Climate Bell Curves

So 2015 will almost certainly set a new global temperature record. In so doing, it will also discredit the last lingering skeptic arguments that the 2010s “pause” in global warming somehow negates thermodynamics and a century of observations.


Source: NCDC. Red line is 5 year moving average. 2015 figures extrapolated based on Jan-May 2014.

Which does bring a new sense of relevance and perhaps urgency to Emil Kirkegaard’s recent post on tail effects in climate science.

Most of us here have heard of IQ bell curves. We also know that the effects are most pronounced at the edges of the graphs. For instance, assuming a 15 point S.D, a 100 IQ population will have 50% of its members above the 100 threshold, relative to 16% of an 85 IQ population. A large difference, but ultimately not that cardinal. But move the threshold to 160 – the approximate level of elite scientists – and the difference becomes onehundredfold. Certain intellectual achievements possible in a 100 average IQ society become impossible in an 85 average IQ society.


Being all about bell curves and thresholds it is not surprising that you would see similar dynamics in climate science.

Small changes in general conditions = potentially big changes in the frequency of extreme events (major new scientific discoveries, intense hurricanes and droughts).

Small changes in general conditions = rising probability of entirely unprecedented events (the Scientific Revolution, clathrate gun scenario – both of which, incidentally, were and would be greatly self-sustaining).

Many ecological systems are also highly susceptible to threshold effects. Liebig’s law states that crop growth is limited by the scarcest resource available, not the total sum of resources. Change net climatic conditions, and the most extreme events can create stresses that impinge on some minimum or other (e.g. max temperature, water availability), leading to sweeping dieoffs of organisms that had become adapted to previously stable steady states and are unable to change in time.

Humans are a sapient, highly K-selected species. They can adapt. A lot. This is a good argument against climate change denialism’s opposite, climate alarmism.

Still, there are limits to this too.

One example: There are models that indicate “zones of uninhabilibility” – levels of thermal stress that mammals just can’t withstand in principle – will start to appear past a 7C rise, and encompass half of the world given another 5C rise, and most of the world with another 5C.

Of course the probability of this is really low, according to conventional climate models, and virtually non-existent within the 21st century.

But then again the probability distributions of future temperature increase are themselves subject to the same rules of bell curves and thresholds. And most feasible climate shocks/changes in assumptions would shift those bell curves right, not left, making the formerly impossible, possible, or even likely.

Both effective altruists and more dispassionate strategic planner types would do well to bear this in mind.

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.


Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.


Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.


  1. Scepticism is not usually a clearly defined intellectual position but an emotional predisposition, since people generally slip easily from arguing that the global temperature is not rising at all to saying the rise is not due to human action, is beneficial, or would be too costly to change, and back again. Its mental basis seems to be 1. trust in providence or secular versions thereof, like a) libertarianism with its lazy attachment to equilibrium economics or b) technomania with its delusions of omnipotence, 2. lack of appreciation of both the scale and character of mankind’s activities in relation to the earth, 3. proper disdain for the hypocrisy and mendacity of politicians who propose self-serving, irrelevant and manifestly inadequate solutions, and 4. sunk costs for those who have taken this side of the argument for so long.

  2. Pseudonymic Handle says

    If climate change is proven or not is in the end irrelevant. A national strategy to maximize current economic development creates resources for mitigation if the climate change really happens, so there are ample reasons for nations, especially the developing ones, to defect on a global deal.

    The fact that most climate change negotiations are focused on poor countries trying to guilt rich ones out of some money doesn’t help as the narrative of western guilt gives BRICs ideological cover. Other probable defectors from a climate deal are Russia and Canada as they will profit from global warming.

    This leaves the countries that started the whole climate change panic as a way to reduce their exposure to Middle Eastern oil (most EU members and Japan) to pay subsidies for green energy and to give international aid now and because the current effort is doomed to fail they would also have to pay their own mitigiation costs when and if the climate change actually happens.

  3. Anatoly,

    What do you think of the possibility of using stratospheric sulfate aerosols (or for that matter other geoengineering strategies) to serve as a quick surgical fix to solve global warming?

    I’m a working biologist (though not a climate scientist) and I have heard these ideas seriously discussed on a few occasions. (The emphasis is generally, ‘well, we know that it’s unlikely emissions reductions are going to happen anytime soon, so what are some alternate strategies we could look at?)

  4. For many of us the problem isn’t the science; it’s the exclusion of engineering expertise. Scientific expertise tells us what is. Engineering tells us what to do about it. The politicos have joined with government-supported scientists to milk the problem for power and money.
    Succinctly, the best apparent answer for power is the relatively innocuous thorium breeder reactor. We had them working but switched because they did not produce bomb stuff. Particularly the molten salt-cooled version is attractive.

    Shorter term a solar powered system to sink carbon –both from the atmosphere and the oceans- is needed. Plankton does both well when fertilized while also favorably influencing the Earth’s albedo.

    These are elegant means –though not trivial or simple-to engineer for the threat.

  5. “So 2015 will almost certainly set a new global temperature record. In so doing, it will also discredit the last lingering skeptic arguments that the 2010s “pause” in global warming somehow negates thermodynamics and a century of observations.”

    Don’t make me laugh.

    Yes, when fraud is at work, data altered, only warm areas measured, and alleged data hidden from review, it then appears we have “global warming”. But that is leftist Lysenko science, not verifiable, repeatable, honest science.

    The huge profit motive for faux scientists to manipulate and hide their data:
    Scared Witless: Prophets and profits of climate doom

    More on the profitable fraud here:

    Enron Environmentalism: Carbon Credits Scam Pumps out More ‘Greenhouse Gases’


  6. If there’s anything certain, in life, it’s that nothing remotely – even conceivably! – effective is going to be done about climate change unless & until something much more exciting than anything that’s happened yet – happens.

  7. Indeed, when we know that the climate was several degrees warmer in historic times than even these claimed temperatures, created at least in part by fraud, one is inclined to dismiss the whole thing without further consideration….

  8. The whole thing is a scam, a lie – like everything championed by the left. They even admitted as much in the book “The First Global Revolution” (if the title alone doesn’t give it away)

    You simply can’t get away with lies on the internet, that’s the real value, and lasting legacy of this God-sent technology.