Per Capita Davis: The ‘tipping point’ revisited
Back in 2007 when I began writing these articles there were a few terms that captured the discussion about global warming.
One was the term in the prior sentence: “global warming.” It may have been adequate at the time, but the soft, fuzzy, cozy, under-a-blanket image it evoked did not adequately describe the seriousness of the issue. The current term “climate crisis” speaks more directly to the urgency of responding to the problem.
Another was the “bathtub analogy” which evoked an image common to our daily lives: If you turn on the tap so that water comes into the tub faster than it can drain, the tub will eventually overflow. True, but not really an alarming picture of what the damage would be. We were not then, nor are we now, talking about cleaning up a mess in the bathroom; the entire house is at risk.
A third was “disaster in slow motion.” This phrase, popularized by Al Gore’s example of a frog in his movie “An Inconvenient Truth” in a pot of water that starts out at a comfortable room temperature but is slowly and steadily heated. The frog doesn’t notice small changes and adapts as the heat increases until it is too late and we have a boiled frog.
Again, a true image, and it does indicate a time scale similar to what the earth is experiencing with increased temperatures, but the increases in the frog’s case are linear; 150 degrees becomes 151 degrees, becomes 152 degrees and so on.
The trouble here is that most predictions in 2007 for the arrival time of severe adverse conditions were forecast for the year 2050 and possibly as far in the future as 2100.
Which brings us to the fourth term from way back there in 2007: “tipping point.” This term describes the point at which changes in temperature, sea levels, melting of the glaciers, etc. are no longer linear. Instead, the particular adverse effect, let’s say the melting of glaciers and polar ice, is no longer stoppable or reversible through human policies or actions.
As an example, ice in the Arctic melts and the loss of white surface area means less solar radiation is reflected back into space. Instead, the heat is absorbed by the dark blue sea, which in turn melts more ice, which in turn absorbs more heat, effectively creating an autocatalytic feedback loop.
Repeating from the above, passing the “tipping point” means that human policies and actions cannot stop or reverse accelerating adverse effects.
It is possible that, irony of ironies, the science that climate deniers now deride in mocking the predicted adverse effects (could substitute the word “catastrophes”) of the climate crisis may come to the rescue. What is certain, however, is that no matter what geo-engineering or massive social adjustments are made in the future, it would be a whole lot easier, even less expensive if all one thinks about is cost, to act now rather than wait for a miracle.
All this is prelude to what Antonio Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations, said in a speech earlier this month. Speaking to the leaders of the world, he stated bluntly that, “If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change.”
The year 2020 is, like, tomorrow.
Guterres further stated that, “Climate change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a defining moment. Scientists have been telling us for decades — over and over again. Far too many leaders have refused to listen.”
Guterres didn’t use the term “climate crisis” instead of “global warming,” to highlight the urgency of the issue, and he placed us at a “defining moment” rather than at a “tipping point.” He didn’t refer to a “disaster in slow motion” but instead reminded us that scientists have been warning us for decades.
His message was blunt, and the words he used, the vocabulary of an international diplomat in 2018, are expressive of the sentiments from way back in 2007, and perhaps more motivating to world leaders, but, if I had to fault him for anything, and I really hate to be picky because I thought his speech was overall very, very powerful, it would be not adopting and fully embracing the term “climate crisis” rather than referring to “global warming.”
The target year he set, 2020, is not very far in the future and, overall, his message did speak to the urgency of the issue. He called out all the leaders of the world to take serious action now.
In terms of the rest of us who are not world leaders, 2020 is not out of the planning horizon for many of the decisions we make in our daily lives, such as what car to buy, whether to put solar panels on our rooftops, or to examine more broadly our participation in an extractive and consumption-based economy.
And, finally, and not the least, we should choose carefully who we vote for and consider ramping up how insistent we should we be in demanding that our elected representatives forcefully and effectively address the climate crisis now.
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise
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