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Climate Change Reaching Human and Geophysical Tipping Points

RP Siegel | Monday January 21st, 2013 | 3 Comments

GlacierThere seems to be some evidence to suggest that as the storm tide swept over the East Coast last fall, it lifted the tide of public opinion in its wake. Scientists warn of a global warming tipping point driven by positive feedback loops such as the declining albedo effect of ice turning to water or the liberation of methane gas from thawing permafrost. Are we finally reaching, in the aftermath of yet another temperature record-breaking year, featuring another deadly American  storm, a tipping point on public opinion on the urgency of global warming?

One thing that is apparently beginning to thaw, besides the polar ice caps, is the stance of a number of traditional media outlets that had heretofore been considered solidly conservative. Take, for example, the Financial Times which recently featured a column that said, “Another year has passed where the physical signs of climate change came fast and furious, while the political process for dealing with it remained glacial.” That was perhaps a surprisingly strong statement. “Doubts,” the author went on to say, “that weather changes are a serious risk to lives and livelihoods – thus a matter for public policy – are by now theoretical or delusional.”

Financial mainstay, Forbes, also came out against-the-grain in a piece in suggesting that Shell should reconsider its Arctic drilling plans.

Then of course, there was Bloomberg’s now classic headline, It’s Global Warming, Stupid.

Of course, there are still many pages of denial still being pumped out every day, but the wave of awakening now seems to be breaking at a point  close to shore, at least for the business media, who as James Murray points out, “are more astute to these audience and market pressures than most.”

Back in April, a broad NY Times poll found that 69 percent of respondents felt that climate change was affecting the weather in the U.S.

A Rasmussen poll taken in November, after Sandy, found the 63 percent of U.S. likely voters found global warming to be at least a somewhat serious problem. However, 49 percent said that they were unwilling to pay more, either in taxes or higher energy prices. Not a particularly impressive reflection of our people.

The Brookings Institution has also been following public sentiment on this issue. They found that the number of “believers” peaked in the fall of 2009 at 65 percent before beginning a steady decline, to as low as 52 percent, thanks to the concerted misinformation campaign of Fox News and their oil-stained sponsors, before gradually recovering back across the 60 percent line.

The range of public opinion is still surprisingly wide, though it is slowly narrowing, as more people become informed, while consensus within the scientific community is nearly unanimous on the broad issue of human-induced warming. Opinion still varies on the exact timetable and the severity of consequences.

Brookings Co-Director Elizabeth Ferris recently wrote a memo to President Obama on the issue which stated,

“Unless urgent action is taken now, the effects of climate change on life on this planet and on life in the United States will increase. Climate change is a domestic, foreign policy, security, development, human rights, and intergenerational justice issue. Preparing better for climate change disasters at home and abroad is a good short-term prophylactic. But making serious and sustained efforts to reduce global warming can solidify America’s present leadership in the world. It can lay the foundation for the country’s sustainable future development. It can address the causes of future humanitarian crises and alleviate future human suffering. It can be a legacy issue for the Obama administration that will impact the world for generations.”

The geophysical tipping points are marching steadily towards us as we  blithely sail along. The extent of damage will depend to a large degree on how much longer until the human tipping points occurs. Perhaps 2013 will be the year when we finally get it.

[Image credit: Trine og Mads: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • roger saillant

    I think the use of “tipping point” with public opinion is clever. However, unlike with certain physical phenomena, public opinion can “untip” easily. Will concerns about the economy trump climate actions – probably. “Will thy oil will be done” and the Keystone pipeline go through – probably. Do people have the will and the understanding to grasp that we are faced with multiple geophysical “tipping points” and that climate is only one among many – probably not. I must function as an optimist while I am labeled as a pessimist when I point out that we are dealing with remediation time frames which are clearly way beyond our life imes when we talk about doing something about climate change or any of the other planetary transformations that humans are causing.

    “However, 49 percent said that they were unwilling to pay more, either in taxes or higher energy prices” – a telling point about us all. This quote speaks volumes about where we really are. and that is just in the United States. Now multiply that by the willingness to pay and act for other issues like chemical contamination, top soil loss, biodiversity loss, and so forth. A long way to go to reach a “tipping point” of either awareness or action on the part of our species.

  • Joyce Barron

    I am more concerned about the human tipping point in terms of population and white house policies to reduce population than I am about opinion. I have read several articles, including a presentation by bill gates, that discuss the reduction in global population required to reduce co2 levels. Taken as a whole, a number of obama policies point towards a white house reduction in population. These include the abortion on demand issue and refusal of treatment to deadly conditions under obamacare. Also while I support gay rights, the number of children born to gay couples is far less than heterosexual ones. Add to this the increase on getting disability approved to longer than three years and you see a vulnerable segment thrown to the wolves. I will not discuss some of the less than mainstream theories like chemtrails and tacmarks, but they lend credence to such a plan,.especially when prolonged detainment, anti free speech zones and loss of second amendment rights are factored in.

  • Joyce Barron

    Also our disaster relief policies must be revisited to deal with climate change, sea rise, and responsible efforts to live in harmony with nature. Our new business in woodland beach, delaware sustained severe damage in sandy. However the 6000 acres of surrounding wetlands protected us from the worst of the storm surges. We are ineligible for a $250,000 sba disaster loan that would enable us to create 40 new jobs this year because of the lower population density causing us to fall out of fema formulas. I can walk out my front door and see the many lights of overpopulated new jersey, who received billions in private and public aid just to overbuild yet again.