Where we are, and where we may be going

Big-picture readings about climate tipping points.

Graphic illustration of ocean currents

 (Photo credit: NASA / CC BY 2.0)

In some ways, the big picture about climate change right now is obvious. Still, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the data. Trump’s administration took down the EPA’s excellent Climate Change Indicator webpages, but under Biden’s leadership, they have been updated and restored for the public. Here is an informative version of this story (Dino Grandoni and Brady Dennis, Washington Post), and here (Mark Kaufman, Vox) is a good sample of the new graphics, presented with some appropriate modifiers: grim, stark, extreme, incessant, exceptional … For another vivid set of graphics based on NOAA data but with a Canadian perspective, see here (Barry Saxifrage, National Observer).

Such graphics generally show gradual increases in the relevant numbers. But it’s very likely that some changes to our planet will involve tipping points – small increments with disproportionately large effects, as, say, when just a fraction of a degree of warming transforms ice to water. Here (Alexandria Herr, Shannon Osaka, Maddie Stone, Grist) is a terrific look at some of the largest likely “Points of No Return” that may occur not too far in the future. 

As usual, whether or when we reach these physical tipping points depends largely on what we humans do in coming years. For that topic, the idea of “social tipping points” is useful, if still underdeveloped. David Roberts (Vox) offers a typically clear explainer here, as does Marlow Hood (Phys.org) here. It’s worth the time to read both.

And for one hopeful effect of the study underlying Roberts’ and Hood’s articles, see this piece about a new push in the Netherlands for policy focused on social tipping points. 

SueEllen Campbell, July 2021