Human Tipping Points: Why I'm Optimistic About Solutions to Global Warming and Nuclear Winter

In this Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 photo, a flock of Geese fly past the smokestacks at the Jeffrey Energy Center coal power plant a
In this Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 photo, a flock of Geese fly past the smokestacks at the Jeffrey Energy Center coal power plant as the suns sets near Emmett, Kan. Worldwide levels of the chief greenhouse gas that causes global warming have hit a milestone, reaching an amount never before encountered by humans, federal scientists said Friday, May 10, 2013. Carbon dioxide was measured at 400 parts per million at the oldest monitoring station in Hawaii which sets the global benchmark. The last time the worldwide carbon level was probably that high was about 2 million years ago, said Pieter Tans of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Many people worry about "tipping points" in the climate system. For example, could a small increase in Arctic temperatures cause a major methane release with accelerated global warming? Will a little warming cause rapidly accelerating collapse of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, quickly flooding low-lying regions? Or could a small disturbance along the India-Pakistan border erupt into a nuclear war that could produce global famine, as I wrote about here recently and described in a TEDx talk last year? How close we are to these and other tipping points is the subject of intense scientific research and not the subject of this blog. Rather I want to point out that there are tipping points in human behavior that give me hope that we will be able to avoid these climate tipping points.

Ten years ago, who could have imagined a black President (elected twice), gay marriage or legalized pot in the U.S.? So, clearly human tipping points are possible, but it is not easy to produce them. After atomic bombs were invented, in a May 26, 1945, New York Times article, Albert Einstein said,

Our world faces a crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe...We need...a nation-wide campaign to let the people know that a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.

So what does it take? As Bob Dylan says, "How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn't see?" As a meteorologist I know how hard it is to predict a system that actually obeys basic physical laws, such as conservation of energy. But for human behavior, there are no such laws. Individuals are very complicated, and groups of them are even more so. In my experience, there are various ways to achieve a changed way of thinking, including well-funded advertising campaigns, political movements from activist groups, judicial rulings and charismatic leaders. Sometimes, shocking events change people's perceptions, whether it be the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (not repeated in more than 68 years), or drought and severe hurricanes. Or, it takes shared experiences in one's cultural affiliation groups to jointly feel allowed to change long-held beliefs.

We have charismatic leaders (Pope Francis, Barack Obama, Bill McKibben), we have anti-nuclear and anti-Keystone XL activists, we have the Supreme Court ruling that CO2 is a pollutant, we have Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, we have droughts out West and cold, snowy winters and more of these will continue. Will we be able to read the signs, join with our fellow citizens of Earth, and do what we need to do to produce a "new type of thinking?" Based on the past, although the some of the same type of forces are working in opposition, I think so. This is my faith. I invite you to share it.