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.