The Tipping Point: Is there a point of no return in Climate Change?
If like me you’ve been wondering if the recent floodings in Kenya (Al-Jazeera, 2020), Rwanda (TRT, 2020), and the DRC (VoA news, 2020), and some unusual landslides (Iribagiza and Mutanganshuro, 2020) are related to climate change, this post may interest you. First things first, let’s clear the air: I believe Climate Change is real. The words climate and change are pretty self-explanatory, but scientifically it is defined as “a long term change in earth’s overall temperature with massive and permanent ramification” (Nye, n.d). Earth’s climate has always changed (WWF, n.d), so what is the big deal? The big deal is that the changes happening in our climate are not a result of normal environmental cycles. There’s been an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and as this graph from NASA shows, this can be dated to the start of the Industrial Revolution (NASA, n.d). (For more evidence, I suggest you read on these facts from NASA or if you prefer a light read, check out these 10 myths about climate change.)
Now that we have established that Climate Change is real and caused by human activities, should we then believe those who paint an apocalyptic picture? I say no. Climate Change has become a polarizing topic for long and many have exaggerated the facts. A recent example is the fires in Amazon which have been a normal trend in the past two decades, but uninformed people – including scientists – exaggerated the situation (Shellenberger, 2019).
While there’s been a lot of bias around climate change, let us not throw our hands in the air and resign ourselves, at the peril of shutting down any mention of climate change. It is imperative to educate ourselves on climate change, to be sceptical of comments that are not backed by unbiased science, and most importantly to take action. In line with taking action, it is important to understand the urgency of the matter at hand. A valid question to ask is ‘Will it ever be too late to take action?’. Scientists researched that and came up with something called a Tipping Point – “the point in which a series of small changes becomes significant enough to cause a large, often unstoppable effect.” (Lovejoy, 2019) There has been enough research on bees to know that if we lose them, food production will be greatly inhibited since they pollinate “nearly three-quarters of the plants that produce 90% of the world’s food” (Marko, n.d). A study in North America and Europe revealed that bumble bees population “has plummeted nearly 90 percent since the 1990s” (Greshko, 2017), and the research shows that this is linked to increasing temperatures (Main, 2020).
Here’s what we stand to lose
We benefit a lot from natural ecosystems, and this is generally called ecosystem services. They range from direct services such as trees stopping the soil underneath to erode or the water coming from our taps that has been channelled from an underground source. To put things in perspective let’s consider an example from New York City as paraphrased from Thomas E. Lovejoy a.k.a “the Godfather of Biodiversity” in the online course: From the Ground Up: Managing and Preserving Our Terrestrial Ecosystems. The water feeding the city comes from a mountainous area north of the city and it’s quality and taste beat brands like Evian in competitions. By 1990, the watershed was so polluted that the city needed to build an 8 billion dollar treatment plan. “And then somebody had a bright idea… to buy up some of the land and restore the capacity of the forested ecosystem to produce that water quality.” (Lovejoy, 2019) And guess what, that only cost them 10% of the initial cost.
“A tipping point is a point in which a series of small changes becomes significant enough to cause a large, often unstoppable effect.”Thomas E. Lovejoy
Another reason why it is important to fight climate change is that we do not understand all the benefits we receive from ecosystems, and the problem with tipping points is that we do not understand all the relationships between species and the repercussions of losing one. Even those seemingly unimportant species can turn out to be very important. Such is the case of the Bushmaster – a fascinating viper which, when it bites you, drops your blood pressure to zero (Lovejoy, 2019). The venom of this snake was used to synthesize a drug for blood pressure regulation that now saves many lives. The scary thing about tipping points is the lack of expansive knowledge to understand all possible connections. There’s still a lot of uncertainty to which species are most affected by the current weather changes, and how their loss would affect us.
Is this relevant to Africa?/ What does it mean for Africa?
World carbon dioxide emission from 2008 to 2018 show that Africa is the least polluting region (Wang, 2019), however, it is most vulnerable to climate change because of a lack of proper infrastructure. In her article, Global Climate Action: How it can seem Unfair for Africa, Wassa Cisse goes deep on the effects of Climate Change in Africa. While it is unfair that Africa bears the consequences of big polluters, it is important that the continent builds resilience and tries to redress the imbalance. One of the ways big polluters are being held accountable is by offsetting their carbon footprint. Offsetting means paying for carbon services of a forest because forests consume carbon dioxide (WWF, n.d). African is still home to tropical forests and savannahs and with well management African governments can make big polluters pay, literally. By protecting and expanding forests, African countries will also increase their environmental resilience to disasters like floods and heatwaves – two things that are clearly linked to climate change (Berkeley Earth, 2014).
What can you do?
All this information may be overwhelming especially if you consider how small you are in the bigger picture of climate change, but you need not worry. There is something you can do, and however small the action you take when we take it collectively, it amounts to much. I will not try and romanticize our small efforts, because I believe what we need is a systemic change in how and what we produce, but even those efforts can be driven by our advocacy. The goal is not to stop human activities, but to change how we go about our activities. Here are my top suggestions for what you can do:
- Calculate your ecological footprint. This calculator is pretty cool since it tells you how many planets we would need if everyone lived like you. It also suggests actions you can take to reduce your footprint. Apparently, it would take 3.2 Earths if everybody lived like me.
- Educate yourself, and educate yourself some more. Discover what your country is doing and read about global actions such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement
- Al-Jazeera. (2020). Kenya floods kill 194 people, displace tens of thousands. Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/05/kenya-floods-kill-194-people-displace-tens-thousands-200506133348867.html
- Bill Nye. (no date). Climate Change 101 with Bill Nye. National Geographic. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/global-warming-real/
- ClimateTippingPoints. (2016) Climate Tipping Points: The Point of No Return? A Quick Guide. Youtube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKD6m04PipU (Accessed: 8 May 2020).
- Donnay, J. V. (2014). Is our climate headed for a mathematical tipping point? – Victor J. Donnay. Ted-Ed. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EoYSToa2Yfw (Accessed: 8 May 2020).
- IPCC. (2020).Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate — Just another IPCC site. (2020). Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://www.ipcc.ch/srocc/
- Klink, R., Bowler, D., Gongalsky, K., Swengel, A., Gentile, A., & Chase, J. (2020). Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundances. Science, 368(6489), 417-420. Retrieved from https://science.sciencemag.org/content/368/6489/417
- Masson-Delmotte, V. Twitter. (2020). Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://twitter.com/valmasdel/status/1254734323514834944
- climatetippingpoints, V. (2016). Can Tipping Points have Early Warnings?. Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://climatetippingpoints.info/2016/11/04/can-tipping-points-have-early-warnings/
- climatetippingpoints, V. (2016). Arctic Sea Ice and Positive Feedback Loops. Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://climatetippingpoints.info/2016/10/21/arctic-sea-ice-and-positive-feedback-loops/
- Greshko, M. (2017). First U.S. Bumblebee Officially Listed as Endangered. (2017). Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/03/bumblebees-endangered-extinction-united-states/
- Iribagiza, G and Mutanganshuro, L. (2020). Video of land appearing to float on land goes viral, Scientists say it is normal. Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://www.newtimes.co.rw/news/video-land-appearing-float-land-goes-viral-scientists-say-it-normal
- Lewis, B. (2019). The Succession Domino Effect – The Visionary Group. Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://thinkvisionary.com/2019/11/20/the-succession-domino-effect/
- Lovejoy, E. T (2019). From the Ground Up: Managing and Preserving Our Terrestrial Ecosystems. edX. Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://courses.edx.org/courses/course-v1:SDGAcademyX+TE001+3T2019/courseware/66657bfb37e5439296bc4a2e3304df5e/f9ada465e53d49ef82aff35718164e08/?activate_block_id=block-v1%3ASDGAcademyX%2BTE001%2B3T2019%2Btype%40sequential%2Bblock%40f9ada465e53d49ef82aff35718164e08
- NASA. (No date). Climate Change Evidence: How Do We Know?. Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/
- Berkeley Earth. (2014). A skeptic’s guide to climate change. Retrieved 8 May 2020, from http://berkeleyearth.org/static/pdf/skeptics-guide-to-climate-change.pdf
- Roberts, David. (2020). Social tipping points are the only hope for the climate. Vox. Available at: https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2020/1/29/21083250/climate-change-social-tipping-points (Accessed: 8 May 2020).
- Shellenberger, M. (2019). Why Everything They Say About The Amazon, Including That It’s The ‘Lungs Of The World,’ Is Wrong. Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2019/08/26/why-everything-they-say-about-the-amazon-including-that-its-the-lungs-of-the-world-is-wrong/#336719055bde
- Main, D. (2020) Bumblebees are going extinct in a time of ‘climate chaos’. (2020). Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/02/bumblebees-going-extinct-climate-change-pesticides/
- Marko, S. (no date). The importance of bees. Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://www.worldbeeday.org/en/about/the-importance-of-bees.html
- TRT. (2020). At least 65 killed in flooding, landslides in Rwanda. (2020). Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://www.trtworld.com/africa/at-least-65-killed-in-flooding-landslides-in-rwanda-36116
- Wang, T. (2019) World carbon dioxide emissions by region 2018 | Statista. Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/205966/world-carbon-dioxide-emissions-by-region/
- WWF. (No date). 10 myths about climate change. Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/10-myths-about-climate-change
- VOA News. (2020). Raging Floods Leave Many Dead, Injured in Eastern CongoRetrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yg744X4sVNM
Thank you for this great op-ed! It’s really good that we start thinking about how we can mitigate this global disaster in a holistic way. One thing that I fear most about the approach used nowadays is the ” Me versus Them” Paradigm that we use. For me, I think it’s not right, that we condemn other people’s lifestyles. Because if we dig deep we find that many of the things that make our modern life possible, wouldn’t have been if it wasn’t of the advances made in the fossil fuels industry! The laptop I’m using now feels great typing on. And many of the parts that makes it great, the hardware, and the internet are fossil fuels based. Besides that, climate change is a complex topic, which, has many casual factors, many of them are least understood, although, anthropological ones are much of the focus nowadays! I think the greatest challenge of our days, is this ” How on earth are we going to share limited resources while living a fulfilling life?” All Other fancy words of versus them are the new narcissistic thinking that got us into this mess first. If we follow that path we risk fueling too many conspiracy theories and sowing confusion. We need to start thinking of a way of being compassionate to nature, and to one another, meaning ” respect for all forms of life.” BDW, Your article is well researched, and I’m glad that we’re making progress in resolving uncertainties around climate science[https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2020/07/22/climate-sensitivity-co2], [https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/07/a-new-solution-to-climate-sciences-biggest-mystery-sensitivity/614581/]