Tripping up on climate change

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When it comes to the phrase, “the tipping point”, in all matters related to global warming, our cups now runneth over.

It is, perhaps, inevitable that a discipline as complex, as frustratingly imprecise, as climate change should attract oversimplifications to the point of cliché the way a garden invites dandelions.

Still, the use of this expression seems to have spiked recently as scientists struggle to explain why we’re not already stewing in our own juices.

According to a story in MarketWatch online last week, “In June, Pope Francis, in his encyclical on the environment, called upon humanity to take responsibility for the planet, including climate change. Yet millions of Americans just don’t trust scientists warning of a ’95 per cent certainty’ humans cause global warming.”

That figure was originally published in a MarketWatch story a year ago in which writer Paul B. Farrell noted, “But they do trust Big Oil, the GOP, God. They honestly believe climate science is a dangerous fear-mongering liberal conspiracy.”

That’s because most people can’t, or refuse to, observe the largely subtle changes that accumulate in their environment – and even those who can don’t automatically perceive them as evidence of manmade global warming.

Yet, anyone who spends any time at all lounging in his backyard this New Brunswick summer must surely notice the virtual absence of the little brown bat at dusk. This once-plentiful species filled the sky only five years ago. And then, seemingly overnight, it was gone, a victim of a virulent fungus, the proliferation of which, zoologists believe, is directly related to long-term warming weather trends along the northeast U.S.

That, dear reader, is what the experts call a tipping point. Everything proceeds apace – business as usual, move along, nothing to see here – and then, one day, boom! The new normal rears its frightful head and you don’t know what the dickens slammed into you.

All of which puts paid to the notion that we humans have plenty of time to consider our options. The tricky thing about tipping points is that you ever know when they’re going to occur. Noted environmentalist Bill McKibben alluded to this in an article he penned for Foreign Policy some years ago.

“Time might be the toughest part of the equation,” he wrote. “That melting Arctic ice is unsettling not only because it proves the planet is warming rapidly, but also because it will help speed up the warming. That old white ice reflected 80 per cent of incoming solar radiation back to space; the new blue water left behind absorbs 80 per cent of that sunshine. The process amps up.”

What’s more, he warned, “There are many other such feedback loops. Another occurs as northern permafrost thaws. Huge amounts of methane long trapped below the ice begin to escape into the atmosphere; methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.”

In fact, his piece is fairly dripping with tipping points. Indeed, can we ever tip in a way that not necessarily catastrophic?

That’s a question Andrew Simms asked in an editorial last April for The Guardian: “One of the great environmental stories is of how catastrophe can creep up and be noticed only when it is too late to act. Examples range from the sudden, inexplicable collapse of bee colonies, to ice cores revealing the potential for dramatic climatic upheavals that happen not in millennia or centuries, but the time it takes to pass through a coalition government or two.”

All of which suggests, sadly, that we may have already tipped beyond the point of no return

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