The Thirteenth Tipping Point Begins

| Fri Jan. 26, 2007 2:43 PM EST

Climate change is in the air. And not just the warming kind. A fresh breeze blows from Washington DC as Congress finally declares an interest in global warming. The barometer climbs a notch as CEOs urge Bush to address the issues now. The heavy, foggy, dark, oppressive weather stagnating in place for the past six years is finally yielding to new air destined to dismantle the Big Low from the top down. We may see sunshine yet. By Independence Day, if Speaker Pelosi has her way.

Yet no matter what changes transpire in government or industry, you and I can't abrogate our responsibility. Only we can shift the human race from its doomsday course. My article in the November/December 2006 issue of Mother Jones, The Thirteenth Tipping Point, examined what science can tell us about our ability to change ourselves. The outlook is good, and the following op-ed, which ran in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere summarizes:

What if twelve meteors were on known collision courses with earth? What if we could alter their trajectories and save our planet by the cumulative effect of our individual efforts? What if science and history proved that we are fully capable of such heroism? What would it take to get us started?

John Schellnhuber, distinguished science advisor at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the United Kingdom, has identified 12 global warming tipping points—from the deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest to the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet—any one of which, if triggered, will likely initiate sudden, meteoric changes across the planet.

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So what will it take to trigger what we might call the 13th tipping point, the shift from personal denial to personal responsibility? What will tip us toward addressing this global environmental issue with the urgency it deserves, as the mother of all threats to homeland security?

A 2005 study on Americans' perceptions of global warming found that while most are moderately concerned, 68 percent believe the greatest threats are to people far away or to nonhuman nature—a dangerous and delusional misperception. Only 13 percent perceive risk to themselves, their families, or their communities.

Many secretly perceive global warming to be an insoluble problem and respond by circling the wagons and focusing on family-sized problems. Yet science shows we're born with powerful tools for solving this quandary. We have the genetic smarts and the cultural smarts. We have the technological know-how. We even have the inclination. The truth is we can change ourselves with breathtaking speed, sculpting even "immutable" human nature. Forty years ago many believed human nature mandated that blacks and whites live in segregation; 30 years ago human nature divided men and women into separate economies; 20 years ago human nature prevented us from defusing a global nuclear standoff. Nowadays we blame human nature for the insolvable hazards of global warming.

Research out of the Max Planck Institute in Germany suggests how we might help ourselves evolve. We behave as better citizens when educated about the science of global warming, and when our actions are visible in the public arena—a phenomenon known as "social facilitation." Perhaps if we're vigorously informed of the global warming dangers to our neighborhoods, we'll individually forego the MacMansions and the Hummers and make sustainable choices. Anything less compromises our children's future.

Until then, our denial facilitates "social loafing"—the tendency of individuals to slack when work is shared and individual performance is not assessed. There's no better example than the U.S. Congress, where members cloak their lethargy regarding global warming behind the stultifying inactivity of their fellows. And why not? After all, who's watching?

Not the media, which habitually squelch new science stories on global warming by rationalizing that we've heard that before—though they would never ignore another round of Middle East bloodletting. Combined, the growing body of scientific knowledge on climate change gains heft and power, but the public rarely hears it, reinforcing our loafing.

Scientists don't help when they react to the terrifying dimensions of public ignorance by sheltering inside hallowed halls. At a recent meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology, 70 percent of members argued in favor of advocating real solutions to environmental problems directly to lethargic policymakers and the press. Yet most researchers remain sequestered at a time when we need their knowledge and expertise like never before.

The nature of tipping points is that they happen dizzyingly fast. The good news is that history proves we're capable of keeping up. Social scientists once believed it would take decades of government pressure and education for Americans to choose smaller families, since the desire to procreate is an absolute part of the human animal, or so they thought. Yet population growth radically declined over only three years in the 1970s—one woman at a time, without an ounce of government involvement.

Leaders can help. But even without them we can help ourselves. Whether or not Marie Antoinette actually said "Let them eat cake," she inspired change that reverberated far beyond Europe. Likewise, when George W. Bush says we can't act on global warming until we "fully understand the nature of the problem," we can use his callous disregard as a rallying cry.

The truth is, we can change, and change fast. Our hallmark is adaptability. Long ago, we looked out from the trees and saw the savannas. Beyond the savannas we glimpsed further frontiers. History proves that when we behold a better world, we move toward it—one person at a time—leaving behind what no longer works.

We know what to do. We know how to do it. We know the timeline. We are our own tipping point.