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Climate Change No Longer A Gray Rhino Risk: Michele Wucker, Author Of The Gray Rhino

Absurdly predictable. Absurdly well predicted. Absurdly impactful. Ignored by virtually everyone. Gray rhino. But climate change isn’t a gray rhino risk anymore. 

One of the excellent conversations I had this week was with Michele Wucker, international bestselling author of The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore and a new book, You Are What You Risk: The New Art and Science of Navigating an Uncertain World. I had read Gray Rhino and found it an incredibly useful framework for looking at the world, much more useful and actionable than Taleb Nassim’s Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

The definitions of the two animal metaphors are in the titles of the books. Gray rhinos are big, looming dangers and risks that are highly probable, but we ignore because of the ways our brains are wired, or the indeterminacy of when impacts will be felt, or the belief that other people will feel the impacts, or simply because some celebrity gossip is more salient to us. Black swans are things that aren’t likely at all, but do show up and throw our carefully laid plans onto a dumpster fire.

As an earlier discussion of the difference between them points out, I’ve found at least a place where I consider the black swan metaphor’s underpinnings, long-tail risks, to be useful, that is, in consideration of planning and executing projects. It’s possible to apply outside view estimation techniques such as Flyvbjerg’s reference class forecasting to determine useful estimation anchors and understand the fat-tail variance for contingency and go/no-go decision making. And it’s entirely viable to do premortems with experienced teams to identify the set of fat-tailed risks that they have experienced on similar projects, e.g. flooding and igneous intrusions in tunneling and mining. Once those fat-tailed risks have been identified, it’s usually possible to either avoid them, or create plans to deal with them. I’ve done that on projects for a couple of decades. That’s how Flyvbjerg defines and uses them, leaning into the black swan metaphor for fat-tailed risks in megaprojects.

I still consider it a grossly misused metaphor, as its appearance just before the highly probable and indeed predicted sub-prime mortgage meltdown led a bunch of mostly US financiers and regulators to say “Oh, I couldn’t have see that coming. It’s a black swan!” Nassim’s entire career prior to the book was in finance, where he was lucky enough to make a lot of money before having the extraordinary luck of delivering a book in 2007 that provided air cover for a lot of suddenly less wealthy people as they talked to their suddenly less wealthy clients while a lot of other people were trying to figure out where to get their next meal from, and whether the roof over their head would be there in a month.

COVID-19 is also often referred to as a black swan, when it’s anything but an improbable event. I dealt with the aftermath of SARS and the Walkerton e-coli disaster professionally, helping build the world’s most sophisticated communicable disease and outbreak management solution in the world in the late 2000s. As we were marketing it for sale globally, H1N1 was burning its way around the world. Then Ebola. Now COVID-19. There is nothing unlikely about emergent contagious diseases and outbreaks. They happen all the time with varying degrees of severity.

In fact, it’s remarkable that it was 100 years between the (intentionally and highly) misnamed Spanish Flu that killed 1% of the world’s population and COVID-19, which incidentally only killed 0.08% of the world’s population. And things like the outbreak management solution I helped build are part of that story. Highly infectious and lethal diseases with the right combination of factors don’t get a toe hold, or are contained, or are managed to low lethality because they are obvious, recurrent things and globally, nationally, provincially, and locally there are overlapping fields of defense against them.

A communicable disease like COVID-19 was inevitable, not unlikely. Yet, especially in the west, black swan has become such an overused metaphor that a large number of people claimed the disease was one.

No, COVID-19 and its impacts are gray rhinos. It’s incredibly likely. That’s why, for example, the outgoing Obama Administration prepared a 69-page playbook and table-exercises related to preparedness for pandemics, what the action plans were in the event of one, what the state of the material supplies was post-Ebola and what the recommended rate of replenishment of supplies should be. But because it was a gray rhino and the incoming administration was focused on celebrity gossip, trying to kill healthcare coverage for the less affluent and passing more tax cuts for the rich, they ignored the briefing with predictable results.

Meanwhile, China’s national government, which deeply understands and lives by gray rhino risk strategies, told the world exactly what was going on as soon as they understand the magnitude of COVID-19 and swung into pre-planned response actions rapidly, including going into lockdown, building massive hospitals in seven days, sequencing the genome of the virus, releasing that information, and the like. Its response was pretty much textbook for a pandemic, which I can say because, once again, a significant part of my professional career was spent building the systems to support the textbook and working with the Canadian health professionals who dealt with SARS and would deal with H1N1, Ebola and now COVID-19.

When Gray Rhino was released, black swans had metastasized in western thinking, so there wasn’t a lot of brain space left over for useful things like gray rhinos among many people. And it likely made a bunch of people feel cognitive dissonance about their pretense that the sub-prime mortgage debacle was a black swan, when it was so clearly a gray rhino. But as Michele Wucker shares in her subsequent book and we discussed this week, Asia leaned heavily into the metaphor and book, including at the highest levels of China’s leadership in the Politburo. Apparently it gave them a handy term for how they already viewed the world. Sales of the book in Asia are vastly higher than in the west.

Apparently Nassim agrees that the sub-prime debacle and COVID-19 aren’t black swans. Wucker says she was on a panel with him sometime in the past couple of years and he acknowledged that. Perhaps he feels bad about how the black swan metaphor has been turned into an excuse for people who really ought to know better. I doubt it. I’ve read his book, and see no evidence from it that he’s the kind of person to feel personal culpability. He’s much more likely to feel towering intellectual disdain for the ignorant peasants who misunderstood him, based on how he presents himself. (Black Swan really needed an editor who could wrestle Nassim’s ego to the ground for at least two out of three falls.)

And so to climate change. I consider it to be the ultimate gray rhino. It’s huge. It’s slow-moving. We’ve been mostly ignoring the risk and implications for decades. Certainly we have been grossly under resourcing work to address it. We’ve been increasing infrastructure and population densities in areas that will clearly be at much greater risk of climate action instead of applying the basics of the PARA framework I helped document in a Canadian handbook for planned retreat in the face of climate change a couple of years ago.

The big one in the framework is ‘avoid’. Don’t build stuff where risks are high. But look at southern Florida. Look at the US southwest where they’ve been building communities like Rio Verde Foothills with its lush golf courses in the desert. The planners, developers, and 1,000 residents of that community must have known that they were building in a desert with declining water resources, and climate change’s likely impacts on the region were readily available. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when Scottsdale cut off water supply to the suburb recently. That was entirely predictable long before the first Mexican laborer shoved the first spade into the first lot.

This is the easy stuff with gray rhinos. Don’t be where they are going. After that it gets harder and more expensive. Raising seawalls is like putting on padded armor so that when the rhino charges, you have a better chance of surviving, but meanwhile your enjoyment of the experience is diminished at great expense. Seriously, look at some pictures of tsunami sea walls in Japan. Does that look like a pleasant seaside experience?

Building in flood plains and then putting extra gear in your drains so that they don’t back up, or keeping a big stock of sand bags lying around to minimize impacts when the inevitable happens, (and then expecting federal handouts from FEMA to rebuild for the 13th time) is deeply irrational personally and societally. Packing up and leaving behind expensive buildings and infrastructure that shouldn’t have been built in the first place, hopefully turning them into wetlands and green spaces at more expense, is deeply challenging.

So our global response to climate change looks like a serious and obvious example of a gray rhino to me, and I said as much to Wucker.

She disagreed quite vigorously, and she has a point. (So do I, but differently.) Let’s tease it apart.

Wucker lives in Chicago, a big city on Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes. At one level, it’s supposed to be part of the world which will see the least impacts from climate change. It’s not going to experience sea level rise. It’s not an area that’s subject to regular flooding like the southern parts of the Mississippi. It’s not an area that is subject to droughts.

But Chicago is experiencing very significant climate change impacts already. Lake Michigan and the rest of the Great Lakes have been seeing very high water levels. In the fall of 2020, high water levels swallowed beaches and a major storm sent 23 foot waves onto the waterfront. The storm was just a typical Great Lakes major storm, which is to say something that destroys lake freighters regularly enough that well-known singers write songs about it.

But the high water levels are definitely related to climate change. The changing precipitation pattern in North America means that the east is getting a lot more rain and snow, and the west is getting a lot less. It’s somewhat inverse in Europe, where the northwest is wetter, and the southeast is drier. Again, very predictable and predicted for years or even decades. Climate change makes droughts worse and flood zones worst, more often than not.

King Tide Seawall flooding in Vancouver BC Dec 25 2018 by Michael Barnard

King tide seawall flooding in Vancouver BC, Dec 25, 2018, by Michael Barnard

I live on the Pacific, and took the above picture four years ago, the first time a king tide overtopped the relatively recently built Seawall on False Creek in Yaletown. The sculpture in the background is called Marking High Tide, and the internal inscription is “As the moon circles the earth the oceans responds with the rhythm of the tide.” It was installed at a Seawall refresh as part of development in 1996. Luckily, there was no wind to speak of or a storm, so there was no buildup of water due to those pressures. This past month, a king tide coincided with a strong onshore wind and the grass in this picture got an unhealthy dose of salt water.

And, of course, Vancouver’s normally pristine air now turns into a reeking pall for weeks in the late summers and early fall most years as wild fires blaze through the drought-stricken, pine-beetle killed pine forests of the north west. Both climate change issues. Both requiring lots of money to deal with. As with the Great Lakes flooding and riverine flooding, much more avoidable than not.

And so, Wucker is right. The gray rhino of climate change has turned into the angry, charging rhino of climate change. We’re out of the risk phase and well into the impacts phase.

Michele Wucker reached out to offer a mild correction to the original version of the article: “I didn’t mean to imply that future climate effects are not a gray rhino, just to say that climate change is not slow moving, but rather here and accelerating. And gray rhinos are not by definition slow moving… they can be fast or slow.”

Of course, I was correct as well. One point we discussed in the excellent, broad-ranging conversation (podcasts dropping soon-ish, so stay tuned) was that most people have two-year long memories for novelty. If something has been normal for a couple of years, it’s just normal and we don’t think about it. Even a decade ago, a 90-minute, high-resolution video call with recording in the cloud would have been something to marvel at, and our current smartphones are out of Star Trek: Next Generation, never mind the original Star Trek with its paper mache sets. We don’t even think about this stuff.

But I’ve rewired my brain to think in multiples of decades, just as geologists rewire theirs to think in millions of years. I pointed out how many decades we had lost due to treating climate change as a gray rhino. We figured out what CO2 was in the 1830s and knew that it came from burning fossil fuels. A female scientist, Eunice Foote, figured out that it was a greenhouse gas in the 1850s. Arrhenius did the math — quite accurately — in the 1890s. In the 1970s, satellite data made it clear that global warming was real and climate impacts were going to be significant. The IPCC was established in the late 1980s and mostly ignored except by the fossil fuel industry, which fought hard to delay action that they knew was necessary. That’s what enables me to project scenarios of climate problem areas and solution sets decades into the future and make a living helping institutional investors and corporate leaders make better decisions today.

Absurdly predictable. Absurdly well predicted. Absurdly impactful. Ignored by virtually everyone. Gray rhino. But climate change isn’t a gray rhino risk anymore.

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Written By

is a member of the Advisory Board of ELECTRON Aviation an electric aviation startup, Chief Strategist at TFIE Strategy and co-founder of distnc technologies. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future, and assisting executives, Boards and investors to pick wisely today. Whether it's refueling aviation, grid storage, vehicle-to-grid, or hydrogen demand, his work is based on fundamentals of physics, economics and human nature, and informed by the decarbonization requirements and innovations of multiple domains. His leadership positions in North America, Asia and Latin America enhanced his global point of view. He publishes regularly in multiple outlets on innovation, business, technology and policy. He is available for Board, strategy advisor and speaking engagements.


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