Uh, Oh!

July 21, 2012

We often hear abouttipping pointsin 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?

Whatis.com 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 Whatis.com’s definition that sounds ominous; namely the part 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 super 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, McDonalds and Sonic 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. Yet some of us are still so ignorant of tipping points we think they’re the moment we decide the gratuity percentage our waiter deserves.

Here’s a tipping-point regarding current events: according to an op-ed in the NY 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 does, “…does this mean that 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 Times says, “The problem is no one knows if there is a point at which a climate system shifts abruptly.”

While this is true, an analysis of facts has given science a pretty good record in the area of prediction, 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 which makes it political heresy to think in terms of systems —myths that are probably killing us.

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, a.k.a. 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.

Global warming deniers do not succumb to facts so I wouldn’t expect the following to even dent the evidence-free zone of their skull; but here they are (Bill McKibben, Rolling Stone):

1. June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records in the US
2. The record warmest month for the northern hemisphere this year was May
3. May was also the warmest consecutive month when global temperatures exceeded the 20th-century average (odds of this being a fluke are 3.7 x 1099, a number larger than the stars in the universe)
4.This spring was the warmest recorded in US history (the largest temperature departure from average of any recorded season)
5. Despite a temperature of 109 degrees it rained in Mecca making it thehottest downpour in the planet’s history.

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

2° 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 #1 below:

1. If a man or woman is allowed a max of 2° 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.

by Jim Culleny


One Response to “Uh, Oh!”

  1. harrywalsh Says:

    We are past the tipping point in climatology. Who knows if we will be able to adapt to the changes.

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