhouse gases are accumulating in the atmosphere, causing our planet to warm. Acknowledge this fully and the discourse changes dramatically. We begin to make causative connections between global warming and extreme weather events such as the massive wildfires in Colorado and New Mexico, ferocious "derecho" storms along the eastern seaboard, destructive tornadoes and hurricanes just last spring.

Consider that the first half of 2012 was the warmest on record and the last 12-month period the hottest since record-keeping began in 1895. As of July 3, 56 percent of the contiguous U.S. is in the grips of an unprecedented drought. On July 6, 4,500 locations across the U.S. set record highs.

Again, assume that what we are experiencing are not black swan events. Meteorologists have suggested that if the weather phenomena of this past 13 months were random, we would not see another period so warm until 124,652 A.D., assuming the climate remains the same. Of course, it is becoming increasingly evident that our climate will not remain the same and the impact on earth is clearly accruing. Species are becoming extinct; coral reefs are dying; honeybees are suffering from colony collapse; Arctic ice is melting at an astonishing rate, releasing methane gas into the atmosphere; and oil and coal remain, still, central to global energy needs.

Responding to the accumulating data, Kathryn D. Sullivan of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration stated, "Every weather event takes place in the context of a changing global environment."

Arne Mooers, professor of biodiversity at Simon Fraser University in Canada, refers to climate change as a "state shift."

"My colleagues," Fraser says, "who study climate-induced changes through Earth's history are more than pretty worried. In fact, some are terrified."

All of this begs the question: why do we seem incapable of responding on a worldwide scale to what is increasingly viewed by the scientific-environmental community as an existential threat to the Earth? Is it because we are predisposed still to regard any natural catastrophe as a black swan event, believing that this too will pass?

Or are we incapable of fully grasping that we are faced with a stunning crossroads moment in the arc of history that is so unprecedented and of such staggering dimensions that we can only respond with a sense of powerlessness, no matter that we now possess more than adequate knowledge?

Are the changes required both collectively and individually so consequential, necessitating such radical change in our lives, that we cannot muster the will or the purpose to change? And if we as individuals do change, embrace sustainable forms of energy and transportation, will it truly matter if nations are committed to business as usual?

Do what is at stake and what is required seem so overwhelming that we seek refuge in denial? We hope that something will change, though the evidence indicates the Earth is headed toward a tipping point (a 6 degree Celcius rise in temperature by 2050) when the planet's biodiversity will begin to collapse,and there will be no turning back.

Or are our opinions influenced and framed, in great part, by energy corporations who have, for decades, controlled the narrative by using their vast wealth (nurtured by government subsidies) to encourage the continued use of fossil fuels while lobbying strenuously against renewable and sustainable energy. As well, they have managed to portray environmentalists as purveyors of a subversive, tree-hugging, fraudulent analysis of climate events.

It's a strange dynamic unfolding. We know that voracious consumerism cannot be sustained — 43 percent of earth's land mass is used for habitation or farming, supporting some 7 billion people. We will be at 50 percent of land use by 2025 and it is estimated that the population by mid-century will be over 9 billion.

Our warming planet is growing exhausted (do not resuscitate?), its resources depleted at an alarming rate. As stewards of the earth, we are being called to action. What prevents us from responding?

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.

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