Tipping Points

A Tipping Point is the moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire, the point where something previously rare suddenly becomes common (1). Fashion is an obvious example, where certain styles and patterns are virtually unseen for decades, and then suddenly booms for a couple of years, after which they fade back into negligence. In many ways, the rise and fall of ideas resembles the rise and fall of epidemics.

This article will focus on the rise and fall (and rise and fall) of climate change concerns.

During the last 100 years, we have experienced four rounds of significant climate change. In 1912, when Titanic struck an iceberg and sunk, the New York Times reported that “Prof. Schmidt Warns Us of an Encroaching Ice Age.” Los Angeles Times the same year: “Fifth ice age is on the way. Human race will have to fight for its existence against cold.” Global temperatures were indeed unusually cold during the first decades of the previous century, and ice age warnings regularly popped up in the media: Los Angeles Times, 1923: “The possibility of another Ice Age already having started… is admitted by men of first rank in the scientific world, men specially qualified to speak.” Chicago Tribune, 1923: “Scientist says Arctic ice will wipe out Canada.”

But then temperatures started increasing for a while, and the media started warning about warming instead. Los Angeles Times, 1929: “Most geologists think the world is growing warmer, and that it will continue to get warmer.” New York Times, 1933 “America in Longest Warm Spell since 1776. Temperature line records a 25-year rise.” In 1938, British amateur meteorologist G. S. Callendar made the now familiar claim, in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, that man was responsible for heating up the planet with carbon dioxide emissions.

Before the media grew frantic, however, temperatures started falling again. Although average temperatures fell by less than half a degree Celsius, both scientists and media found sufficient reason for doomsday warnings. New York times, 1974: “the facts of the present climate change are such that the most optimistic experts would assign near certainty to major crop failure in a decade,” If policy makers did not take immediate action “mass deaths by starvation and probably in anarchy and violence” would result. Newsweek, 1975: “”There are ominous signs that the earth’s weather patterns have begun to change dramatically and that these changes may portend a drastic decline in food production — with serious political implications for just about every nation on earth.” Nigel Calder, 1975: “The threat of a new ice age must now stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery for mankind.” Lowell Ponte, 1976: “The cooling has already killed hundreds of thousands of people in poor nations.” If proper measures weren’t taken, then the cooling would lead to “world famine, world chaos, and probably world war, and this could all come by the year 2000.”

But by that time temperatures had already started increasing again, and during the last couple of decades global warming has replaced the media’s ice age claims. I don’t remember the earlier episodes of climate change concerns, but this time around the concerns seem to have reached much farther and deeper than before. After the the release of Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006 and the publication of the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC in 2007, the worries about catastrophic man-made global warming had become almost universal. The fact that the topic of the 2007 United Nations Human Development Report was Global Warming, and the theme of the 2010 World Bank Global Development Report will be on Development in a Changing Climate suggests that this issue is of highest concern worldwide.

I suspect, however, that we will soon see a tipping point again. Global temperatures seem to have peaked in 1998, and according to all four principal centers of global temperature measurements, global temperatures have fallen substantially lately. The Hadley Climate Research Unit in the UK showed a 0.60ºC drop in temperatures between January 2007 and January 2008; NASAs Goddard Institute for Space Studies showed a fall of 0.75ºC during the same period; University of Alabama, Huntsville a drop of 0.59ºC; and Remote Sensing Systems of Santa Rosa, CA a drop of .63ºC (2). It is worth pointing out that a drop of 0.6ºC corresponds approximately to the accumulated warming over the last 140 years (3). Also, according to satelite measurements, global sea levels have been falling since 2006, ending the trend of steady increase since satellite measurements began. Arctic sea-ice cover has started growing again, with ice cover now being about 25% larger than same time last year (4).

Anecdotal evidence of unusually cold weather around the world is also piling up. In February 2007, Kathmandu experienced it’s first snowfall in 60 years (5). In June 2007, Johannesburg got its first snowcover since 1981 (6), and in October 2007 we got snow in my garden in the south zone of La Paz for the first time in the lives of my children. They made snow angels and claimed it was the best day of their lives (it only lasted until about 9 am, though). In January 2008, Baghdad received its first snowfall in recent memory (7), and Thailand experienced it’s first snowfall ever in March of 2008 (8).

We are probably not quite ready for a mayor global cooling scare yet, but I think the Global Warming scare is likely to go out of fashion soon. Too bad, because it made for some spectacular consulting contracts. Maybe we can keep running computer simulations and ignore the real data for a couple of years more?

Is Global Warming a fashion? Leave your thoughts below.

Lykke Andersen is the Director of the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD.

(1) The Tipping Point concept is brilliantly explained in Malcolm Gladwell’s book of 2000: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.
(2) See the analysis by Anthony Watts here.
(3) According to Dr. Philip Jones at Hadley (http://www.cru.uea.ac.uk/cru/annrep93/globtemp.ht
(4) Also by Anthony Watts here.
(5) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6362679.stm .
(6) http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/06/27/in-johannesburg-first-snowfall-since-81/ .
(7) http://ericiniraq.scrappydog.com/2008/01/first-snow-in-baghdad-in-recent-history.html .
(8) http://whatismatt.com/saraphi-district-records-thailands-first-snowfall/ .


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