The Tipping Point and Tiptoeing around the Problem of Climate Change

Climate ChangeMartin Rowe

A January 2017 report by the UK Global Food Security (GFS) programme provides sobering reading for incrementalists, ameliorists, and technologists everywhere. I’m surely not alone in imagining climate change as a series of stepped intensifications and unusual temperature alterations—manageable (if you’re in a rich, developed economy) but not necessarily catastrophic, especially if measures are put in place to mitigate or adapt to those changes.

The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Instead of incremental changes, the report argues, there are tipping points. The organization BBSRC puts it this way:


Environmental tipping points occur when a biophysical system experiences a shift from one stable state to another, thereby altering its function. These ‘step-changes’ deviate from the linear way we might usually expect a system to behave, and pose a serious threat to global food security because they could bring about profound changes in the provision of environmental goods and services that are difficult to reverse, which in turn could have serious effects on global food production.

Professor Tim Benton of Leeds University, and an author of the report, adds:

Most people think we live in a “linear world” where small changes have small effects and can be reversed. This report highlights that this may be far from the case: sometimes small changes can have big effects. Climate change may not be about gradual adaptation to a globally changing climate: it might “tip” suddenly into a new and very different state, for example, incremental degradation of soils leading to large scale soil loss under certain conditions, as happened in the Midwest Dust Bowl.

So, my imagination (along with that of many others) is not commensurate with the evidence: which is that a series of ecosystemic shocks and collapses may define the next several decades. In other words, the proverbial and apocryphal frog won’t be slowly heated up over a stove; it will be tossed into a pot of boiling water without its legs. One stable state—comfortable cool—to another—insufferable heat. Adaptation, schmadaption.

Given this reality, the Global Food Security programme offers some recommendations: these involve including food systems in risk management, conducting more research on how to tell when a tipping point is being reached, and doing a cost-benefit analysis on whether it would be better to act now or wait until later to prevent that tipping point.

If these “solutions” strike you as remarkably weak responses to what is clearly a profoundly alarming analysis, then you’re not alone. There is neither  retreat from a tipping point nor is there management: it’s a systemic destruction that, as the report suggests, leads to paradigm shifts and potentially further cyclical changes that are themselves impossible to forecast in their impact. The Dust Bowl was a stable state; so is nuclear winter. Neither is desirable.

Yet, blithely, we—global citizens—continue to consume more animal products and set aside more land, water, fossil fuel, topsoil, and phosphorus for this wasteful and environmentally devastating addiction. All the while we pretend to ourselves that a little more organic farming here or a little more rotational grazing there will slowly and surely ameliorate the situation. This report—like so many others—continues the mantra of “further study and more analysis,” which itself is part of a consciousness that believes, somehow, that someone somewhere will make a decision or invent something that will make climate change “go away” before any “tipping point” is reached, or any public policy is required to force necessary change. Ribbit. Ribbit.