A phrase you hear a lot these days in relation to climate change discussions is “tipping point.” The thinking is that nature absorbs a great deal of emissions for a long time and shows little evidence of change, but when the emissions build up to a certain point and the change comes, the change is dramatic and potentially irreversible. A good example is peat bogs. It’s estimated that 40 per cent of the CO2 emitted annually comes from subterranean fires in peat bogs — you know the kind, that burn for years. If the climate warms even a bit, frozen peat bogs warm and sometimes catch fire, and this releases more CO2 which in turn spurs on the greater warming. It’s a positive feedback loop that doesn’t stop once it’s set in motion, at least not until a new warmer climate balances itself.
There are many tipping points in nature. The east coast of Canada learned about one the hard way with its fisheries. For decades we fished and fished and fished the cod, which seemed inexhaustible. While government scientists tried to figure out just how many cod could be taken sustainably, the tipping point was crossed and the fishery collapsed, never to return. Perhaps a bit of warming played a role, perhaps other factors too complicated for us to ever fully understand. But the lesson learned is that humans can only “manage” nature to a limited degree. We need to allow a significant margin of error, to tread lightly (in other words) with ecosystems that are always more complicated than our models.
All of this is a long-winded runup to an observation I’ve made recently, which is that the mainstream media also seems to have its tipping points. I’m a daily reader of the national newspapers and other media, and I detect important trends from time to time. I’ve noticed in recent months (weeks, even) a great deal of detailed coverage of climate change issues, including in-depth documentaries from the news staff at CNN, and a major cover story in Time magazine. But also reams of other coverage in all sorts of media. Has the media crossed a “tipping point”? I think so.
And it’s going to affect politics, too. Just today I posted a Headline News item about ten U.S. states suing U.S. EPA (led by Elliott Spitzer) over its refusal to regulate CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants. This is a major development and holds important implications for the future, since so much of the U.S. CO2 emissions come from this source. As you know, the power plants tout their “clean coal technology” which spews less particulate matter (aerosols) into the atmosphere, but nevertheless releases CO2. Ironically, since the aerosols (though harmful to human health) have a “dimming” effect, the cleaner plants could actually hasten global warming! This lawsuit is one to watch.
And just this morning I noticed news coverage of politicians in Washington and elsewhere who were making public statements about the high current price of gasoline, and who were embarrassed by reporters when they were asked how they got to the press conference. It turned out that in most cases the politicians not only drove cars, but either drove or were chauffeured around in gas guzzling SUVs (of the kind that get 16 miles per gallon). One news segment showed parking lot after parking lot, streeet after street, in Washington lined with the cars of politicians and their staff, and it seemed every other car was a large SUV.
The point about this is that media is now putting the policymakers (and their personal hypocrisy) in the spotlight. I think they’re doing this not so much because of global warming but because of high gas prices. But it’s interesting that sustained high fuel costs are hitting consumers just as more convincing evidence is hitting the airwaves (literally!) that global warming is real. This combination is generating a media “tipping point” and I think it’s unlikely we’ll ever go back to our old way of thinking, even if fuel prices come down temporarily. Most people now “get it” that fewer and fewer truly large oil and gas fields are being discovered. The world inventory is shrinking and costs are rising, just at the time when we’re discovering that emissions from burning fossil fuels (especially coal for heating and cooling and electricity, and gasoline for transportation) may be ruining the planet.
One last thought. I can’t be the only person wondering why we’re building more and more sealed glass and steel hi-rise condominium buildings and office towers, as well as low-density suburbs with what I call McMansion oversize homes. As the energy crisis deepens and global warming awareness grows, I imagine these will be the slums of the future, especially the latter model. (I suppose sealed hi-rises can be retrofitted with thermally better performing windows and surfaces, and windows that can be opened in the summer.) It’s just a shame that we’re not incorporating more features today into our buildings in anticipation of what’s going to come at us in the next few decades.