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Are We Passing Climate Change Tipping Points?

Posted on 18 June 2012 by Jerry

A variety of discouraging beliefs are emerging from the world’s scientific community revealing pessimism about climate change. Scientists and policy makers are frustrated by the glaring lack of progress being made in marshalling humanity to recognize and accept the threats the world is facing. Too much time is passing creating fear that we are unwittingly allowing options to expire and our situation to deteriorate beyond critical “tipping points”.  With great determination, scientists are developing different ways to show people the reality of climate change.

Climate scientists fear they cannot enhance present climate systems to make them more forceful in proving the case for action.  They believe they are losing the ability to make the systems more precise in estimating the timing and magnitude of future events.  Present systems can only be generally and directionally predictive.  They cannot predict specific outcomes on specific dates.

Some scientists have turned their attention away from predictive systems.  They are trying to identify “tipping points” or “tipping elements” to describe large-scale aspects of the Earth system that may pass critical thresholds where we experience a change in climate that we cannot correct or reverse.  Tipping elements identified in “Tipping elements in the Earth’s climate system” by Messrs. Lenton, Held, Kriegler, Hall, Lucht, Rahmstorf, and Schellnhuber, include the Arctic summer sea-ice, Greenland ice sheet, West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS), Atlantic ocean thermohaline circulation (THC), El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), Indian Summer monsoon (ISM), Sahara/Sahel and West African monsoon (WAM), the Amazon rainforest and the Boreal forest. 

In the opinion of the researchers we may have already passed critical thresholds in the two underlined elements, Arctic summer sea-ice and Atlantic Ocean thermohaline circulation. In addition to the nine tipping elements identified, there are another six areas that were listed but did not make the statistical cut to be truly imminently influential to the future.

In a well documented paper entitled “The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship”, written by some of the most famous scientists of our time and published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 2011, the argument is made that rather than continue to define the present as a part of the Holocene epoch, which provided a very stable and accommodating period for human development, we should recognize we have entered the Anthropocene epoch.  This new epoch is identified as the time when human beings moved from being hunter-gatherers to where “Humanity itself has become a global geophysical force, equal to some of the ‘great forces of nature’.”

These scientists argue we have destabilized the accommodating Holocene epoch with the “Great Acceleration” (Hibbard et al. 2006) which occurred after the Second World War.  Since 1960 through 2009 the human population has grown by 1 billion people and the global economy and material consumption have increased disproportionately faster.  They believe we have now entered the Anthropocene epoch, an epoch of our own creation.

This paper rises to a higher level of abstraction where threats to our well being include climate change as one of nine aspects of our planet that require management for our survival; Climate change, Ocean acidification, Stratospheric ozone depletion, Nitrogen cycle – Phosphorous cycle, Global freshwater use, Change in land use, Biodiversity loss, Atmospheric aerosol loading, and Chemical pollution.  A hint of the thoroughness of this paper is given in a filmed Nobel Laureate Symposium in 2011 in Stockholm where Will Steffin role played the Prosecutor in a mock trial of “Planet Earth vs. Humanity”.  In this video he is speaking on behalf of the planet.

In response to failed negotiations, policy makers are devising new ways to think about getting countries to step up their efforts.  Some believe seeking worldwide agreement on the single problem of climate change does not and will not work.  They think a different set of negotiating parameters might be more productive. Approaching the problem from the nine aspects requiring planetary management (previously mentioned), they suggest a much broader set of negotiations should be initiated.  They argue that not all countries of the world equally share the remedies required to reverse climate change, that some countries, for example would be much more central to protecting the rain forests of South America.  They suggest the role of each country should be identified with the issues and problems with which they have a more causal role and upon which they can have a greater impact.

While progress on climate change is slow in coming, we must recognize that human beings have a long history of solving problems.  Scientist continue to try and are looking to us for the support they need to alter the world’s course on these issues.  We must continue to fight until we collectively win.

Use the following links to obtain further information on climate change and issues raised in this article:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jun/17/climate-talks-end-no-agreement

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18455947

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/24/un-climate-conference-bonn-struggles_n_1541760.html

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v486/n7402/full/486183a.html

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v486/n7401/full/nature11018.html  

http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0705414105 , to obtain the complete article try  

http://www.pnas.org/content/105/6/1786.full.pdf+html

http://rd.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13280-011-0185-x

Exceptional video: http://youtube.com/watch?v=_Jmp6DwDreg

To access the full report PDF use your normal browser to try to search and select

http://www-ramanathan.ucsd.edu/files/pr185.pdf

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