Video: Have we pushed Earth past the tipping point?

In a new video, the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment asks a critical question: “Have we pushed Earth past the tipping point?” Humanity developed civilization within a small zone of environmental conditions, but in the last century we have begun reshaping our planet, accelerating the process in recent years:

We’ve cleared, consumed and polluted our way across the globe. The planet is shrinking. Have we pushed Earth past the tipping point?

Watch the video:

Last September, a team of 28 scientists identified “10 separate biophysical systems crucial to humanity’s flourishing” and then determined “safe operating boundaries” for those systems within which humanity must remain if we wish to maintain the conditions in which it developed civilization. Unfortunately, anthropogenic interference with the climate system, the nitrogen cycle, and biodiversity is already past safe thresholds, with ocean acidification, ozone depletion, and other resource consumption at the door.

Watch a live broadcast of What We Know About Climate Change with Climate Crock of the Week’s Peter Sinclair at the new ClimateTV tonight at 9 PM EDT / 6 PM PDT.
This is a Wonk Room repost.

25 Responses to Video: Have we pushed Earth past the tipping point?

  1. Sou says:

    Excellent video. Thanks.

  2. MapleLeaf says:

    Well, done. This kind of messaging uses facts, but in a way that non-scientists can get it, and is short enough that it is not too overwhelming. I’m no PR type, but that is my humble opinion.

    We need more videos like this.

  3. There’s an excellent and lengthy update on that Rockstrom–tipping points analysis in the current Scientific American (along with a cut from my new book on why we may need to actually engage the question of whether we can keep growing the economy ever larger). I’m not sure it’s online.

    [JR: The SciAm piece is behind registration, which was the main reason I didn’t like to it.]

  4. paulm says:

    If you don’t agree with this your in denial.

  5. Chris Dudley says:

    I’m OK with the notion of tipping point and passing it so long as we can be clear that retreat is possible in some cases. In the film, Climate Change, Bio-Diversity Loss and Nitrogen Level are listed as tipped. But, with concerted effort, each of these could be reversed. Getting carbon dioxide below 350 ppm is doable. Rewilding can address biodiversity problems since extinction has not yet made complex ecosystems unworkable. Nitrogen management is becoming better understood and it is now clear that organic methods can feed the world. Failing to provide this sort of information leads to the presumption that nothing can be done, which is not the case.

  6. G says:

    I agree with Chris… if we’ve tipped, I’m not going to waste my time getting political and trying to make a difference. I’ll probably just stop putting money in my retirement account and try to spend more time with my family. Though the video was decent, I think the term “tipping point” is actually terrible because it is too damn depressing (and as Chris notes, somewhat inaccurate). I think that when you start getting apocalyptic that you may contribute to denial if the only other option is despondency. I know people like to bash Revkin on this site, but I agree with his discussion of using the terminology “amplifying feedbacks” which make delay more costly with more negative consequences. Of course you really have to hammer in how much more costly and how much more negative, but if you say the time for solutions have past, well, you won’t have solutions.

  7. paulm says:

    No one seems to be talking about this ‘small’ tipping point recently. Max lows. Recently in the NW its been off the scale. See last night:

    Data Vancouver
    Max: 9.8°C
    Min: 7.0°C

    Max: 11°C
    Min: 4°C

  8. Mark says:

    If you want to be sure to keep the John Q Public from taking any action whatsoever, then sure, use terms like amplifying feedback to describe our current situation.

    That term has absolutely no emotional resonance and will have zero positive effect on framing the debate.

    [JR: I’ll remember that when I’m writing for John Q Public. Seriously, find some other place for your ridiculous complaints.]

  9. climateprogressive says:

    Even less subtle, but still an extremely powerful montage:

    it’s the one I watch if I need to get even angrier than I am already! Credit to Dave Brock for the track, at least….

  10. G says:

    @Mark (#8): Perhaps “amplifying feedback” is inadequate but the grammarian in me feels that “tipping point” is inaccurate and counterproductive. Once you reach it, the term suggests that the time for action has past. As things get worse, we are eventually going to say that we have either passed the tipping point or we are going to have to move the goalposts and suffer a loss in credibility. I’d be interested in hearing some alternative terms to communicate exponential change. Howabout “hyper-instability” or “suicidal risk”?

    [JR: Vicious circle or vicious cycle.]

  11. Leif says:

    G, #10: I think we need to accentuate the Positive. (While we still can.) “Awakening Economy”… in-spite of the Fundamentalist overtones. (Might even fool a few into thinking for a moment.)

  12. Peter Bellin says:

    Great video.

    We need to emphasize somewhere that the problem goes beyond energy sources. Consumption patterns and volume matters as well. However, this video does resonate. I’ll have to visit the web site to see what their follow up is.

    Thank you.

  13. Mark says:

    JR: I’m confused why you would take such offense at a comment which was meant to be supportive of your efforts to encourage the improvement of our messaging to the wider public. I’m a big supporter of your work. And I think this video is quite good.

    I really liked your post about health care reform vs. health care security a couple days ago. My takeaway from that post was that the word “reform’ had little emotional appeal while the word “security” had broad emotional appeal. My comment was intended to follow in that vein. I see little that would stir people to action by talking about amplifying feedback. The phrases you suggest, vicious circle or cycle, are much better and more easily understood by a broader audience especially at an emotional level. And that is what moves most people to action. That’s not to say that the phrases amplifying feedback or positive feedback wouldn’t be effective with certain audiences, say scientists or engineers.

    G: Thank you for your thoughts. I agree with your comment that for many people, tipping point is synonymous with irreversible and that can discourage action. For me tipping point doesn’t mean irreversible, but that doesn’t matter if most of the public believes it does. So we certainly have to take that into account when considering the use of that phrase. So you are right to bring that issue up. It certainly is a fine line to walk as we consider the best words to use that both tell the truth about our situation and encourage our listeners to take action. My concern is that while encouraging folks to use less powerful words may not trigger denial, they may not be effective or even noticed.

    [JR: Mark — go back and read your comment aloud and listen to its tone. I was reacting to that, perhaps a bit strongly since I was in a hurry, but I get so many concern trolls posting here it is hard to separate out serious criticism from fake criticism.

    Also, one of my previous posts on feedbacks was actually criticized because I use the term “amplifying feedback” rather than the more scientific term positive feedback! In general, however, I think that for communicating to an informed, interested audience, “amplifying” is better. Indeed, I didn’t coin the term, but saw that another scientist have recommended it. My editor for “Hell and High Water” really hated the whole notion of feedbacks, so I used vicious circle or cycle there for a broader audience.

    BUT, and this is why I viewed your comment as quite unfair, my blog is not aimed at John Q. Public. Typically, my readership is of the order of magnitude of 1/100th of 1% of the US population — or, since I have a global readership — under 1% of 1% of 1% of the world population.

    There are many different forms of communication and many different audiences. One tries to communicate in as effective a fashion as possible for a given audience, but it is not appropriate to judge someone’s messaging on the basis of an audience they are not trying to communicate with. I don’t have RealClimate’s audience, nor do I have, say, Treehugger’s or CNN’s.

    My science posts are aimed at explaining the science as clearly as possible to my general, highly informed, audience — an audience that is still quite diverse in that some people are here for the politics, some for the clean energy stuff, some for the science, and some because they think this is the best one-stop-shop on all things climate. I try to minimize the jargon wherever I can, and using clearer terms, like amplifying feedback. Many of my readers do communicate directly with a broader audience — and so do I from time to time — so I spend a great deal of time on messaging. It might’ve been good to put in vicious circle or cycle in the post, but again, that wasn’t the point of this post. I might do a separate post on how one communicates the positive feedbacks.

    I will be doing more posts on messaging — and indeed I will be doing a lot of messaging over the next few months. So I welcome comments and criticism on messaging — and I can see that you are someone who is a close reader of this blog. But the bottom line is to always know who your audience is and what you are trying to communicate to them.]

  14. Mark says:

    JR: I apologize for the tone of my original comment. I was going for brevity and the result was poor messaging on my part.

    My comment wasn’t intended to be a suggestion for you as to how you should communicate to your readers, but was responding to G’s suggestion regarding words that we should use when communicating our situation to the broader public.

    So, I’m sorry for any misunderstanding. I really applaud the efforts you put into thinking how to best communicate to a wider audience. It is critically important. Thank you for all your efforts and your thoughts.

    [JR: No problemmo. Let’s call it even. Please keep commenting.]

  15. fj2 says:

    The terms tipping point, amplifying feedback, positive feedback, runaway climate change, etc. mean just one thing:

    We have to deal with this crisis immediately.

    Life is intelligence and virtually the same. Nature provides everything.

    We are the stuff of billions of years of evolution and virtually immortal. Survival is not an option.

  16. BioMapper says:

    Mark, G, and Joe, thanks for the brief but illuminating and encouraging discussion. I have been lurking here for a year or two and your exchange has drawn me out because it exemplifies a new stage in the relationship between Joe and his readership. We have all seen Joe focus his recent efforts on messaging. Pair that with Joe noting that his readership is 1/100th of 1% of the US population. As readers, we are engaged in a great messaging discussion on this site that we will be carrying with us as we talk to our friends, neighbors, and relatives.

    I am guessing that, by and large, the folks that read and post here are well-educated and well-respected by their peers. I am convinced that that there are still lots of “winnable” minds out there that have chosen not to focus their energy and intellect on the climate crisis and we know these folks and they respect us!

    Some are busy, some are sticking their heads in the sand, some are afraid. But lots of these folks know better and our clear and forthright statements on these issues can help bring these folks to a moment of intellectual honesty where they come to grips with the reality of what is at stake. And when that happens, they become another voice insisting that our society changes course. A voice that can then influence those that respect them.

    For example, a soil scientist I work with scoffed a few years ago when I suggested that revised USDA plant hardiness zone maps were evidence of climate change. Then, a few weeks ago I told him that I heard sandhill cranes (I live in Wisconsin). He responded by sitting straight up and saying in an alarmed hushed voice “It’s too early!”.

    Now, I know there is wide yearly variation in the phenology of bird migration but I think his response is significant because at a gut level he cannot deny the natural signals indicating that the climate is changing. Therefore, if I can clearly articulate issues like amplifying feedbacks to him, it can get him to intellectually acknowledge what he instinctively knows is true and the urgency of the moment.

    But he is just one co-worker so does it matter? YES. He is politically conservative and, outside of work, spends his time with friends that also prefer to pretend climate change is not a reality. If they see him acknowledging the reality of climate change, that removes a leg from the denier world-view they have constructed for their comfort and convenience. This then potentially leaves them more open to eventually acknowledging reality.

    So, while we must be thankful for Joe and others to take on the Inhofes and Watts, it is incumbent on us to influence folks that can infulence others.

    And you know what makes me hopeful about this small front in a larger campaign? When I started following this site there were something like 6000 RSS feeds. Now I see that there are almost 30,000 RSS feeds. I’d like to think that the vast majority of these folks are taking these messaging discussions to heart and are all influencing people that respect them.

    As Jeff says, Be Well.

    And keep speaking the truth because people are listening to you!

  17. Dan B says:


    Beautiful post.

    May I recommend two resources that have changed the way I communicate about our impending climate crisis?…. er, should I say, our rapid transformation to the 21st Century Clean Green Energy Economy.

    A year ago I moved to an African, Asian, and African-American neighborhood. Tough nut to crack. I moved because this community has consistently voted against environmental initiatives. Tough nut to crack?

    You bet.

    Unless the message addresses a need.

    I read Sightline Institute’s Flashcard #2 a year before I moved. It explored in depth how to communicate with people who are skeptical about climate change. Finding # 1. “Lead with solutions. Even people who are skeptical will become engaged in the discussion.” (I’d add the link but the algorithm on Joe’s site is suspicious.)

    Go to Sightline Institute and search for Flashcard # 2 for the other points and a multitude of illuminating details.


    P.S. How have my new neighbors responded with my “solutions based” approach? It’s stunning. They’ve signed up to join “green energy” training groups and they’ve changed the names of their businesses to reflect their commitment to clean-green energy and economy. They’ve voiced their opinions to each other, “The media isn’t telling us how serious climate change is!” “Clean energy that saves energy, and makes our neighborhoods healthier, is the future.”

  18. Dan B says:

    If anyone from Minnesota is still reading – ready for some input?

    I’ve become a media / messaging / communication wonk out of necessity. I wondered how the citizens of the US could elect “W” after what I believed were clear failures – We were attacked. The response was to the last attack not the next. Who dug deep enough to reveal where the attack came from and how to most effectively reduce the possibility of a similar attack?

    And – What vision did we have to offer? Did anything progressives, liberals, conservatives, or the far-right have to say constitute a vision, any vision?

    Answer: NO!

    First Rule of communication: Who are you? I’m Dan Borroff. Google me.

    Second Rule of communication: Who are you? I can’t search you on the web…

    Third Rule of communication: Who are you? What do you look like? clueless here… I’m great good friends with the National Chaplain for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. I’m not at all religious. He’s all religious. He’s wonderful. We e-mail every week or more. If someone attacked him it would be because they don’t know him, his wonderful children, the simple way he lives – he washes his own dishes in his one bedroom condo, he knows more about art than my art-centric family… well maybe not entirely, He knows more about Mexico and European politics than I could hope. And he relates everyday questions about politics and morality to passages in the Bible that I didn’t know existed.

    Sorry I’m getting very tired. I’ll try to hold to my train of thought.

    When I watched this video it felt exciting. However there was nothing I could tell my friends.


    Would I tell my friends I saw a video that was very professional and stimulating about climate change…..

    Ask your 12 and under children / relatives. They’re going to live under the dark or shiny cloud we leave.

    Ask them and listen well.


    P.S. Get a copy of “Switch, How to change things when change is hard.” Beat your messaging people over the head with it. Take them to dinner and apologize. Read it after you apologize.

  19. Joe Stepansky says:

    Dan B, #18: “If someone attacked him it would be because they don’t know him, his wonderful children, the simple way he lives..”

    I read something the other day about a possible reason Congress is such an uncivil mess. It seems that years ago congresspeople would actually visit each other’s homes and get to know each other and their families. It’s pretty hard to call someone names when you know their kids. It’s pretty hard to call someone names (publicly, at least) when you’ve broken bread with them.

    That socialization is apparently gone, at least for most. As a result, it’s getting difficult to get things done. I do remember, as a nerdy kid, that there were often serious policy disagreements between the parties. And that’s fine. Otherwise, what’s the point of competing political parties? But I don’t recall the kinds of personal attacks we see today. Oh, sure, every so often someone would get out of hand, but not on a regular basis.

    Back then an Inhofe might strongly advocate for his oil producing clients, but I don’t think he’d get publicly personal, and certainly wouldn’t have used his grandchildren as props to push an agenda (that igloo episode still disgusts me).

    My fear is that some nerdy kid today will think this is all normal, the way it’s always been. Think about it, can you see anything resembling the bipartisan Watergate hearings today? I can’t.

    And that’s why this climate issue will be such a tough nut to crack. People will have to actually see something happen before acting. And at that point, it may be too late.

  20. Eve says:

    An excellent video, although I agree with the others that it is a bit
    too negative. We know we are in serious straits and human-caused
    climate change is real and must be addressed. There is enough uncertainty and the ecosystem is complex enough so that we can’t know
    whether it is “too late” or not.

  21. Richard Brenne says:

    This video rocks! We can always quibble about the exact definition of tipping points (I’d appreciate knowing how they determined tipping points that seem so complex with such confidence) and messaging, but 99.9% of all climate change and environmental communication is made on the side of being far too timid, and this was exactly appropriate in its boldness. It was Rommesque and McKibbenesque, my highest compliments.

    Also since we might still have McKibben on the line, this is better than the supermodels taking it off for climate change and here’s why: When you have a low budget, which I’m presuming both this and the supermodels did, you use great graphics, copy and music like this and I feel you come up with a better piece of communication than almost any live-action piece you can do for the same price. A great writer like you could do great 350 videos in this style. And my gender-sensitivity training (okay, called marriage) made me feel uncomfortable with the supermodel piece.

    Look what the supermodels (bless their underfed hearts) piece is able to do, then look at what an unbelievably masterful piece of filmmaking communication (with a thousand times the budget) does: Google “Nike ad: The Human Chain.”

    Dave Kennedy of Nike’s ad agency Wieden and Kennedy let me use some of their best commercials teaching filmmaking long ago: I’m now asking permission to use this commercial in my climate change PowerPoint talks, because the message is so powerful. The musical refrain (composed for the 62 second commercial) is “Everybody gets knocked down – how quick are you gonna get up?”

    This is exactly what our species needs to do, pick ourselves up after we have knocked ourselves down and almost out.

    (Some might have to overlook Nike’s globalization, some sports revenge and violence in the commercial – I always see if I feel there’s a net gain, as I feel there is here. As the father of an athlete the little scream of fear midst great courage as the gymnast and diver falls tugs at my heartstrings, as do some of the other lyrics, like “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish; It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.” Also in addition to Avatar I’d send this commercial to the moon for all future visitors to see our diversity, our heart, courage and character, as well as our greatest invention, the bicycle.)

    So we need to build our communication in all media to this level of artistry, and this University of Minnesota video with a small budget is masterfully written and I appreciate it, even though along with most environmental messages peak oil and resource depletion other than water aren’t included as I feel they should be. (Just ask the best experts about any resource: We’re running out of everything.)

    The fact is that Peak Oil is the jab that breaks our nose (and already has to a large degree) while Climate Change is the haymaker that can knock us out.

    But no communication is perfect. People have to hear the message dozens of times in dozens of different ways and many different mediums.

    Just keep it coming, University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment: You rock!

  22. Use of intelligible vocabulary is actually quite important.

    Although Joana Q. Public may not be the target audience of this blog, still, she might be giving it a gander from time to time, and the msm also pick and choose from these posts.

    One of the problems with John Q. Public et al. is that they are in the main scientifically illiterate.

    I know people who think terms like “aerosol forcing” and “radiative forcing” are something the government is spraying on its citizens and hitting them with radioactivity, respectively.

    Positive feedback is another term that confuses the uninitiate.

    [N.B.: Dr. Hansen has long been talking in terms of “points of no return” (being worse than “tipping points,” apparently).]

    People need to get it. They need to get that we are already in a whole world of trouble and even worse is on the way.

    But they don’t even get that message.

    They have been fed more than 20 years of disinformation. The roots of this need to be exposed, but it seems that investigative journalism has gone the way of science journalism.

  23. TR says:

    Really enjoying the comments and discussion.

    The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment ( – where I work – produced this video on a limited budget as a companion piece to the Scientific American cover story referenced in the intro.

    This is the second installment in our Big Question series. Our first video asked “How do we feed a growing world without destroying the planet?” The video is available at:

  24. ErikaKay says:

    I really liked this video. It was very depressing, but sometimes, necessarily so. It is hard to know how to communicate our current situation to people because everyone believes differently and everyone sees things with different eyes. I think that it is important to get people more aware in any way that will reach them. Although the video was very depressing, the issues that we are facing are surfacing faster and faster. New problems are developing. It is starting to feel like an issue that the solution will need to come from the bottom and work up. Our politics aren’t getting at these pressing matters fast enough. We need to make change and not sit around until the light turns green for us to pass some of the political barriers.

  25. Erika Sorensen says:

    This video listed the facts, told the consequences and emphasized the need for change. It was easy to understand for anyone who might come across it, which is important because in order for change to occur everyone needs to be a part of the movement, and videos like this allow for everyone to understand what needs to be changed. For so long sustainability and topics related to it were not open to the public, and this is starting to change. Until last year I had never even heard of sustainability, and even today when I tell people it is my minor I have to explain it to them because they have never heard the term. Videos such as this one can open up the eyes of those who have not had the formal training, because that is not what is needed for change. What is needed is a global understanding of the problem and a desire to fix it.