Bill Britton: A World of Tipping Points

Tipping point def.: 

“The point at which an issue, idea, product, etc., crosses a certain threshold and gains significant momentum, triggered by an often minor factor or change.”

The term “tipping point” has been commonly used in the sciences, but today it is found in a wide variety of disciplines. It is particularly useful in the present-day world.

Take, for example, the Capitol insurgency of January 6th. A significant part of white America feels threatened by the likelihood that in a few years it will become a racial minority. President Trump exacerbated this feeling with fiery rhetoric that many felt justified their bigoted mindset. What might have begun as a protest march quickly devolved into a rush on the Capitol, once the leading phalanx took control of the crowd’s resentments and gave them a focus. Of course, those emotions had been simmering just below the surface for generations. It took a demagogue like Trump to take advantage of them so that the crowd would abandon reason.

The debacle that is Afghanistan took a similar path. As long as the threat of American intervention confined most Taliban activities to the countryside, Afghanistan remained marginally stable. But once it became apparent that U.S. troops were in fact leaving for home, in a matter of hours the Taliban quickly moved to fill the vacuum left by America’s imminent departure. Thus, although the Taliban is supported by fewer than 20 percent of Afghans, the general weakness of both the central government and the military suddenly opened a pathway for the insurgency.

Many of the world’s conflicts have begun in similar fashion: a cannon ball fired at Fort Sumter (America’s Civil War), an assassin’s bullet killing Archduke Ferdinand of Austria (World War I), the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor (World War II), the Gulf of Tonkin Incident (Vietnam War). The list goes on and on. In each case, a relatively small event leads to a rush toward a greater catastrophe.

Nowhere does the threat of passing tipping points have greater urgency than in the fact of global warming: glaciers are receding; arctic regions are shedding sea ice at a record rate; global snow cover is decreasing; ocean and atmospheric temperatures are rising; permafrost in the taiga (the forest in cold, subarctic regions) is melting, releasing great quantities of methane; global sea levels are rising; global humidity is increasing (but not high enough to reduce outbreaks of forest fires).

The primary drivers of global warming are the measured increases of two greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), which is 80 times more effective than CO2 in its blanketing effect (at least in the short term). This blanket results in the conversion of incoming solar radiation to infrared (heat), which is re-radiated from Earth’s surface but blocked from dissipating into outer space by CO2. Thus, although CO2 historically has averaged 225 ppm (parts per million) over the past 800 million years, today it stands at about 410 ppm. 

Global temperature increases since the start of the Industrial Age parallel the rise of CO2. The real concern is that global temperature rises could result in runaway global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) introduced the idea of tipping points two decades ago. At that time, these large-scale discontinuities in the climate system were considered likely only if global warming exceeded 5 °C above pre-industrial levels. 

Information summarized in the two most recent IPCC Special Reports (published in 2018 and in September of this year) suggests that tipping points could be exceeded at between 1 °C and 2 °C of warming. The margin of risk has narrowed significantly. Vast areas around the world would be turned to desert, including America’s breadbasket, the Great Plaines. Farm yields in California, which grows most of the nation’s produce, are already being markedly reduced by rising temperatures that are depleting both aquifers and river waters. Rising sea levels would submerge most of Florida and coastal areas around the world. 

Should Earth reach that tipping point, the overriding questions become: Where will we live? What will we eat? 

Bill Britton is a freelance writer and formerly an editor for John Hopkins University Press, ABI Research, and Elsevier Science.  He is a frequent contributor to Vero Communiqué.

We strive to encourage a free and open exchange of opinions and welcome yours. Through discussions like these we can all learn more about the topics themselves and the perspectives of others.

2 thoughts on “Bill Britton: A World of Tipping Points

  1. Actually, the most amazing example of a group psychology hoax is the ever-present Covid Event. Never before has the whole WORLD been pushed past the edge of sanity by the crafty use of Gaslighting. Many people have allowed themselves to be hypnotized into submission like sheep.

    I would call this a Tipping Point due to fiction.


    • I believe the greater fiction is the hoax that Covid is a hoax. Although science is never perfect, I prefer it to sources of fiction like you are promulgating.


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