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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Environmental Tipping Points

Matterhorn, one of Europe’s tallest peaks, in the Alps on the border between Italy and Switzerland, is eroding as a result of glacial meltwater at the summit. Photos from NASA’s “State of Flux” series show courtesy of the Panopticon Gallery, Boston, MA.

John Bos

A tipping point is that magical (or malevolent) moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and then spreads like wildfire. A single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu. Or a Twitter meme. Or a single sick person like an authoritarian president can contract COVID-19, the worldwide pandemic he deliberately ignored and then lied about.

We have reached not one, but multiple tipping points in 2020. Tipping points occur in our personal lives, our political lives and in our lives on the planet. Not our planet, the planet. If we really felt that it was ours, we’d take much better care of it.

The environment has its own tipping points.

While the American collapse in political terms is directly attributable to the current climate of poisonous political partisanship fueled by a White House steeped in climate denial, the collapse of our global environment may now be inevitable. There are fifteen known global, climate, tipping points that regulate the state of the planet, and nine of them have been activated.

Australian National University emeritus professor, Will Steffen, told Voice of Action that there was already a chance that we have triggered a “global tipping cascade” that could take us to a less habitable “Hothouse Earth” climate, regardless of whether or not we reduced CO2 emissions.

Steffen, Down Under’s leading climate scientist, says it would take 30 years at best (and more likely 40 to 60 years) to transition to net-zero emissions. But when it comes to tipping points such as Arctic sea ice, we may have already run out of time.

Evidence shows we will also lose control of the tipping points for the Amazon rainforest, the West Antarctic ice sheet, and the Greenland ice sheet in much less time than it’s going to take us to get to net-zero emissions, Steffen maintains.

Given the momentum in both the Earth and human systems, and the growing difference between the reaction time needed to steer humanity towards a more sustainable future, and the intervention time left to avert a range of catastrophes in both the physical climate system (e.g., melting of Arctic sea ice) and the biosphere (e.g., loss of the Great Barrier Reef), we are already deep into the trajectory towards collapse,” said Steffen.

That is, the intervention time we have left has, in many cases, shrunk to levels that are shorter than the time it would take to transition to a more sustainable system.

The fact that many of the features of the Earth System that are being damaged or lost constitute ‘tipping points’ that could well link to form a ‘tipping cascade’ raises the ultimate question: have we already lost control of the system? Is collapse now inevitable?”

Steffen argues that the intervention time left to prevent tipping could already have shrunk towards zero, whereas the reaction time to achieve net-zero emissions is 30 years at best. Hence, we might already have lost control of whether tipping happens.

Where you stand politically is a major determinant in whether or not you believe in the climate crisis. While the majority of Americans have now come to see climate change for the existential threat that it is, Republican voters lag behind. Fewer than two in five (39 percent) consider environmental protection to be something they care about, and just 21 percent consider it to be a top priority according to the Pew Research Center. By comparison, 78 percent of Democrats view climate change as a top priority heading into this election cycle.

The winds of belief, however, may be shifting. As hundreds of wildfires recently tore through 1.2 million acres in Northern California, the cultural conversation took an apocalyptic turn. The conflagrations had the unexpected effect of drawing people with opposing political views closer together.

A recent survey conducted by Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West suggests that personal experience with wildfires may lessen partisan gaps over climate policy. As global climate change induces more frequent and intense climatic events, the frequency of objectively personal experiences with extreme weather-related events like wildfires may help to reduce partisan gaps over climate policy.

This might be a positive tipping point in the decades-long efforts to persuade the public that we are all, no matter where our political, religious and economic belief are rooted, facing an existential and environmental emergency.

I find myself wondering what the tipping point was that persuaded all the passengers on the “unsinkable” Titanic that they were all going to die. Unless they could secure a space on one of the lifeboats.

There is no silver bullet, no magical Noah’s Ark to hold everyone in our foundering world. We, all of us, every single country, must agree on what capacity the climate-crisis lifeboats need to have to keep all of our heads above water, what they should look like, and how to build them quickly.

John Bos is a contributing writer to Green Energy Times, Citizen Truth and other publications. He has been studying and writing about the political avoidance of global warming for ten years. Comments, factual corrections and questions are invited at john01370@gmail.com.

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