Discover more from Net Zero by 2050
Needed: A Tipping Point
The Lake Mead Bath Rings
Over the course of the last few months I have published many articles, posts and videos to do with the climate crisis and other ‘Age of Limits’ issues. These publications have covered many topics, but I sometimes think that the two most important were The Coffee Shop and Limits and Beyond: The Yawning Gap. Both posts are to do with the fact that, for most people, climate change is not yet an emotional reality. They may (or may not) read the many reports describing our climate predicament, but these reports seem to be describing just one problem among many.
It is true that some people are starting to see changes in their personal lives caused by climate variations, but these changes are not perceived as being existential. (The attitude that that climate change is not critically important has been exacerbated in the year 2022 by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and saber-rattling in the western Pacific. Suddenly, talk of world war and the possible use of nuclear weapons has captured everyone’s attention.)
In other words, most people do not yet see climate change as leading to that magnificent acronym TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World As We Know It).
The climate literature contains many references to the concept of tipping points. The basic idea is that system gradually changes but then suddenly “tips” into another state. There is no return from the new state to the old one.
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
Ernest Hemingway in his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises,
An example of a climate tipping point is what is somewhat theatrically referred to as the “clathrate gun”. This fanciful term refers to the fact that there are huge amounts of clathrates in the Arctic tundra and oceans. (Clathrates are a loose combination of methane and water). When warmed, these compounds break down and release methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. As a consequence the atmosphere heats up some more, so more clathrates break down, thus creating a positive feedback loop that quickly tips the climate into a new state.
Perceived Tipping Points
Tipping points do not have to be physical, they can also occur in the way people, as a group, think. We have already seen that the invasion of Ukraine has created a tipping point in the manner in which many people perceive a situation. Three additional examples that illustrate this kind of chance are the sinking of the Titanic, the Bhopal catastrophe and the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear calamity.
The story of the luxury, “unsinkable” Titanic ocean liner is familiar. After striking an iceberg during her maiden voyage she sank in the early hours of April 15, 1912, off the coast of Newfoundland. Of the 2,240 passengers and crew on board, more than 1,500 perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
The incident has led to many well-known quotations and sayings, including the following.
Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the 'Titanic' who waved off the dessert cart. (Erma Bombeck)
I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort. (E.J. Smith, 1850-1912, Captain of the Titanic.)
Until the moment she actually sinks, the Titanic is unsinkable. (Julia Hughes)
The phrase “Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic” has come to mean, “making well-meaning but negligible adjustments to an endeavor that is doomed to fail” or “futile, symbolic action in the face of catastrophe”.
. . . the disaster suddenly ripped away the blindfolds and changed dozens of attitudes, practices, and standards almost literally overnight. The magnitude of the incident led to a total overhaul of the safety standards as sea (known as SOLAS). Those standards are with us today, and have saved countless lives. (Brander, 1995).
A key word in the above passage is ‘suddenly’. The sinking of the Titanic happened in just a few hours; news of the disaster spread around the world in days. Change was immediate. (For example, before the sinking companies, had a complicated formula as to how many lifeboat seats should be provided. Afterwards, the SOLAS rules required that the number of seats equal the number of passengers.)
The world’s worst industrial accident occurred when toxic chemicals leaked from a chemical plant in Bhopal, India in the year 1984. At least 2,500 people in the surrounding communities died and many more were grievously injured.
Following this tragedy, executives and managers in the process industries recognized that “something must be done”. By the turn of the century chemical and refining companies around the world had successfully implemented process safety management standards.
Multiple reactor meltdowns that occurred at this nuclear plant in the year 2011. Its cause was an earthquake followed by a tsunami. The event led to world-wide rejection of nuclear power as a replacement for fossil fuels.
We started this post by saying that climate change is still perceived as being one problem among many. The above examples show that one, single event may lead to a fundamental shift in attitudes. However, that event will have to be completely out of the usual. For example, an increased number of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico would not change perceptions because hurricanes happen every season. Of course, no one knows what a tipping point event may be, but one candidate may be the falling water levels in Lake Mead.
Lake Mead (created by the Hoover dam) is one of the largest reservoirs in the United States in terms of water capacity. It is located on the Colorado River about 24 miles from Las Vegas, Nevada. The lake supplies Las Vegas with around 90% of its water, and it also is used to irrigate agriculture in the area. Its level has been steadily falling in recent years due to the drought in the southwest United States.
The chart shows how quickly the level has fallen in recent years. If current trends continue it is possible that, within just a few years, the supply of water to large cities such as Las Vegas will be severely curtailed. Should that happen, the impact on public perception (at least in the United States) could be dramatic.
(In response, it should be made clear that city management is aware of this problem, and has implemented many conservation programs. And it is possible that the winter snow and rain will be above normal. Still, the potential for severe water cut backs to both the city and agriculture remains. Indeed, already there are signs of trouble. There are three water intakes that take water from the lake to Las Vegas. The top most of these intakes is already exposed and only partially functional.)