The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a “tipping point” as the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place.
We are at the cusp of three important kinds of tipping points whose complex interactions will largely govern what the world will look like as soon as 2040, and maybe even decide the fate of humanity.
The first kind is the climate tipping point – which, for the purposes of this article – I will define as a warming threshold that, when crossed, will trigger a disproportionate, catastrophic, and irreversible climate disruption that significantly exceeds human civilisation’s ability to adapt to it.
I know what you are probably thinking. Are we really at risk of crossing such a threshold? The short answer is yes.
Studies of past climate in even relatively recent Earth history have found evidence of massive climatic changes in the span of as little as a decade or two. Greenland ice-core records show evidence of rapid warming between 8-16°C over the course of a few decades, as part of what are known in geologic jargon as Dansgaard-Oeschger events.
So, we know they are possible, because they have happened before. There are several other examples, but their consideration is beyond the scope of this article. As for the question of how close we are to triggering one, matters get more complicated. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – in its Fifth Assessment Report that came out earlier this year – writes:
“With increasing warming, some physical systems or ecosystems may be at risk of abrupt and irreversible changes. Risks associated with such tipping points become moderate between 0–1°C additional warming … Risks increase disproportionately as temperature increases between 1–2°C additional warming and become high above 3°C …”
So, even by targeting the supposedly “safe” 2°C limit – we are far from fully avoiding the risk of triggering such abrupt changes. And what scares me to death is that our understanding of these triggers is very limited. “The precise levels of climate change sufficient to trigger tipping points (thresholds for abrupt and irreversible change) remain uncertain,” the IPCC acknowledges.
Yet, we are currently cruising brazenly towards 4°C or higher.
The second kind of tipping point to consider concerns the response of our global political and economic system to the harsh reality of climate change. We have kept our heads in the sand past a time when incremental changes could potentially rein in global warming sufficiently without too much disruption.
Now we are at a point when nothing short of a massive clean energy revolution, coupled with substantial reductions in global per capita resource use, will prevent crippling levels of climate change.
This revolution threatens the power and wealth of the trillions-of-dollars-a-year fossil fuel industry and those dependent on it, and anyone who has engaged with the political system knows how difficult it is for politicians to disappoint the deepest pockets.
Sooner or later, however, a time will come when a critical number of global leaders are forced to endorse this shift, and the world will finally move towards ending its deadly fossil fuel addiction. Earlier this year, former US Vice President Al Gore said: “We’re getting closer to a political tipping point,” and this building urgency is also becoming clearer in the run up to the UN Climate Summit on September 23.
But the all-important question, of course, is: Can we curb emissions fast enough? Will the political tipping point come soon enough and be strong enough to prevent crossing an unmanageable climate tipping point? Here’s where the third force comes into play – and that is the global grassroots climate justice movement.
Two days before Ban Ki-moon’s Climate Summit in New York, in which over 125 heads of governments have so far confirmed attendance, an estimated million people will march the streets of Manhattan and everywhere else in the world from Brazil to Bangladesh – for what is set to be the largest global climate mobilisation in history.
This People’s Climate March, as it has been named, could be a “movement tipping point,” says Ian Keith, Campaign Director at the 38-million member global civic organisation Avaaz – one of the organisers of the march.
Movement tipping points can be thought of as critical iconic points in a social movement that catalyse further rapid action to expand and strengthen the movement. For example, Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha in 1930 was a classic tipping point that triggered the wider civil disobedience movement against British colonial rule.
With more than 2,000 events being organised in over 150 countries – comprising not only environmental groups, but labour unions, faith groups, and indigenous communities marching in solidarity– the diversity and global scale of the People’s Climate March is unprecedented in recent times. Given our present urgency, it is imperative that this goes down in the history books as the iconic moment when the world’s people united to protect the promise of tomorrow.
The inspiring African-American slave turned reformer Frederick Douglass once said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress … Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”
It is now up to us, the world’s people, to demand the political tipping point we so urgently need – so we never have to find out what the climate tipping point looks like. To change everything, we need everyone. Will you join me on the streets for the march?