What’s a Tipping Point?

Yet another unsettling environmental report, by 22 internationally known scientists in this month’s Nature, warns us that we are drawing close to a planetary “tipping point”. This is the most disturbing report yet. Once you pass a tipping point, you cannot go back. It’s rather like the world starts over at Day One.

One way to think of it is “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. Camels are hardy animals that can be loaded up heavily, but there comes a point where they will not be able to carry even a slight bit more. Theoretically, even an additional piece of straw will cause their collapse.

Think of it as “the straw that
broke the camel’s back”.

Many things are like that. When a system of any sort reaches a certain point, the slightest increase will cause it to become something entirely different. Our little blue planet is like that. From time to time over its 4.6 billion year existence, something caused a major change in the planetary environment, and it affected every living creature, and nothing was the same afterward. Sometimes these were sudden events, sometimes they took longer.

443 million years ago the planet became covered with glaciers, and half of all species became extinct. 374 million years ago another mass extinction occurred, this one taking 20 million years to happen. The worst was 251 million years ago, possibly due to a huge asteroid crash and extensive volcanic activity. Atmospheric carbon dioxide became so concentrated that 70%-90% of species were wiped out. Yet another occurred when a meteor crashed into the Yucatán 65½ million years ago and again wiped out some 85% of species, including the dinosaurs. Humans weren’t wiped out because we didn’t yet exist.

We are now approaching another tipping point, this one caused by the activities of 7 billion humans. It won’t be sudden, like a meteor, but in terms of geologic time it is very dramatic and rapid. The concentration of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane has given us rising temperatures for a century or so. The past century was the hottest since records began. The past decade the hottest decade. The high temperature records all came within the past few years. This year so far is the hottest ever. This spring was the hottest ever.

We are now approaching a tipping point,
from which we can’t go back.

These changes are already causing major problems around the world, with rising ocean levels, accelerating desertification, biological changes that raise havoc with migrating animals, loss of arable land, locally declining levels of potable water, massive die-off of species, and so on.

We are marching on as always, enjoying our summer parade and completely ignoring the huge black tornado coming down the street. It’s astonishing. We show no interest in taking steps that might forestall the decline of our life support system, the natural system without which we cannot live. Every one of the environmental reports of the coming catastrophe over the past half century has been utterly ignored, with lip service at best. What few attempts there have been to help have mostly been private, individual, small—and utterly inadequate.

Republicans, in their devotion to the so-called “free market”, with its tendency to damage our life support system, have been unable to bring themselves to even acknowledge what a half century of science has shown conclusively. This is stupid, but it doesn’t really matter, because climate change is occurring whether they want to believe it or not, and Republican stupidity is not the primary reason we have completely failed to appreciate the danger.

Climate change is occurring whether
Republicans want to believe it or not.

In fact, the point when we might have averted global climate change is long past. The absolute best we could do now would only help us adapt to some of the changes that are already underway, and maybe prevent further damage. Let us hope that these changes are not sudden. What would happen, for instance, if California’s Central Valley, which is semi-arid and supplies a large percentage of our food, were one year to lose the irrigation water that comes down from the north via the California Aqueduct?

After the tipping point, what will it be like? Well, if past experience is any indication, large numbers of species will become extinct. That process is already well underway; species extinction is rampant. It’s worth noting that we are a species too. Large parts of earth that have been usable are likely to become uninhabitable, say, the parts of Texas and Oklahoma that were above 100º for many weeks last year, not to mention all the places that will be under water. We’ll lose important sources of fresh water and arable land. Without a major die-off of human life, and markedly reduced population, it will be very crowded, and tough for everyone. Of course, it is increasingly likely there will be major human loss.

We have been living in a period
of blissful ignorance.

And so we blunder blindly onward toward the tipping point. Or perhaps we have already passed it; we won’t know until at least another century has passed and we have the acuity of hindsight. If it comes later on in this coming century, most of us won’t be alive to witness it, which is cold comfort.

We should be fearful, because rapid irreversible change is happening now. We have been living in a period of blissful ignorance. Chances are pretty strong that that is coming to an end, maybe an abrupt end, maybe very soon, and it is likely to be catastrophic in the most apocalyptic sense of the word. The tipping point is coming, and we have no say in the matter.


The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://classwarinamerica.wordpress.com/2012/06/10/whats-a-tipping-point/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Over population is the problem and is why there will not be a solution. Overpopulation concentrates power and wealth in the hands of the few. Look at it from their point of view. Human life is short, in a few years they will be dead anyway. There is no moral, legal, socially feasible way of reducing the population to a sustainable level, in the meantime they are enjoying huge benefits from the situation. Sadly the climate change debate diverts attention from the cause of the problem. – over population, which is destroying the natural environment, killing the oceans, de-oxygenating the air, and in destroying the pollinators, most of us will be dead from starvation before the climate change effects do.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s