Reader view: The gray swan — a call to action

Photo courtesy Pixabay

In the 17th century, it was believed that a black swan did not and could not exist. Why? Because no one had seen one. Then explorers discovered black swans in Australia. Today, the term “black swan” is often used to describe an event that is impossible to predict because it has never been seen before. You cannot prepare for a “black swan event,” so while the unforeseen event need not be bad it will be a surprise, and it might be catastrophic.

A recent article in The Atlantic (Jan. 22, 2024) has given us a new analogy: the gray swan. A gray swan is an event that you can predict, in fact you may know is inevitable, but because of bias and inertia you fail to prepare. Author Zoe Schlanger uses the “gray swan” event as an analogy for climate change.

What could be more appropriate? The scientific community tells us that the climate is changing, which is natural, but that the rate of change is beyond anything experienced by the earth in 10,000 years, and that this accelerated rate is directly related to the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The level of greenhouse gases began its acceleration, as reflected in ice core samples and tree rings and other capturing methods, when humans began to use coal and petroleum as an energy source.

Even my most conservative friends no longer suggest climate change isn’t real (though they may debate the causes). But anyone who has lived in this region for at least 50 years can confirm our summers are hotter and dryer. The skiing season seems shorter and there is less snow. Wildfire smoke, often made more unpleasant by heat waves, did not used to be a regular summer event and the 60%t of us without air conditioning didn’t used to think we might need it. Sea level rise is more difficult to observe but the people who measure it say yes, it is already happening. Many of these examples involve weather events, but the frequency and severity of extreme weather is a factor of climate change. The annual report of catastrophic events is like watching beads accumulating on a string: Homes are destroyed, insurance rates go up, a few people, usually disadvantaged economically or physically, become ill, some die.

We are not helpless here. We can take action to mitigate our impact on the climate and to adapt to changing conditions, reducing the risk to our health, economic well-being and quality of life.

Edmonds needs to recognize the impact of climate change on our region and our largely unprepared city. We rely on our leadership, the city council and the mayor’s office, to plan and direct the actions to prepare for a future that is entirely predictable. We have a Climate Action Plan because we, and they, know the problem exists.  Until “Action” becomes a priority, it’s a gray swan, the catastrophic event we can see coming.

— By Jane O’Dell

Jane O’Dell is a member of the Edmonds Climate Advisory Board, a group of citizen volunteers organized to ensure the implementation of the Edmonds Climate Action Plan adopted by the City Council in 2023.

  1. The grey swan, didn’t you know both white and black swans are born grey? The grey swan theory is you can predict the future and that change is bad and that action is required now to stop the unknown. Sounds like I am being sold the latest model if you ask me. I understand we as people can do better and we should move in that direction the emergency that requires greater government taxation and mandates sounds like a grey swan who hasn’t lived long enough to make rational decisions. Ban plastic bag only to be replaced by plastic bags we have to pay for ban straws so people with sensitive teeth can’t enjoy a drink, eliminating the ability to buy a gas powered vehicle in ten years these all sound like irrational decisions being made by gray swans/children.

  2. Yes it is time to make repairing the climate our priority. One of the best ways to help is to talk more about it like Ms. O’Dell is doing. We don’t need to convince those who are denying it because they are in the minority. We just need to get those who know there is a problem to act. There are many ways to do that depending on your ability. The biggest is by voting for politicians committed to action but you can also reduce your meat consumption or walk or bike or ride the bus when possible. You can electrify your home instead of using gas or wood or propane for heating and cooking. Not everyone can do everything but we can all do something even if it is just talking about it to family or neighbors or friends.

  3. Thanks, Jane, for reminding us that we can each still act and make a difference, even though we don’t know exactly when the worst will happen. We know climate change is here now and by taking action -obvious to us all – like reducing atmospheric carbon by using our cars less, we can lessen the severity of the coming impact.

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