Michael Mann on tipping points

I’m sure many would disagree, but although I’m clearly aligned with those who are regarded as alarmists, I’ve tried quite hard to avoid alarmist rhetoric. That doesn’t mean I’m not concerned/alarmed, just that my intent here was to discuss (mostly) the scientific evidence and to address what others have said that I think is not backed up by the scientific evidence. I also thought, naively probably, that if I avoided alarmist rhetoric, it might be possible to actually have interesting exchanges with those who disagree with the current scientific views. It’s worked in some cases, but not all that often.

Yesterday, however, I watched an interview between Thom Hartmann and Michael Mann in which Michael Mann discusses the possibility that we could reach one or more tipping points. A tipping point is simply some sudden climatic shift that happens quickly (on geological timescales at least) and can’t be stopped once it starts. Examples would be the continued decline of ice sheets (Greenland, West Antarctic) or the relatively sudden release of greenhouse gases trapped in the Arctic. None of these would be as catastrophic as a Venus-like runaway (which is virtually impossible) but still could have significant negative impacts and possibly could lead to some kind of mass extinction event (removing a large fraction of the species on the planet).

So, although I’ve tried to not use alarming rhetoric, it’s hard not to be alarmed when listening to Michael Mann describing these tipping points. What was particularly poignant was the point he made about this being the only planet we have. There is absolutely no chance that we can move to another habitable planet in the foreseeable future. We don’t know where any others are at the moment and we don’t have the technology to get there even if we did. It seems remarkably foolish, given the scientific evidence, to be risking our existence on this planet simply because some can’t quite bring themselves to accept that we might be changing our climate in ways that could be extremely damaging. Maybe it’s not absolutely certain that we are (well, actually, it pretty much is) but even so, why take the risk? Anyway, I recommend watching the video. It might be alarming, but it’s worth watching.

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19 Responses to Michael Mann on tipping points

  1. Please do not forget that what the so-called sceptics often call alarmist isn’t that. Often anything, or anyone, that states that there are dangerous consequences if we continue down our current path is labelled as alarmist and dismissed.

    It doesn’t matter to them that this warning is based on scientific findings (remember, those are considered alarmist). It also completely ignores that the same research and people also give the message that we can do something about it to prevent the worst of it.

    I’m very reasonable in admitting what is or isn’t likely, how bad or mild effects can be, and what we can support well or not. Despite that I’m often called an alarmist.

    Yes, I’m alarmed by the potential consequences. But more so by our inability to simply listen to scientists who have been warning us for decades. If we had listened and acted it would have meant a less alarming message.

  2. Yes, that’s a good point. As you say, I’m alarmed by what will happen if we choose to do nothing. In some sense I’m optimistic that we can act to prevent major catastrophes. It’s just disappointing that many don’t seem to see the need to act and, in fact, why this isn’t seen as more of an opportunity. It seems obvious to me that developing new technology (both for adaption and mitigation) could – and likely will – have economic benefits so why do so many see it as a risk rather than as something positive. Stagnation would seem more of risk, but maybe that’s just me.

  3. Rachel says:

    You are not an alarmist and I don’t think your writing is alarmist either. You are concerned about climate change but so are the majority of the world’s climate scientists. An alarmist is someone who exaggerates the dangers and as we’ve already established that scientists are more likely to be conservative in this regard, I don’t see how the risk has been exaggerated at all.

    Good video.

  4. Thanks. As you mention, it does seem as though what’s being presented is more likely to be conservative than alarmist. You’d like to think that would give some people pause for thought. Sadly not though, in some cases.

  5. BBD says:

    Again and again the point is made – it is the speed of change that is unique and potentially devastating to an ecosystem that simply will not be able to keep pace and will therefore be overturned.

    I was going to write a comment about Cui et al. (2011) and the relatively slow release of carbon that drove the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM; ~55.9Ma) compared to modern rates of release. Then I discovered that some blog called Skeptical Science had done it already.

    TLDR: Mann is correct.

  6. BG says:

    The issue is that the general population has difficulty navigating between two different time frames. From a human time-frame perspective this climate change event is a relatively ‘slow moving train wreck.’ However, from a geologic time frame perspective it is a ‘virtually instantaneous train wreck.’

    Thus, as in the US, where we now have extortion and hostage taking by economic terrorists, relatively ‘slow moving train wrecks’ get pushed far to the back burner.

  7. dbostrom says:

    BBD’s point about rapidity is hard to overemphasize. The fossil record tells us that organisms can cope with almost anything reasonable– if given enough time– but that their ability to adapt is swamped when things happen too fast.

    Our local newspaper (Seattle Times) just did a well-crafted, multi-part series on ocean acidification, tying the process to impacts on local organisms and the knock-on effects to the local economy. The thing that got my attention was the adaptation speed required of these creatures. Because of the dynamics of the ocean and our local coast, acidification is already having a striking effect here on such activities as oyster cultivation. Despite their having relatively rapid life-cycles, it’s hard to see how such animals can spawn often enough to generate enough fortuitous reproductive accidents to keep up.

    On a side-note, one of the things that impressed me about the Seattle Times article series and that might be worth more emulation was the relatively low-profile given to the underlying reasons for ocean acidification. While of course drawing a line back to CO2 absorption by the ocean, the series concentrated mostly on local effects. The narrative and evidence shown on local phenomena was undeniable, meaning that readers were left with a solid understanding of “what.” With such a heavy, detailed freight of “what,” the challenge of creating an alternative (wrong) “why” becomes more difficult. Readers wishing to understand more about “why” are going to be steered to a better understanding of “why” because what they choose to accept will be shaped by the necessity of it fitting in with the local “what.”

    That was probably clear as mud but it’s totally plain in my mind. 😉

  8. Martin Vermeer says:

    That’s an interesting point, BG. The huge disparity between human and geological time scales is perhaps what makes both the reality of evolution and the seriousness of current climate change so hard to get people to grasp. A common factor in both denialisms that I hadn’t thought of.

  9. dbostrom says:

    Google Scholar: “risk perception temporal distance”

    See Spence et al “The Psychological Distance of Climate Change” for a helpful experimental result. DOI: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2011.01695.x

  10. That is a good point. People may well not realise that measurable changes that occur on decade timescales is remarkable fast when compared to geological timescales.

  11. Mann looks like he’s aged in this video.

  12. Steve Bloom says:

    Thanks, Doug, I’d missed that one.

  13. From the article: “A tipping point is simply some sudden climatic shift that happens quickly (on geological timescales at least) ”
    ~ ~ ~

    Well you know, if you’re thinking in terms of “geologic time scales”
    our atmosphere’s CO2 concentrations have gone from around 300 ppm to over 400 ppm in a century, that’s damned “sudden” – in a flash geologically speaking!

    …cryosphere determinedly melting away …
    …oceans warming up
    …ocean’s pH level changing
    all at breakneck pace… geologically speaking.

    Seems to me that thanks to our neglect these past four decades we are living the tipping point this decade.

  14. Rachel says:

    And where on Earth did he get that outfit?

  15. In some sense, that’s quite right. I guess we still have the ability to stop the rise, even if we can’t stop what we’ve already locked in.

  16. dbostrom says:

    2013-1999 is 14. OCD victims helplessly yapping at Mann’s heels have aged equally.

  17. Pingback: Judith Curry says it’s okay | Wotts Up With That Blog

  18. Pingback: Another Week in the Ecological Crisis, October 6, 2013 – A Few Things Ill Considered

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