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A tipping point education

Loud and clear climate change messages

We often hear about “tipping points” in the news.

Have we reached a tipping point in this or that matter? Are we approaching one? If we have, what happens after the tip? It’s important to know these things — anybody who’s ever danced in a canoe knows a thing or two about tipping points.

But first, what is a tipping point? says it’s the “… critical point in a situation that leads to (a) new and irreversible development. The term (originated in) epidemiology to note when an infectious disease reaches a point beyond any local ability to control it from spreading …”

In short, a tipping point is an, “Uh, oh!” or “Oops” awakening.

There’s something in this definition that sounds ominous; namely about being “beyond any local ability to control.” It doesn’t appeal to my illusions of superhuman technological ingenuity.

“But we’re technological masters — real geniuses!” I think.

Not only have we invented the wheel, but Large Hadron Colliders! We smash atoms with our bare brains! We even thought up fast food, for God’s sake, and drive-up windows so we don’t have to walk inside to pick up our sack of excess calories.

Except for epidemic obesity what could go wrong?

What we failed to anticipate was that there are points at which even average-sized people, after years of super-sizing, will collapse a standard chair or just keel over with a coronary.

These would be tipping points.

Although having both a structural engineer and a good nutritionist on staff might have avoided such circumstances, fast-food establishments do not seem to have considered such experts necessary. Number crunchers, however, are well regarded under the golden arches.

But as sad as tipping points of chronic obesity are, they pale in comparison to other precipices.

Consider this: According to an op-ed in the New York Times, “So far 2012 is on pace to be the hottest year on record.”

Global warming deniers think this is ho-hum. Big deal, they say, the world gets hot, sometimes you have an ice age, stuff happens, it’s normal. But many of us go on to wonder, as the Times’ article asks, “...does this mean we’ve reached a threshold ...” — a tipping point that signals a climate disaster?

It would be arrogant for anyone to absolutely predict any future. As the article says, “The problem is no one knows if there is a point at which a climate system shifts abruptly.”

An analysis of facts, though, has given science a pretty good record in predictions and “…some scientists are now bringing mathematical rigor to the tipping-point argument (which) gives us fresh cause to worry that sudden changes are in our future.”

Ecologists and climatologists think in terms of systems. Many of the rest of us don’t. Americans especially are locked into myths of individual identity and control that makes it political heresy to think in terms of systems.

Biologist Marten Scheffer, for instance, looked into what was transforming the clear, lowland ponds of his youth into turbid pools. After studying them, he “… solved this problem with a key insight: the ponds behaved according to a branch of mathematics called ‘dynamical systems,’ which deals with sudden changes.”

For too many of us, math is limited to calculating the difference in height between a plain hamburger and a double quarter-pounder with cheese & bacon. But Scheffer has fatter meat to fry. He and climate scientist Tim Lenton are now trying to identify the early signals that precede abrupt climate transitions, aka tipping points.

Mr. Lenton has uncovered the vulnerability of the Indian monsoon upon which more than a billion people depend for rain for crops. The monsoon is “… being affected by two forces: the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (and) soot from fires and coal plants …” Monsoons are aspects of weather and climate systems and when one part of a system fouls up, the whole system changes.

If clear ponds become turbid through systemic changes, why would world climate systems not change also?

They will, and are — changing and tipping, that is.

To step outside the ideological, theological and economic arguments usually applied to global warming and grasp the seriousness of our predicament, Bill McKibben in an article that appeared in Rolling Stone, says it takes a little math. The math involved hinges on three drop-dead numbers:

◆ 2 degrees Celsius: the global temperature increase beyond which scientists just say, “good luck”

◆ 565 Gigatons: estimate of the maximum CO2 we can add to the atmosphere by 2050 and still hope to stay below the “good luck” factor

◆ 2,795 Gigatons: the amount of carbon in global fossil fuel reserves now available for corporations to burn.

OK class, here’s your assignment. Solve problem below:

If a man or woman is allowed a max of 2 degrees Celsius of temperature increase, and may add only 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere before reaching that magic number and roasting, but has 2,795 gigatons immediately available to burn, is he or she (having rejected the construction of mass transportation systems and continuing to subsidize oil companies) equal to the restraint of not committing suicide by lethal tipping point?

After reading the articles assigned above, turn in your answers to me in the morning. I’ll be at the school pool enduring another torrid day without rain. I’ll be tipping into its turbid water wearing a fireproof hazmat suit slurping and super-sizing to death.

Jim Culleny lives in Shelburne Falls, works in construction, is a singer/songwriter, and has done commentary for National Public Radio. His email address is

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