Reaching our environmental ‘tipping point’


Often applied to global warming, "tipping point" is an apt metaphor that describes the hypothetical condition we will have reached when the earth can no longer recover from the warming influence of greenhouse gases, a sort of environmental point of no return.

I’m not enough of a scientist to say whether such a tipping point actually exists, but it seems possible. Consider these two Associated Press reports, both by Seth Borenstein, which were printed in my local newspaper within a few days of each other.

The first, headlined "Methane bubbling under permafrost," appeared on Sept. 7. Borenstein describes a study published recently in the respected journal Nature that says that methane is being released from melting permafrost at a rate five times greater than previously thought. Permafrost describes the vast swaths of soil in Siberia and elsewhere that have been frozen for millennia but which are now melting. As it warms, permafrost releases methane and carbon dioxide, both of which contribute to further global warming and, therefore, to yet more melted permafrost. Some researchers refer to this vicious cycle as a climate "time bomb."

A few days later, Borenstein reported on another study, this one from NASA, that says that during the past two years the melting of winter sea ice in the Arctic has occurred at rates 10 to 15 times greater than previously thought. In fact, the article’s headline says it all: "Pace of Arctic melt unprecedented, scientists observe." This condition is particularly crucial, says one of the NASA researchers, because winter sea ice is involved in the cycle that produces plankton, which is at the bottom of the food chain that leads up to marine mammals.

Although this seems serious, these two articles weren’t exactly front-page news. Still, they make one wonder if we’re approaching, or have already passed, a point when we may actually tip over into a downward spiral that makes the earth uninhabitable.

It’s hard to imagine, but it’s happened before, on a smaller scale. In his book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," geographer Jared Diamond examines the factors that led to the extinction of a number of ancient societies, including Easter Island, the Anasazi, the Maya, and Norwegian colonies in Greenland. All of these societies survived and thrived for hundreds of years, then eventually declined and collapsed, in some cases leaving behind dramatic evidence of their sophistication in the form of elaborate temples and tombs, as well as vestiges of their advanced science and technology.

No two societies collapse in exactly the same way. Diamond describes a number of factors that are associated with declining societies, as well as the complicated relationships between the factors. Unsurprisingly, a society’s relationship with its local environment is crucial to its survival, and in all of Diamond’s examples environmental degradation, particularly deforestation, is an extremely important factor.

Some societies simply cut down all of their trees for fuel and construction materials, cashing in their environmental capital to prosper in the short term, but ensuring their eventual decline and collapse. Interestingly, in some cases, small-scale tipping points developed into downward spirals: deforestation modified local weather patterns, disrupting rainfall and leading to increased topsoil erosion, which made both agriculture and reforestation impossible. Eventually, collapse is inevitable.

But Diamond provides ample counter-examples, as well. Other societies learned to cope with the factors that lead to collapse and managed to prosper for millennia. His point is that societal collapse is highly possible, but not inevitable It’s hard to compare our society to the ancient Mayans or Anasazi, but the biggest difference between them and us is that we’re operating on a grander, globalized scale. When ancient societies ran out of resources they could _ and sometimes did _ move to richer territory and thereby prolonged their existence. We no longer have that option.

On the other hand, we have one thing that ancient societies didn’t: knowledge of how and why some societies collapsed and others survived.

If we’ve already passed the tipping point, which is entirely possible, we might as well enjoy whatever time the planet has left.

If not, we have the technology and knowledge that will permit us to prevent the ultimate societal collapse. But will we have the wisdom?

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail jcrisp(at)


  1. Whether or not we have passed the tipping point already is immaterial.
    If we’ve passed it, we can slow down the forthcoming catastrophe (a little) by reducing emissions and offsetting.
    If we haven’t then we can (maybe) redeem ourselves by reducing our emissions and offsetting.
    Every individual now has a responsibility to reduce their carbon footprint wherever they can and then offset the remaining, unavoidable emissions.

  2. Grover Syck

    The environment will “protect” itself. If we make a mess, that mess will greatly reduce our population up on he world, and the reduction in the population will allow the environment to “heal” itself.

    If we do nothing, the environment will do it for us, and the result will not be “pretty”.

  3. We have to put up a fight because we won’t know until we know. At least one army in most battles knows that it will lose, but it fights anyway. It takes institutions, not persons to win such a battle.

    The environment will not right itself. It will establish a different equilibrium with no life left.

  4. Bill in Maine

    Some of our greatest scientific minds have been studying this problem for at least the last 40 years. They are all finally coming to the point of consensus. The tipping point is very close, if not, already here. Of the examples sited above, they concern regional problems that were dealt with by emigrating. What the scientists are seeing today, and do not want to put into words because they will be labeled as: dangerous, alarmist, crackpots, or worse. This Administration will go after them and ruin their careers.

    We all know there are earthquakes happening causing tsunamis. We all know that the temperatures of the oceans are changing and having a terrible effect on temperatures. Also causing an increase in Asthma in children. We know that Methane is coming up from the deep ocean floor, something we cannot breathe; it will kill us.

    We have the “paid by the Adminstration” scientists that say this has all happened before and there’s nothing to worry about. Air we can see is not a problem, it will not harm our children or our elderly, we will not tell the auto industry to change, it will cost too much money.

    Well, it has happened before. At the end of the Permian Period: 290 – 248 million years ago. There has been a lot of debate over what caused it. One possible explanation is “rapid warming and severe climatic fluctuations produced by concurrent glaciation events on the north and south poles. In temperate zones, there is evidence of significant cooling and drying in the sedimentological record, shown by thick sequences of dune sands and evaporites, while in the polar zones, glaciation was prominent. This caused severe climatic fluctuations around the globe, and is found by sediment record to be representative of when the Permian mass extinction occurred.” It caused the oceans, which were shallower at that time, to warm and release Methane from the ocean floors.

    During the Permian Period, which is just prior to the Jurassic Period, we had one continent. After the extinction, which killed 90 to 95 percent of all living things on the earth, the entire face of the world changed. That’s what we are looking at and that’s what it means when they say our world will change. It was drastic enough to split one continent into what we have today.

    The Permian extinction built up over millions of years. We have done this to the planet, our one-and-only home, our Eden, in a little more than 100 years.

    But Bush and his band of greedy, power hungry men would rather wage war in a country where 80% of the people want us out. He wants laws passed to legally torture men and women and prevent him and his thugs from being prosecuted for war crimes. This is no laughing matter. NO MORE WAR. Get out of Iraq, stop the killing and do something for our world. Stop playing politics, we have no place else to go or, this will be the legacy we will leave our children. Impeach Bush!

  5. Brad Arnold

    GCMs (global climate models) are bias toward predicting gradual linear climate change. Instead, ice cores show that when forced, the climate doesn’t respond gradually, but abruptly, switching between one stable state to another with little pause in between.

    It is predicted that nature will be able to soak up 30% less CO2 by 2030. It is predicted that at least 30% of the land will be useable for agriculture by the end of the century due to drought. It is predicted that 50% of the surface permafrost will melt by 2050. In other words, a warming earth means carbon sinks will become carbon emitters big time.

    According to Dr Lovelock (who saved mankind once before by warning of ozone depletion from CFCs), the earth will reset it’s thermostat 10C upwards in ten to twenty years. By the end of the century there will be less than one billion people alive.

    Soon the warming earth will start emitting far more greenhouse gas than humans. Furthermore, a growing population and growing per capita energy consumption means that it is unrealistic to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially.

    Instead, I suggest we remove the CO2 from the air after it has been emitted. Nature already does this, but we are overwhelming her ability to cope.

    I suggest we improve nature’s ability to fix carbon with genetic engineering. I suggest we seed a GMO into the ocean.

    The alternative is disaster. That excess CO2 has to removed from the air yesterday. This planetary emergency can’t be overstated. Due to abrupt climate change, we will suffer for our pollution in our lifetimes-it isn’t just our children’s problem.