Beware the Black Swan

Climate change is now. Climate breakdown is not a future event. Nature is breaking down in apocalyptic scenes. As Australia faces record-breaking heat, with temperatures hitting 49.5C north of Adelaide (breaking records set since 1939), Max Macleod reports.
I received an email at one this morning that gave me a bit of a shock, a farm where I have stayed on a couple of occasions in New South Wales has been partly destroyed by fire.
Details are hard to nail as the person who sent it described herself as being physically and emotionally exhausted. She’s the wife of a cattle farmer and not someone who gets that way often. To give you a sense of the place the last time I was there the philanthropist owner and I found a cow blocking his drive, well its hardly a drive, it goes on for several miles, and after we had shifted it into the ditch  (he was in his late seventies and did more of the graft than I) he calmly said “Hey listen Maxwell I’m really busy tomorrow so can you drop down here at dawn and if its still here shoot it in the head.”
It’s not a request you hear often in my native Barnton. Added a certain new dimension to my sleep patterns that night. I was just off the plane. I went down in the morning with the rifle .
You can imagine. Nothing else for it. Vet was many hours away.
Actually I’m not much in the mood for flippancy. I genuinely love the folks that own and run that place. They put in the hours, don’t take any rubbish from anyone and if they find themselves with a bit of spare cash put it into political activism. They’ve been supporting social action since Vietnam. Oh and they are Scottish Nationalists, you may remember a banner that was once illegally strung up across the Royal Mile calling for Devolution. It was their cows that paid for it.
Good people. I find the thought of the loss of that farm hard to bear.
Now when I was in America last week much of the news was of the unusually high number of bush fires that were raging there and now I find that this Australian farm I am fond of has been pretty much destroyed. I imagine that the farmers gun will be pretty busy in the next few days, I hear a lot of his cattle  are down and many will doubtless need finishing off. I would go and help  if I thought I wouldn’t just be a burden. At least I have practiced with their rifle.
The farmer’s wife tells me that others are getting it worse. That she’s never seen the like.

So why do I tell you all this? Well last week when I was in New Orleans and to me the most significant thing was that there were still dams from the 2005 Hurrican Katrina that hadn’t been fixed yet. Rare as a Black Swan is the line they use. Nothing much to worry about.


But I did. Shivered in my bed.

It’s so hard to nail down but all over the world even the traditionally taciturn Scientists are beginning to review the number of extreme climate events and suck their teeth.
Last Spring I was in northern India and took a brief walk in the lower Himalayas. If you do anything else this week do a google search on the Tibetan plateau. It is surely quite possibly  the most imminent global disaster in the global warming nightmare and many wonder if it will be the vanguard of many more. If the water supply on that plateau starts to give out, and many say it will, then forty per cent of the world’s population will be affected. More if you include the places those people will have to run to. Not in a hundred years, think fifty.
Now I’m no Scientist, I’m making no predictions, but Spring on the Tibetan Borders, summer in Mississippi and now this news in Autumn from my favourite farm. Well it has left me a little curious. Am I over reacting? Being an idiotic eco-hysteric? Making a fool of myself? I very much hope so.
Back in 1976 my late Father George who was the first member of the Green party to sit in any parliament in Europe sat down with me to decide what to do with an old already semi ruinous house, Fuinary Manse, that he had bought for under a thousand pounds. He was eighty one.
Lord how I laughed at his suggestion. Told him he was crazy. Mankind he said would never turn away from capitalism, never really address climate change or over population, we were stuffed. He even believed that the EEC as it then was, was largely a mechanism to allow the free market to allow the bankers to gobble up all the resources unhindered by democracy. Silly old fool I thought.
He said that we should establish the Manse as a place where we would teach folk to live simply so that others can simply live. It could become a refuge for the final days.
I truly thought he was getting senile. Today, to my disgrace, the roof of that Manse has finally fallen in and my sleep is sometimes disturbed not by the thought of the cattle executions I may have to undertake at dawn, but whether George was right and whether the setting up of an exemplary ecologically sound household might have been constructive.
But what do I know? I’m just a silly story teller. Pay no attention to my uninformed waffling. But beware Black Swans.

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  1. Walter Haugen says:

    It would be good to use “black swan” properly, especially on a Scots blog. (David Hume originated the term as a logic exercise.) The current problems were pointed out 50 years ago. (Or more!) We know what to do, we just lack the courage

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      It is not so much that ‘we’ lack the courage. Many of us are prepared to make the necessary changes, it is because most of the world’s population, including most of us in the ‘First World’ are substantially disempowered. Those in positions of political power – e.g. President Trump, Mr Boris Johnson, the current Australian Government – and the ‘grey eminences’ on whose behalf those politicians are working, do not accept the climate change arguments and, via their media, continually ‘deny’. Much of the legal and constitutional avenues are substantially closed off. There are activists, such as we have seen with Extinction Rebellion, but we also saw how quickly the police showed which side they were on and how the media attacked the protesters, such as by the publicity given to the delaying of a subway train in London.

      I do not think that Trump et al actually disbelieve the climate science. They believe that their wealth and power has enabled them to create habitations where they and their families can survive the damage. It is the same mindset as the nuclear weapons debate (not that it is by any means, in the past), whereby they believe that their fall-out shelters and their ‘first strike’ capabilities can save them. That there will be megadeaths of ‘ordinary’ people is of no real concern as long as there are sufficient ‘proles’ to wait on them and produce the goods and services that they need.

      And, sadly, there are groups such as some trade unions and sections of the Labour Party who are anti-ecology and pro-nuclear weapons.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Alasdair Macdonald, I agree the British establishment is preparing to defend itself against an angry populace, which is why they have been developing and blooding armed forces which will happily kill civilians including murdering children sitting peacefully in their bedrooms. How many servicepeople are ‘protester-ready’ is unclear, but perhaps the International Criminal Court will be able to cast some light on this.

        It is odd comparing the sombre reflections of Cuban-Crisis/Vietnam-War-era US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (in The Fog of War) with the appallingly gung-ho nuke-’em proclamations of some UK party leaders, but every realistic history of the Cold War (from McNamara to Chatham House to Daniel Ellsberg) agrees that it was only by luck (and occasional last-ditch human intervention) that we escaped obliterating global human civilization. Centrality to history seems to matter so much to some Britons that they will not tolerate the End of the World unless the British Empire has a leading role in it. And with Panorama recently claiming that UK passport holders contribute more to planet death by air travel than any other nationality, they may be getting their wish.

    2. maxwell macleod says:

      Thanks for that.
      Regarding the use of the term Black Swan I would respectfully suggest that any phrase which communicates a concept is acceptable, and to suggest that it should only be used for those who are aware of, and understand, it’s classical origins would be a waste.
      Difficult to date an initial understanding of climate crisis but David Coleman, the Church of Scotland’s eco chaplain suggested at his excellent interfaith (/Muslim/Christian ) meeting last night that 1896 was a possible year .

  2. w.b. robertson says:

    Father George certainly was spot on in his prediction about the EEC. He was astute and aware. But still no sign of Nicola and the SNP rethinking their “foreign policy” and still rabbiting on about ditching WM to substitute the alleged “independence” of Brussels. What a vote loser!.

  3. Billco says:

    No disrespect to you Maxwell, as I do enjoy your articles, but it seems that you have no compunction about using air travel – India, US, Australia – which contributes mightily to global warming. Unfortunately even those most aware of the problem seem to be unable to live a lifestyle that doesn’t contribute to it to some degree. I include myself in that category, as, for all my apocalyptic fears, I still drive every day and am planning next year’s foreign holidays. Quite frankly, I don’t want to change if nobody else is bothering, even if I suspect that something bad will ultimately happen. It’s like when the fire alarm goes off and nobody wants to make the first move. Major psychological and behavioural change is required, something human beings are notoriously poor at. The herd instinct is keeping capitalism going, because the herd can’t envisage going in a different direction.

    1. maxwell macleod says:

      You make some excellent points and I await A;astair Mackintosh’s future book on the psychology of climate change. I also guess up to using planes, though only on work.

    2. maxwell macleod says:

      I think you make perfectly reasonable points on my use of air travel, and my somewhat weak excuse is that I only fly when I see it is necessary for do environmentally significant work and there is no otherr option. I never fly on vocation. Typically when I flew to the States last month I found there was no public transport to Starkville, which has a population of 23,000 and so refused to take the shuttle there and instead hitched a lift and wrote about the experience.
      I accept that on my return flight I could have got off at Paris and then taken the train north , but it’s tough and I botched it.

  4. Gavin says:

    The cows certainly deserve our sympathy, but cattle farming is part of the problem – not only does it provide us with unhealthy food and climate-wrecking emissions, it does so via violence against other animals.

  5. William Ross says:


    I feel a possible responsibility for this article as I described Hurricane Katrina as a “black swan ” event in my comment on your last post which focused on New Orleans. I am not going to make a practice of commenting on Bella articles as my politics (Leave) and profession ( oilman) are too divergent. But let me state, if I may, the following.

    I feel very much for the Australian farmers, being a countryman and having pets to whom I am devoted. But suffering is awful, no matter where it occurs, and climate is dangerous. My wife is Venezuelan and her family still live there. Venezuela is devastated. We lived in Caracas in 1999 when the terrible floods struck the city, killing anywhere between 25 to 50,000 people. It was like the whole losses that Britain sustained in the Blitz. But we couldn`t blame anyone for that. Climate does that stuff, and has done it from the beginning.

    The IPCC notes that there is no evidence of a rise in extreme weather events in recent decades. Instead, the number of people dying due to extreme weather has fallen by around 90% in the last century. This is because we are much much richer than we were 100 years ago and we are richer because we have (for most of the World) abundunt cheap energy. This is the achievement of fossil fuels.

    Let us not frivolously throw away that achievement


    1. Thanks for your comment William.

      Do you have a reference for your comment that “The IPCC notes that there is no evidence of a rise in extreme weather events in recent decades”?

      1. Maxwell macleod says:

        Thanks William,
        I hope you do keep posting as your comments are excellent though like the editor I await substantiation that there is not an increase in extreme weather incidents.
        With respect you don’t have a manopoly on the term black swan as I heard it several times in New Orleans two weeks ago where it was being applied to the continued lack of adequate flood prevention measures,though I was glad to see it used by you as it works well.
        Keep me coming, I’m a story teller you are manifestly well informed, we need each other!

  6. William Ross says:


    Check out Roger Pielke`s analysis of the 2018 IPCC Report.

    Reject him as a climate denier all you wish but check out his quotes. I glanced at the report itself and it is consistent with what he claims. It uses the language of “low confidence” etc.

    The [ present] World of repeated devastating climate disasters as suggested by Maxwell is not borne out by evidence. The IPCC do of course suggest such occurrences in the future if certain scenarios occur. That is another matter.

    Reading Maxwell`s article again I realised that he was talking about speaking with his father in 1976. I remember that year very vividly, as my father and I were tending a large garden in the North of Scotland. It was the warmest year in 200 years and nothing since has come close to it. That was the same year, or was within a year ( it could have been 1975 or 1977) when Time came out with its issue highlighting the existential danger of global cooling. Those who can forsee the future were as sure of their case then as now, it is just that their certainty has changed.


    1. Dear William
      this from Carbon Brief is helpful ‘What the IPCC report says about extreme weather events’ but I will get a more up to date report:

      The world has already witnessed more hot days and heat waves since the 1950’s – and the new IPCC report warns we’ll see more changes to weather extremes by the end of 21st century. But a close look at the report reveals that rising temperatures won’t affect all kinds of extreme events in the same way.

      Here’s a quick run through of what the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says about hot days, heat waves, hurricanes and heavy rain – past and future.

      What’s the big deal about extremes?

      Extreme events expose humans to conditions beyond the realms of what we’re used to. That could be unusually high temperatures, sudden heavy downpours, or longer lasting droughts. If people and the infrastructure we rely on can’t withstand these abnormal conditions, the economic and human losses can be huge.

      Take the 2003 European heatwave. It had devastating human consequences, with tens of thousands of people estimated to have died when temperatures rose above 40 degrees Celsius for a number of weeks. Or look at superstorm Sandy last year: the economic losses are thought to be in region of $50 billion.

      With losses like these at stake, planners and policymakers are under pressure to be prepared.

      What has been happening?

      The science summed up in the new IPCC report shows that since the 1950s there have been clear changes in many types of extreme events. Some of this is new, but some of it was summarised in a special report on extreme events the IPCC published in 2012.

      We’ve experienced more hot days and heat waves, fewer cold nights, and an increase in the intensity and number of heavy rainfall events, as an image from Chapter 2 of the report shows:

      Extremes Past

      For many of these changes, a human ‘fingerprint’ or influence can be seen. The new IPCC report states it’s very likely (at least 90 per cent certain) humans contributed to the increase in hot days and decrease in cold days. For heat waves, it’s likely (at least 66 per cent certain) human activities were a contributing factor – scientists can’t be more certain because they don’t have as much data on heatwaves to draw conclusions from.

      With other types of extreme events, changes in past trends and any human contribution are harder to spot. Take hurricanes for example – there’s no clear pattern suggesting how they’ve changed the world over. But scientists have identified certain parts of the ocean, like the North Atlantic, where the number of intense hurricanes has increased since the 1970s. Drought trends also differ from region to region, with a global picture unclear.

      One extreme missing from this picture is flooding. At the moment scientists don’t have enough data to make conclusive statements about changes in the last few decades, or make predictions about the future.

      What lies ahead?

      Based on the latest generation of climate models, the IPCC is also able to assess how likely it is that each type of extreme events will become more intense or frequent by the end of the century,

      The table below, taken from a section of the report known as the Summary for Policymakers, shows scientists are virtually certain (99 per cent) we’ll experience more hot days and fewer cold days by the end of the 21st century. The report also states it’s very likely (90 per cent certain) there will be longer or more intense heat waves (or both):

      Future Extremes Updated

      Some of the future projections come with caveats. So the report says it’s very likely – or 90 per certain – there will be more heavy rainfall “over most of the mid-latitude land masses and over wet tropical regions”. Mid-latitude land masses include regions like the US and Europe. These wet parts of the world are generally projected by climate models to get wetter, whereas some parts of the world are projected to dry.

      Scientists are slightly less certain about changes to drought in the future, as was the case when they looked for changes in past drought trends. It’s still likely (66 per cent certain) droughts will become longer or more intense by the end of the century. In many dry regions, soils are predicted to dry out as temperatures rise and atmospheric circulations of water change.

      On hurricanes, climate models predict it is more likely than not – meaning that there is over a 50 per cent chance – that the number of the most intense storms will increase in certain parts of the world. Globally, however, the IPCC says it’s likely the number of tropical cyclones will “either decrease or remain essentially unchanged”. It’s hard to make predictions about these types of storms as the processes involved occur on much smaller scales than climate models can currently replicate.

      A useful update for decision-makers

      All in all, the IPCC report demonstrates that some types of extreme event will become more severe or intense or long lasting as the world warms. As we’ve noted before, it’s not one size fits all when it comes to extreme events. Scientists are more certain about extremes related to temperature, while finding patterns or predicting changes in small, localised climate extremes like hurricanes is harder to do.

      It’s worth noting too that this global outlook approach often masks big regional differences – here’s the Europe case study for example.The next part of the IPCC’s report, due out in March 2014 should provide policymakers with more information about the impacts of these changes on more regional scales.

      But this sort of overview is useful in helping planners to prepare for an increase in a number of potentially very costly threats. Past events have already demonstrated the risks of not being prepared for these events when they strike.

  7. William Ross says:

    Thanks Mike and Maxwell

    I will examine the Carbon Brief and also spend a little more time on the actual IPCC report.



  8. Alistair Taylor says:

    Very thought[provoking article, and subsequent comments also. Thank you.

    Your Dad was ahead of the game and visionary, Maxwell, The Manse as “an exemplary ecologically sound household” was a great idea.
    Makes me think of my grandparents.
    It’s very sad that in the space of 50 years or so, that we have collectively lost the plot.

    Flashback to the 60’s:
    World population 4 billion. Many people in Scotland grew their own vegetables. Walked to the shops to get “the messages”. No plastic packaging. No overseas holiday.
    Kids out playing in the street. World-class football teams. (1967, in particular). Sense of community and neighbourhood. Simple, frugal, but good quality living.

    Fast forward 2020. What the heck? Where did it all go wrong…?

    Better minds than mine can dissect this.
    I am just quietly trying to do my best, but may as well piss into a full Cairngorm blizzard.
    Which can be crazily liberating in it’s own way, but good luck with that…

    1. Maxwell macleod says:

      Well I still have the manse but it’s now in such bad order I would rather knock some of it down and rebuild it ecologically .

      If anyone is looking for a challenge speak to me and you will be pushing at an open door.

      1. Alistair Taylor says:

        I hope that someone takes you up on that. It’s got potential.
        Ecological education.
        Story telling.

      2. Dougie Strang says:

        Hi Maxwell, I’ve just emailed you at your yahoo address (hopefully still current). Do let me know if you don’t receive it.

    2. David Allan says:

      Flashback to the 60’s:

      Nae Mortgages, Nae Credit Cards . Nae Debt – Able to leave school and walk into a job (for many a job for life). Or for some a Grant funded place at University. Standing wi yir Da in the long queue for the ne’erday bottle!

      Summer Scout Camps under ex-army 8 man canvas , financed by the proceeds from well attended Scout Hall Jumble Sales!

      Happy days indeed!

      1. Alistair Taylor says:

        Agreed, David.

        Credit cards and easy debt have a crushing effect on so many people now. We’ve been brainwashed into the new “normal”.
        The old advice of “if you can’t afford it, do without” falls on deaf ears.
        Mind you, I used to feel pretty well of with 60 quid in my pocket as a 17 year old after a week working in the distillery warehouse. Beer was only about 20p a pint, and you could well afford a night out with your pals.
        (if a pint in the pub is now 3 quid, you would have to be making 900/week to feel like you could afford a few, if my mental arithmetic is still sharp).

        Anyway, many things need to change to regain a healthy society of healthy simple pleasures and leisures and worthwhile work.
        I’m away for a wee walk in the woods this BC Sunday morn. Saor Alba.
        (A friend just sent a link with Nicola saying that she could never ever use nuclear weapons. Good on you, Nicola! )

  9. Derek Henry says:

    Love this article !

    George was right. It is a faux independence we are going for. Full of fear and trepidation and puppet of Brussels. The greens want to be at the heart of it.

    The Greens think we can sort out climate change running deficits no bigger than 3% of GDP.

    Never mind everything else it will take twice that just to transition away from oil.

    George realised it was skills and real resources that mattered. That the 80’s meant the banks would decide how those skills and real resources are allocated not elected governments. The financial crash showed they were not very good at it.

    This idea that governments should not create money implies that they shouldn’t act like governments. Instead, the de facto government should be Wall Street, city of London and Frankfurt. Instead of governments allocating resources to help the economy grow.

    They say banks should be the allocator of resources – and should starve the government to “save taxpayers” (or at least the wealthy). Who want to starve the government to a point where it can be “drowned in the bathtub.”

    But if you don’t have a government that can fund itself, then who is going to govern, and on whose terms? The obvious answer is, the class with the money: Banks and the corporate sector. They clamor for a balanced budget, saying, “We don’t want the government to fund public infrastructure. We want it to be privatised in a way that will

    1. generate profits for the new owners

    2. along with interest for the bondholders and the banks that fund it

    3. and also, management fees.

    4. Most of all, the privatised enterprises should generate capital gains for the stockholders as they jack up prices for public services.

    Budget Deficits Hurt Banking Profits. That is why we are told they are a bad thing.

  10. Derek Henry says:

    It used to be Chile that was the blueprint how to asset strip a country and put it in a debtors prison.

    Greece is the new blueprint. Forget about them wanting to save the climate they just want to own it all.

    1. maxwell macleod says:

      Many thanks, if you want to look further at my late father’s thoughts on this check out Ron Fergusons book on this, now available for a couple of quid on line ( there will be no surprises under my Christmas tree. )
      I agree the notion of leaving England because they are so controlling and then rejoining Europe whose controls are more vigorous and less democratic does seem bizarre.
      I have no solutions. My crystal ball remains the size of a pea, though with severe impacts from climate change now only a few years away the idea of wasting them chasing kilts and haggis seems absurd.

  11. Chris Ballance says:

    Maxwell, If you are ever able to consider whether to rebuild the old manse or demolish and start afresh, your starting point could be this study:
    It argues that it is frequently lower carbon to re-use an existing building because of the embedded carbon already in its construction. I don’t know the state of the old manse, but one of the case studies was derelict with a roof needing to be replaced. If you’re starting from fresh to try and teach building skills in a zero-carbon world you would have to build single storey with wood – and Reforesting Scotland’s 1000 Huts campaign f/b page frequently has examples of zero-carbon small builds.
    Your father was an inspiration to so many in so many ways (I met him very briefly once) Anything to celebrate his achievements and perpetuate his vision would be good.

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