Must-Read: Scientists Uncover Evidence Of Impending Tipping Point For Earth

Image: Cheng (Lily) Li.

JR: If we stay anywhere near our current greenhouse gas emissions path, we will cross many climate tipping points this century. There’s the nearby tipping point for an ice-free arctic, with all that means for making our weather much more extreme and for triggering another tipping point, the rapid loss of carbon from the permafrost. There’s the tipping point for the “self-amplifying” disintegration of Greenland and, after that, an ice free planet (though we’d cross the point of no return long before the full melting ever happened). Other lines are blurrier: Dust-Bowlification looks to be a continuous process. But the key point is that the changes that occur are largely irreversible over an extended timeframe (see NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe).

We’re near 400  parts per million atmospheric concentration of C02, rising 2+ ppm a year (a rate that is projected to rise as emissions increase and carbon sinks saturate). While no one knows the exact line of demarcation for the various tipping points, the latest science suggests that if we go substantially above, say, 450 ppm we risk starting the chain of events, while going substantially above 500 ppm seems downright suicidal (see links below). We are, sadly, on track for 800 to 1000 ppm this century, which would be the end of modern civilization as we know it today, according to the most recent science. Long before then, however, we’ll cross all the big tipping points. Indeed, as Dr. Tim Lenton explains in Scientific American, “The worse case would be that kind of scenario in which you tip one thing and that encourages the tipping of another. You get these cascading effects.”

A major new study has been released on tipping points in Nature, “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere” (subs. req’d). The news release is reposted below.

UC Berkeley professor Tony Barnosky explains how an increasing human population, coupled with climate change, could irreversibly alter Earth’s ecosystem. (Video produced by Roxanne Makasdjian)

by Robert Sanders, via UC Berkeley News Center

A prestigious group of scientists from around the world is warning that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth toward an irreversible change in the biosphere, a planet-wide tipping point that would have destructive consequences absent adequate preparation and mitigation.

“It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point,” warns Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of a review paper appearing in the June 7 issue of the journal Nature. “The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations.”

The Nature paper, in which the scientists compare the biological impact of past incidences of global change with processes under way today and assess evidence for what the future holds, appears in an issue devoted to the environment in advance of the June 20-22 United Nations Rio+20 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The result of such a major shift in the biosphere would be mixed, Barnosky noted, with some plant and animal species disappearing, new mixes of remaining species, and major disruptions in terms of which agricultural crops can grow where.

The paper by 22 internationally known scientists describes an urgent need for better predictive models that are based on a detailed understanding of how the biosphere reacted in the distant past to rapidly changing conditions, including climate and human population growth. In a related development, groundbreaking research to develop the reliable, detailed biological forecasts the paper is calling for is now underway at UC Berkeley. The endeavor, The Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology, or BiGCB, is a massive undertaking involving more than 100 UC Berkeley scientists from an extraordinary range of disciplines that already has received funding: a $2.5 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and a $1.5 million grant from the Keck Foundation. The paper by Barnosky and others emerged from the first conference convened under the BiGCB’s auspices.

“One key goal of the BiGCB is to understand how plants and animals responded to major shifts in the atmosphere, oceans, and climate in the past, so that scientists can improve their forecasts and policy makers can take the steps necessary to either mitigate or adapt to changes that may be inevitable,” Barnosky said. “Better predictive models will lead to better decisions in terms of protecting the natural resources future generations will rely on for quality of life and prosperity.” Climate change could also lead to global political instability, according to a U.S. Department of Defense study referred to in the Nature paper.

“UC Berkeley is uniquely positioned to conduct this sort of complex, multi-disciplinary research,” said Graham Fleming, UC Berkeley’s vice chancellor for research. “Our world-class museums hold a treasure trove of biological specimens dating back many millennia that tell the story of how our planet has reacted to climate change in the past. That, combined with new technologies and data mining methods used by our distinguished faculty in a broad array of disciplines, will help us decipher the clues to the puzzle of how the biosphere will change as the result of the continued expansion of human activity on our planet.”

One BiGCB project launched last month, with UC Berkeley scientists drilling into Northern California’s Clear Lake, one of the oldest lakes in the world with sediments dating back more than 120,000 years, to determine how past changes in California’s climate impacted local plant and animal populations.

City of Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, chair of the Bay Area Joint Policy Committee, said the BiGCB “is providing the type of research that policy makers urgently need as we work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare the Bay region to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change. To take meaningful actions to protect our region, we first need to understand the serious global and local changes that threaten our natural resources and biodiversity.”

“The Bay Area’s natural systems, which we often take for granted, are absolutely critical to the health and well-being of our people, our economy and the Bay Area’s quality of life,” added Bates.

How close is a global tipping point?

The authors of the Nature review – biologists, ecologists, complex-systems theoreticians, geologists and paleontologists from the United States, Canada, South America and Europe – argue that, although many warning signs are emerging, no one knows how close Earth is to a global tipping point, or if it is inevitable. The scientists urge focused research to identify early warning signs of a global transition and an acceleration of efforts to address the root causes.

“We really do have to be thinking about these global scale tipping points, because even the parts of Earth we are not messing with directly could be prone to some very major changes,” Barnosky said. “And the root cause, ultimately, is human population growth and how many resources each one of us uses.”

Co-author Elizabeth Hadly from Stanford University said “we may already be past these tipping points in particular regions of the world. I just returned from a trip to the high Himalayas in Nepal, where I witnessed families fighting each other with machetes for wood – wood that they would burn to cook their food in one evening. In places where governments are lacking basic infrastructure, people fend for themselves, and biodiversity suffers. We desperately need global leadership for planet Earth.”

The authors note that studies of small-scale ecosystems show that once 50-90 percent of an area has been altered, the entire ecosystem tips irreversibly into a state far different from the original, in terms of the mix of plant and animal species and their interactions. This situation typically is accompanied by species extinctions and a loss of biodiversity.

Currently, to support a population of 7 billion people, about 43 percent of Earth’s land surface has been converted to agricultural or urban use, with roads cutting through much of the remainder. The population is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2045; at that rate, current trends suggest that half Earth’s land surface will be disturbed by 2025. To Barnosky, this is disturbingly close to a global tipping point.

“Can it really happen? Looking into the past tells us unequivocally that, yes, it can really happen. It has happened. The last glacial/interglacial transition 11,700 years ago was an example of that,” he said, noting that animal diversity still has not recovered from extinctions during that time. “I think that if we want to avoid the most unpleasant surprises, we want to stay away from that 50 percent mark.”

Global change biology

The paper emerged from a conference held at UC Berkeley in 2010 to discuss the idea of a global tipping point, and how to recognize and avoid it.

Following that meeting, 22 of the attendees summarized available evidence of past global state-shifts, the current state of threats to the global environment, and what happened after past tipping points.

They concluded that there is an urgent need for global cooperation to reduce world population growth and per-capita resource use, replace fossil fuels with sustainable sources, develop more efficient food production and distribution without taking over more land, and better manage the land and ocean areas not already dominated by humans as reservoirs of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

“Ideally, we want to be able to predict what could be detrimental biological change in time to steer the boat to where we don’t get to those points,” Barnosky said. “My underlying philosophy is that we want to keep Earth, our life support system, at least as healthy as it is today, in terms of supporting humanity, and forecast when we are going in directions that would reduce our quality of life so that we can avoid that.”

“My view is that humanity is at a crossroads now, where we have to make an active choice,” Barnosky said. “One choice is to acknowledge these issues and potential consequences and try to guide the future (in a way we want to). The other choice is just to throw up our hands and say, ‘Let’s just go on as usual and see what happens.’ My guess is, if we take that latter choice, yes, humanity is going to survive, but we are going to see some effects that will seriously degrade the quality of life for our children and grandchildren.”

Robert Sanders is a science writer for the University of California, Berkeley. This piece was originally published at UC Berkeley News Center.

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63 Responses to Must-Read: Scientists Uncover Evidence Of Impending Tipping Point For Earth

  1. Mark E says:

    As a kid, the difference between “dumb beasts” and us – homo sapiens sapiens, or “wise man” – was that we use language, and they don’t.

    Then when that was disproved, it was that we use tools, and they don’t. But this has also been disproved.

    What’s left?

    ANSWER: Voluntarily limiting one’s own species to below carrying capacity. By that objective ecological measure, there’s not that big a difference between us and any herbivore species that becomes free of predation.

    “Wise man”, indeed. I’m hopeful for the stories the survivors tell and the primary one I hope they include is this:

    -Lessons are repeated until learned.

  2. colinc says:

    Three days ago Common Dreams had this…

    Earth Facing Imminent Environmental ‘Tipping Point’: Report
    Biosphere reaching an environmental ‘state shift’, says scientists

    “The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations,” stated lead author Anthony Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California in Berkeley.

    “My colleagues who study climate-induced changes through the Earth’s history are more than pretty worried,” he said in a press release. “In fact, some are terrified,” said co-researcher Arne Mooers, a professor of biodiversity at Simon Fraser University in Canada’s British Columbia.

    I would suggest that Arne Mooers’ interjection finally reflects that reality is not arbitrary and belief is utterly irrelevant. In my experience, no reasonable person has ever really been “terrified” of anything save an imminent, “in-your-face,” life-ending threat.

  3. Joan Savage says:

    A state shift is among other things, a shift in the timing of recurrences. Is it going to snow every winter or only once in a while?
    How long does a Texas drought “usually” last?

    When the Great Plains lost its grassland ecosystems to the plow and the feedlot, that was a state shift. It is not reversible at the same rate at which the transition took place. Ocean acidification and sea level rise are not reversible at the same pace at which they are taking place. Retrieving CO2 from atmosphere cannot proceed at the same pace at which it was emitted.

    If a state shift has yet to personally affect billions of humans, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t already happened.

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    There are several sub-species of human beings. The globally dominant are Homo destructans, Homo homicidans and Homo cupidans, who comprise what we euphemistically call the Right. They dominate through a crudely Darwinian process because they have no compunction in destroying those unlike themselves, and have slowly tipped the balance in humanity towards their psychology and behaviour.

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I really cannot see why the worthies say we are ‘approaching’ tipping-points when it is so clear that we have long passed them, and various points of no return, as well. How, in the name of Gaia, are we going to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, stop the accelerating release of more and remove the heat stored in the oceans, for three examples. Are the scientists concerned not to dishearten people?

  6. colinc says:

    I understand and empathize with your stated confusion. I have no “answers” to the queries you pose but I do have a theory. Alas, I’ve found that the vast majority to whom I express said theory find it repugnant and “unacceptable.” Nonetheless, as I said above (and many, many times before), belief is irrelevant and the cascading catastrophes, which have already started, that will snuff the life from 6.5+ billion “humans” will come as a complete “surprise” to them. After all, self-destruction is not in our nature, it is our nature.

  7. Mike Roddy says:

    I agree with Joan and Mulga that “tipping points” have already occurred, as the carbon train has picked up speed in the last five years. It’s nice to see a study group designed to sharpen future observations of them, but these same scientists already have a pretty good general idea of where we are headed.

    Barnosky and his team are first rate, but he made a statement that reflects mission drift at my old university, first evidenced after big cash grants from oil companies a few years ago. Barnosky pins our problems on population growth and consumption patterns.

    There is truth in that charge, but note that neither population growth nor consumption habits has a remedy. A substantial carbon tax and charging fossil fuel companies for externalities would be actual solutions, but involve alienating powerful corporate actors. So would canceling financial incentives to level the few remaining North American forests, which are major carbon storage reservoirs. The Nature article is too passive on this subject.

    Berkeley is not the same place it was when I graduated in tear gas-soaked 1969. Its faculty needs to rediscover its roots, since students appear to be passive these days. They could begin by acting on their scientific discoveries, and besieging those who hold the levers of power. We need scientific leadership, since politicians and the media have abdicated.

  8. David F. says:

    We’ve already past the tipping point of human stupidity. How else do you explain the large number of climate deniers? The warmer the climate gets, the more asinine the arguments against solving the climate crisis become.

  9. Joe Romm says:

    Disagree. Individuals can’t solve this problem by voluntarily reducing their carbon footprint. Only governments can sold this problem but conservative won’t let them.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I think that the problem lies in human psychology. We imagine ourselves to be a really Big Deal. Why, we even created a God in Our image. It is not possible that such a wonder could disappear. Moreover the denial of species’ death is alike to the pretty universal denial of individual extinction, sublimated by religious phantasy or simply ignored as if such deliberate inattention will magically make it disappear.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Nature’ is nothing compared to ‘New Scientist’ which recently pondered mankind’s future over the next hundred millennia. The ecological collapse of the present day was more or less denied out of existence with some mealy-mouthed cornutopian techno-optimism.

  12. Mark E says:

    Baloney. Conservatives’ money helps them, sure. But in India the Brits had all the money, but once ordinary citizens decided to stop participating in the insanity of the British system they no longer had any clout.

    It is *all* about personal action. Government for the common good only exists when the people demand it. Where are the Gandhian climate hawks? Oil/gas/goal doesn’t hold a candle against the combination of Gandhi-level discipline in our personal choices combined with nonviolent civil disobedience that results in filling the jails longterm. And I ain’t talking about recreational weekend civil disobedience.

  13. Mike 22 says:

    Did you read the paper?

  14. Mark E says:

    Mike said, ..”neither population growth nor consumption habits has a remedy”

    No, nature will provide the remedy if we do not. Any species that exceeds carrying capacity experiences a crash….. often to a new equilibrium at a dramatically reduced carrying capacity. Sort of like spending the principal in your savings account.

    If we are not mere beasts our task is to invent and choose an alternative remedy.

    Otherwise, we’ll just be trying to slay a single head of the Hydra – that of global warming – and leaving the others alone. Wouldn’t that be sort of pointless?

  15. Todd Fiers says:

    I FIRMLY believe there’s really only one tipping point. I’m not a “climate scientist” but have been paying close attention, researching, digging and thinking about this for years, and simple physics point to certain meltdown, once it takes hold! Feedbacks, combined with the slow response in stopping greenhouse gas emissions (like trying to stop a train) almost promise climate runaway! I wish people would quit talking about 2030, 2050 or the end of the century, when talking about what “might” happen if we don’t “reduce???” emissions. This just makes people think we still have time to debate! I have a VERY STRONG feeling the scientific community is not taking the likely multiplying feedbacks seriously enough. I keep hearing some things are happening before expected (Duh) I think it will speed up, and happen WAY faster than people say! We’re very close, if not beyond the point of no return, but I will have hope until something tells me it’s done. President Obama MUST stop trying to walk the line, and come out and tell the world how extremely important it is, while he’s still president!?! Is he waiting for “planet heating” to indisputably show its ugly face?

  16. Michelle M says:

    You forgot Homo asinalis, those that gullibly believe everything told them and keep voting the others into office.

  17. Brian Wind says:

    Climate change denial is about not being able to witness the collapse of our society and civilization. We say “This cannot be happening. This cannot be real. They have lied to us before.” But the truth is: it is very likely agriculture is about to fail in a barrage of extreme weather events. Staying alive is about to become very difficult. We know this and it is very difficult to deal with this fact.

  18. Paul Klinkman says:

    We live in a technological society now, capable of restoring the Arctic Ocean’s ice pack at a cost of about $1 billion per year (a real bargain) until we can sequester quite a few gigatons of carbon. This isn’t the easiest thing to do, but it’s better than throwing out millions of species to extinction. Extinct is forever.

    The real problem is, most of our politicians don’t give two methane emissions about the impending disaster. They’re taking big money from a very few people who want to keep their own profits flowing. So the momentum of the disaster grows, like a small fire left to grow minute by minute.

  19. Dick Smith says:

    RE: “A substantial carbon tax and charging fossil fuel companies for externalities would be actual solutions, but involve alienating powerful corporate actors. So would canceling financial incentives to level the few remaining North American forests, which are major carbon storage reservoirs. The Nature article is too passive on this subject.”

    Very well said. I had the same reaction, but couldn’t have expressed it this well.

  20. Dick Smith says:

    Conservatives are not responsible for Obama’s irresponsible silence on this issue. His silence is killing us. Until he leads, we are all marking time.

  21. Jan Freed says:

    The best chance we have, IMHO, is the “carbon fee and dividend”. Carbon suppliers must remit a fee/ton. That fee is returned to the taxpayer, as prices will rise. But the market will shift to renewables. It is the Save Our Climate Act. HR3242.

    Might as well be optimistic. AND, urge your Congressperson to support the act.

  22. Brooks Bridges says:

    “It is *all* about personal action. Government for the common good only exists when the people demand it. Where are the Gandhian climate hawks? ”

    You’ve nailed it!

    Ghandi didn’t wait for the British to free India. Alice Paul didn’t wait for President Wilson to “lead” on women’s suffrage. Both made great personal sacrifices to lead others to persuade the Obamas of their time to “Do the right thing.”

    But I guess actually doing something instead of blaming Obama would be terribly inconvenient.

    So much easier to write comments and sign online petitions and the like. After all, it’s only the end of civilization as we know it.

  23. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Not sure I like the bit that says
    “Not conductive to human life”

  24. Sailesh Rao says:

    “It is *all* about personal action. Government for the common good only exists when the people demand it. Where are the Gandhian climate hawks? ”

    Right On! When Gandhi was thrown of the train, he didn’t agitate for an Oppression tax to be levied by the government on white people, with the dividend to be distributed to all white people so that the overall oppression of non-whites declines. Instead, he dusted himself off and organized to teach Indians to non-violently, but firmly, request the British to kindly remove their butts from India. The British discovered that when 300 million people ask you to move your butts, you do it.

    The biggest lever that we have today is in our food habits. 45% of the land area of the planet is now devoted to raising livestock, which winds up providing just 20% of the global food calories for human consumption. The remaining 80% is provided by plant-foods raised on roughly 5% of the land area of the planet.

    If everyone went organic vegan, here’s what will happen:
    1. 40% of the land area of the planet will automatically be returned to Nature to regenerate forests and sequester carbon,
    2. Life in the ocean will recover,
    3. We will all be bursting with health, and
    4. The disastrous, endless growth economy that is based on making people sick and then treating them out of sickness will collapse and the rich people who are making money off this “broken-windows” economy will find themselves poor. We’ll have some extra places at the dinner table for them.

  25. Lollipop says:

    Yes, this. We have moral obligations to take personal and collective action. Not of the changing the lightbulbs or buying a Prius variety though, but of the street protest and civil disobedience kind.

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    No. Need I have to know that our goose is already cooked? I don’t think so.

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I think that, for many decent souls, the greatest horror is knowing just how the Right will react when the collapse really kicks in. The chances of them pursuing mutual support and collective action to protect all approximate to absolute zero. The certainty of their reacting with rage and violence in an effort to keep themselves alive for as long as possible equates to the absolute.

  28. Mike 22 says:

    My, what hubris. Scientists, technologists, and politicians around the world have laid out clear solutions to today’s dire situation. But you know better–the goose is already cooked.

    We need to do many things well over the next few decades. This report lays out a solid picture on what kind of new science we need to right now to better understand and protect the biotic integrity of our planets ecosystem.

  29. Icarus says:

    I think a lot of people pinned their hopes on Obama, but in the end he’s just as much a servant of Big Money as anyone else – he has to be; it’s the only way you can have enough money to get elected in the US.

  30. Karl Quick says:

    If we can’t stop spending more than we earn …personally, nationally, world wide… when faced with truly imminent disaster, why expect mankind can curtail environmental disaster based upon much more subtitle evidence, coming much more slowly?
    If we can’t predict the economy, given all the math deals with finite numbers and rules all made by man, how do you expect us to get a reliable handle on the global environment… including solar variations and asteroid impacts!
    And you scoff and wonder why people prefer religion to science for solace! ;-)

  31. Mark E says:

    What percentage of the average person’s US income tax can be attributed to tax breaks for fossil fuel companies? Pretend the number was ___% for a moment….

    when April 15 rolls around, and you accurately complete the form, would you send in ALL of the money or redirect ___% to climate mitigation programs?

  32. Ken Barrows says:

    $1,000,000,000? Is that your number because it sounds good to you? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

  33. Ken Barrows says:

    Governments cannot solve this problem with most people changing the way they live. And I don’t exclude myself.

  34. Ken Barrows says:

    correction: without

  35. Mimikatz says:

    Resource use isn’t going to continue in an ascending line. As feedbacks kick in, population will begin to fall, as will resource use. Transportation costs for fuel and goods will rise so much as to be uneconomical. We will be forced to cut back and it won’t be pleasant. We won’t deploy hugely expensive technologies to combat climate change because it will be too expensive and the haves won’t spend their money that way but in ensuring their personal survival.

    Maybe some magic technological fix will come along, but right now the future doesn’t look too bright. Not that we should stop trying, but need to be realistic.

  36. Larry Chamblin says:

    Maybe our only hope–remember that word from 2008?–is that, in his second term, he will have the courage to break away from his ties to Wall Street and big corporations that sponsor our elections. His interview in Rolling Stone gives us some reason for this hope.

  37. Texas Aggie says:

    Unfortunately a lot of scientists who are heavily involved in the problem agree with you. You’ll note that the emphasis on correcting the problem has devolved into learning to live with it.

  38. Texas Aggie says:

    Agriculture has already started to fail. Yields per acre are decreasing, and even worse, the research has shown that when too much of the day is above a cutoff temperature unique for each species of plant, then yield falls. The cutoff temperatures have been reached and now what is happening is that more and more of the day is at the limiting temperatures.

  39. speakoutforscience says:

    Those “democrats” are people who believe/read/understand/see what every scientific institution around the world is publishing in respected scientific journals. Those gullible “democrats” trust those sources more than Fox News and Rush Limbaugh have to say.

  40. klem says:

    And I will keep a place open for you at my table as well. You can bring your tofu and lawn clippings, I’ll have my porterhouse thank you very much.

    We’ll get along swimingly.


  41. speakoutforscience says:

    Global warming and climate change are occurring regardless of who is in office. Republicans only care about big business and money. At least Democrats care about public health, nature, survival of the planet, and the common good rather than the good of a select few.

  42. klem says:

    Well said.

  43. klem says:

    “… After all, it’s only the end of civilization as we know it.”

    We can only hope right? Wahoo!

  44. speakoutforscience says:

    I don’t know where you found this “information”, however there is no way to restore Arctic sea ice absent another ice age. There are no good technological solutions out of this that don’t have dire consequences to living beings.

  45. klem says:

    I would send in all of the money.

  46. klem says:

    Relax, all you need to do is replace a couple of your lightbulbs with those curley bulbs. Then you’ve done your bit.

  47. Zimzone says:

    Among the varied intelligent thoughts, comments and replies on this thread, you seem to think you’re the conservative hall monitor.

    I get it. You don’t believe in climate change. Why don’t you leave it at that instead of posting wise ass remarks that simply show your ignorance?

    Better to live life with a closed mind than an open mouth.

  48. Geoff Beacon says:

    Getting voters and government to do something sensible is hard work but the first-order economic remedy is easier – a very high carbon price.

    At a recent meeting in London, two eminent journalists from the Times and Telegraph and Peter Kellner from the YouGov pollsters agreed that a carbon tax could become politically possible. The questioner framed his question in the context of using the carbon tax to create jobs. Sadly the politician on the panel ducked the question.

    Jim Hansen proposes another sensible scheme “tax carbon and give the proceeds straight back to every citizen”. Is it true that his scheme is getting political support in the US?

    A recent piece in the Fraser Economic Commentary “The impact of the introduction of a carbon tax for Scotland” claims that a carbon tax can be used to reduce unemployment.

    One feature of both these proposals is that they earmark the taxes in a way that does not involve more government spending – they are either given back to citizens or used to cut other taxes.

    It’s hard to convince politicians on anything that doesn’t come from opinion polls but in preparation for the time that the polls will turn (soon) we need some good economics to show them what is possible.

    Politicians do sometimes listen to economists and economic commentators. I hope that Climate Progress can get economists like Stiglitz to do a guest blog. Perhaps the “right wing” economic commentator Tim Worstall can be asked to contribute to CP. He has recently written a piece “Agreeing with James Hansen on climate change”. Actually he agrees with a carbon tax (to replace other taxes) but seems to think climate change isn’t very much of a problem. The real world may soon change his mind on climate.

    I will catch some UK politicians this week. Any good ideas as to what I should tell them?

    P.S. For the references see

  49. Pamela Dritt says:

    Simple. The higher prices for oil and gas will cause people to cut back and conserve, because they can save money that way. The dividend isn’t dependent on how much carbon your household uses. Your household saves money if you cut back your carbon use, while you’ll still be getting the dividend.

  50. Ominous Clouds Overhead says:

    WTF does that mean? Do you work for Big Oil or a coal company?

  51. Ominous Clouds Overhead says:


  52. Homer says:

    One of the major tipping points was reached over twenty years ago – peak oil. I’m surprised no one has mentioned it in this thread yet. When you add that to all the other problems facing us, it makes one wonder about the future of humanity. Species go extinct for any number of reasons, but we seem determined to do ourselves in.

  53. Sailesh Rao says:

    Thanks, Klem, but I would prefer not to watch you eat your children and would stay away.

  54. Joan Savage says:

    We need a more operative definition for a tipping point.

    In this conversation and other it looks like tipping point really diverges from what environmental scientists are calling “state shifts.”

    There are several possibilities. One is to see a tipping point as “the” tipping point, a cumulative point of no return for the human species.

    The earlier operative definition was of other points of no return, such as a lastingly hotter climate or more acidic ocean.

    Some use tipping point to mean when the positive feedback loops start cranking up.

    The article about “state shift in the earth’s biosphere” refers to some uncertainties. I say those uncertainties are partly problems of definition and partly the limits of prediction for complex processes.

  55. Patricia Strong says:

    This entire mess is beyond terrifying – the wprst part,perhaps, is our ostrich like attitude to all of this. Don’t confuse me with facts – I DON’T WISH TO KNOW THAT!
    Thanks Goon Show! I guess the only thing to do is to “make the best of it”

  56. kermit says:

    Mike 22, I don’t think Mulga disagrees that corrective measures are technically possible. He simply shares my pessimism about human nature. No technical steps are effective if they aren’t implemented.

    I fear we will wait until long after 2020 before acting. When we do act, we will be desperate, terrified, and furious, and the majority of the human species will still be acting against our collective interest. I can almost guarantee that in the US, the religious right will think they are being punished by God for liberal social policies, the secular religious right will think it’s a liberal socialist plot to destroy the world’s economy, and the loonie half of the left won’t be able to assess the relative merits of carbon sequestration compared to the global healing power of crystals.

    If we didn’t act reasonably twenty years ago when it would have cost us little, and we don’t act reasonably now when we would have to tighten our belts but it can save civilization, I am not optimistic we will act with the discipline needed in ten or twenty years.

  57. kermit says:

    Sailesh, eating vegetarian or vegan is all well and good, and as a sustainable gardener I approve of anything that treats our planet more kindly.

    But if we had, say, 60% of the US population willing to eat vegan, we wouldn’t have to protest; we could vote for legislators who would take steps to fix this mess ASAP.

    Making such changes to one’s diet requires far more commitment than simply deciding to pay a bit more for the transition from coal to wind and solar.

    I suspect it’s much the same in the other major offending countries.

  58. Sailesh Rao says:


    That change is the protest! Aren’t we lucky that unlike Gandhi who had to mobilize the people in order to ask other people (the British) to do something (to move their butts out of India), we have to mobilize people in order to change themselves?

    Mark Bittman flatly states that in 50-100 years, every human being will be vegan and most of that plant-food will come from organic sources. That is because there is no other way for 7-10 billion people to live sustainably on planet Earth.

  59. Solar Jim says:

    Your described situation is the result of global fossil interests, both sovereign and corporate, playing defense via mountains of money, their appointments in government and an unbelievable globalized propaganda campaign. Their “team” plays defense second to none.

    Think of the situation in terms of “status,” especially as regards investment, valuation, economic and political and physical power.

  60. Mark E says:

    You’re assuming those 7+ billion will be satisfied being vegans, instead of feeling so deprived and unhappy, as a people, that they go to war and kill of a large segment of the population. The only way they’ll be satisfied with that lifestyle change is if we change our cultural mythos to one of ecological sustainability. If we keep the capitalist mentality, all enforced restrictions become one more reason to go to war, just like rats in a cage will turn on each other when their population exceeds a certain threshold. Which is why we need Gandhian climate hawks. I’m all for a carbon tax and trade system. But that’s only a stop gap with respect to the bigger issue. There’s no way techno fixes in a capitalist world economy will solve the essential problem, since capitalism requires perpetual growth, and this cage we’re on (the Earth) is limited. No, we gotta do like Gandhi himself did, and work on our personal lives before we can really be effective politically. See his autobiography,

  61. Sailesh Rao says:

    I have been vegan for nearly 4 years and I assure you that I don’t feel deprived and unhappy, not in the least bit. I never go hungry and I eat a greater variety of delicious foods than I used to before I turned vegan. As a matter of fact, I feel great, most of my ailments have disappeared and I’m bursting with energy as I used to at 16. And I don’t think that I’m an exception. Bill Clinton is in great health, Bradley beat Pacquaio, our dog lost his arthritic limp and a friend of mine shaved 2 mins off his marathon time, all after going vegan. And the mindset that made me go ethically vegan is precisely the mindset that allows me to see through the greed merchants of modern day capitalism. And not buy into their manipulation.

    Going vegan is about showing compassion for all creation, not just for our human friends and relatives. At the moment, it is only humans (and their pets) that are allowed in the first class compartment of the train and we’ve been thoughtlessly throwing out all other creatures, treating them as if they were “coolies”. We don’t care if their habitats are destroyed and if they are cornered and killed just so that we can eat our pizzas every day. They don’t have the option that Gandhi had, of dusting themselves off and organizing themselves to tell us humans to get out of the country, er planet. They have to let Nature do that for them through climate change and such nasty phenomena.

    When compassion for all creation becomes part of the human mindset, we’ll reach sustainability. And as long as it isn’t, we won’t reach sustainability. It is as clear cut as that. For when we don’t have compassion for some part of creation, we will assuredly kill that part and convert it to money. Which happens to be inedible.

  62. Mike 22 says:

    There are two ways to look at the current state of inaction and denial. One is that the various nations around the world are not sane enough as a whole to find consensus and to plan/work our way out of this pollution problem–our goose is cooked.

    The other is that a fog of disinformation and inertia have stalled action for the past twenty years, while the tipping points rush in from the far horizon… I believe that once the facts burn through to the average person–and they must, because the weather is starting to change–then our priorities will shift. Like some others, I also believe that societies are capable of rapid action which goes far beyond what economists say is possible. We are also at a tipping point.