Environment/Nature

Gore says ‘tipping point’ close for public push on climate change

Tom & Gore SEJ
SEJ member Tom Yulsman
asks a question of Vice
President Gore in Madison.
Photo: Anne Minard.

The fate of the earth could end up determined by which tipping point is reached first: a physical shift that ushers in abrupt climate change with catastrophic consequences, or a social one, in which public attitudes rapidly coalesce around a mandate to address climate change. Or, neither could materialize, at least not imminently.

Al Gore believes the U.S. is on the brink of a political tipping point on the climate issue. Speaking to the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference in Madison, Wisc., last Friday, the former vice president said, “The potential for change can build up without noticeable effect until it reaches a critical mass. I think that we are very close to that tipping point.”

So what is a tipping point, actually? The term seems to be everywhere. It’s among the latest pop-sociology phrases to dominate public consciousness, along with “going viral.” That’s in large part due to the success of Malcolm Gladwell’s book by the same name, a volume that “presents a new way of understanding why change so often happens as quickly and as unexpectedly as it does,” according to Gladwell’s website.

Change, this theory holds, often starts in small increments before reaching critical mass. The so-called tipping point is reached “when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire,” says Gladwell, utilizing an epidemiological model. Past the tipping point, the momentum for change becomes unstoppable.

Crossing such a threshold in terms of the public’s commitment to address climate change is essential to solving the problem, Gore suggested. “Fortunately, political will is a renewable resource,” he quipped to the several hundred journalists and other guests attending SEJ.

Gore optimistic for real change in Copenhagen

In his keynote address [full audio text on SEJ’s website] at the opening plenary, Gore expressed optimism that Congress would pass meaningful climate legislation before the opening of the UN climate summit Copenhagen in December. “There is much more bipartisan dialogue behind the scenes in the Senate than is publicly visible” right now, said Gore. He expects a Senate bill “will look like the House bill.” Though the compromise carbon reduction bill was not what he would have written, Gore said, it has put the wheels in motion.

“What is essential is that we put a price on carbon.”

If the U.S. can pass legislation before Copenhagen, it could build rapid momentum in the global community, Gore said, drawing comparisons with what happened in Montreal on ozone in 1987.

“When the evidence was indisputable, the political community joined ranks,” led by the U.S. Though the treaty was initially criticized as too weak, the signing “began a process of change that picked up momentum,” said Gore. “I believe the Copenhagen treaty is likely to serve that same purpose.”

NOAA Administrator also thinks social tipping point near

Following Gore’s speech, a panel moderated by New York Times environment reporter Andrew Revkin
continued the discussion on the “Countdown to Copenhagen.” Jane Lubchenco, Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, picked up on Gore’s reference to tipping points.

“We’ve seen major 180-degree shifts in people’s attitudes toward things that for a long time to many seemed impossible: attitudes toward smoking, attitudes toward drunk driving, civil rights, women’s suffrage, are a few examples,” Lubchenco said. “I believe there’s very good evidence that you can be making significant progress toward meaningful change without that progress being obvious. And then you hit the tipping point and things can change very rapidly.”

We’re not there yet, though, Lubchenco said. The problem with climate change is that “there are multiple tipping points” that must be reached within complex social systems. “We have reached the point at which a majority of citizens say… ‘Okay, I get it.’ But we haven’t yet reached the next tipping point which is agreement on how to address the problem.”

Lubchenco left her academic post at Oregon State University to join the political sphere when her hopes were spurred by last year’s shift in power.  “This administration represents an opportunity to get to those tipping points, to make very meaningful changes that will benefit the world.”

Only time will tell

If tipping point theorists are right – and the earth’s climate system is vulnerable to dangerous physical thresholds– there is no time for the public to dally in achieving such agreement. Plenty of scientific evidence exists that demonstrates non-linear behavior within climate systems. A report issued by the UN and World Bank in February 2009 warns that the planet may quickly be approaching the tipping point for abrupt climate changes that could usher in outcomes like the collapse of the coral biome in the Caribbean basin and extensive rainforest loss in the Amazon.

NASA climate scientist James E. Hansen wrote in the London Observer last February that “the climate is nearing tipping points,” citing a larger expanse of dark ocean water as Arctic sea ice melts, and the increasing release of methane by melting tundra as two phenomena that could rapidly shift climate change.

Other scientists, also concerned about human warming of the planet, question the use of the “tipping point” concept, since so little about climate can be specifically predicted. Revkin explored the debate among scientists earlier this year in the New York Times.

Tipping points in human attitudes and behavior may be just as unpredictable. The H1N1 flu virus comes to mind. No one knows for sure if, or when, a major flu outbreak will occur, or how devastating it will be, or how effective the new vaccine will be in protecting against it. The public is definitely aware of the issue. The next step is to weigh the perceived risks and act accordingly. If I thought there was a small but significant risk of a massive, lethal flu outbreak — based on the best science available at the time – I’d get in line for the shot.

We’ll see whether the world community is ready to tip toward action in Copenhagen in less than two months.

8 replies »

  1. Thanks for bringing us up to speed on some of the happenings at this year’s SEJ conference, Wendy. I really hope that Lubchenko and Gore are right that we’re getting close to the point where the public finally get engaged on this issue.

    I wish I was seeing more indication that the Obama Administration is going to push for it, though.

  2. Just to fondly irritate my old friend, I ask this:

    Who offers what empirical evidence that a “social tipping point” is near in regard to public attitudes toward climate change? Who has empirically defined what the “social tipping point” would be and what would be the anticipated result from it?

    NOAA’s Jane Lubchenco claims “major 180-degree shifts in people’s attitudes toward things that for a long time to many seemed impossible: attitudes toward smoking, attitudes toward drunk driving, civil rights, women’s suffrage.” Yet people still smoke and die; people still drink, drive, die and kill others; and civil rights and women’s suffrage need constant attention to prevent their erosion.

    I wish the former vice president would add evidence to his claim about a “social tipping point.” I’d like to be able to clearly see it when it comes nigh. (I bet major advertisers would like to be able to ID “social tipping points” of all kinds, too.)

    Thanks for the timely piece, Wendy.

    • If you read today’s Carbo, I discuss a paper that points out that the mathematical science of “critical transitions,” aka “tipping points,” is still young and prone to both false positives and false negatives even when based on solid empirical evidence. 😉

  3. Thx, Brian. It bothers me when politicians and self-appointed agents of social change argue using terms that are ill-defined. Gimme my data, pls. 🙂

  4. Indeed, Denny, I would have liked to have seen some ‘evidence’ from Gore and Lubchenco to substantiate their assertions. I wish I had been in line to ask them these tough but important questions. And had I time to go beyond merely reporting the session, I would have liked to explore the issues you raise — I’m glad you raised these concerns the in the comment thread, at any rate.. I think there may be a palpable sense of a social tipping point nearing within certain circles — perhaps those of a moderate ilk (assuming liberals are already in the bag) — but if one reads the comments on the Wisconsin State Journal link on SEJ’s web page — the post is called “Gore Upbeat on Climate Bill” — I am inclined to wonder about Gore’s optimism. There is still a tremendous amount of dismissive hostility, not so visible to those who don’t spend lots of time in the conservative blogosphere. Maybe rather than report the meeting, I ought to have critiqued it and pondered how such a tipping point may be reached when we are still clearly such an ideologically divided nation. Maybe that’s my follow-up??

    • I wonder if the sense of the “palpable sense of a social tipping point” you mention is why so many climate disruption skeptics and deniers are suddenly claiming victory. You know, repeat that loud enough and long enough and it takes on a life of its own. Hmmmm….

  5. I wouldn’t be surprised if a social tipping point were near. I see two reasons. The first is that as the average American finds out that the economy, from their perspective, isn’t going to get better for a long while they A. will tend to cut back on consumption and B. see priorities changing. These won’t be directly attributable to climate change, but many of the things listed as “what you can do” tend to be cost-savers in the long run. They generally require more time/effort, but usually there’s more time when there’s less money.

    The second is that there are a lot (really) of conservative environmentalists. If you read Crunchy Cons it forms a basis of the ideology: conserving. What needs to be done to push the scale past the tipping point is for the “in the bag” liberals to shift tactics somewhat to appeal to rational conservatives and moderates. Al Gore is not a good spokesman for the movement, partly because of his politics and partly because he’s so messianic about it (and a little bit shady, imo).

    The serious deniers will never be swayed, and arguing with them for the hearts and minds of everyone in the middle will most likely fail…at least in the short term. Ignore them, stay away from the polemics and the doomsday scenario (even if it is real). Make it about values. Frame the issue as one of being conservative with what we have and what we’ll give to the next generation.

    I could well be wrong. This country is bat-shit crazy, but that only goes to show that it isn’t likely to respond favorably to reason.