Every year, nearly all of the globe’s nations convene at the Conference of the Parties (COP) to discuss how they’re going to tackle climate change. The main goal of the 24th Session held recently in Katowice, Poland, was to agree on how the terms of the Paris Agreement would be operationalized. There’s still work to be done, but some important steps were made in the global effort to avoid catastrophic consequences of climate change. Relevant to our work at The Rockies Institute (TRI) is that the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform became fully functional and the Government Canada announced that it will create a UNFCCC Indigenous Peoples Focal Point to promote global Indigenous knowledge on climate change. These actions create a pathway for TRI to communicate outcomes of work and learn from others who are braiding scientific and Indigenous knowledge related to climate adaptation.
The climate change story is not about “environmentalists” versus “anyone who cares about the economy;” it is economists, physicists, biologists and other Earth scientists, physicians, bankers, insurers… who understand climate change… all telling us that we need to collectively work together to avoid catastrophic consequences – like extinction and a complete system and financial crash. Those are not words to be taken lightly. These people don’t have an agenda to harm you. They’re agenda is to save you. They’re not personally benefiting from your belief or disbelief. Listening to those who are sounding the alarm is probably a good idea at this stage.
Quite simply, too many people have been living glutinously for too long, and now we have consequences to address.
We are smoking, drinking and eating our planet to death. It is now time to take responsibility for our health and the health of all that sustains us. Most of us want a healthy and prosperous life for ourselves and our future kin, but just aren’t sure what that looks like in the context of climate change. It isn’t easy to know what to do when innovations are just starting to emerge and when there remains so much politicking around climate change.
Just transitions need to be better defined and new energy sources realized. I believe that the majority of humans would gladly live less glutinous and stewards of the water, air, and land – if it didn’t mean compromising their well-being. I also believe that the more people understand about climate circumstances, the better decisions they will make – which is why I’m so committed to sharing knowledge and engaging in honest dialogue – without blame and shame. We’re in this together.
I am a co-founder of one of few organizations dedicated to climate change education and research. We’ve been doing some great work since becoming a charitable three years ago, but during that time Co2 emissions have risen, governments have been only marginally effective, and disasters have only gotten worse.
We need to quadruple our delivery of resilience building projects and knowledge sharing capabilities, and, to do that we need serious investment. The kind of investment that matches the seriousness of the challenge we’re trying to address.
I did some math when trying to determine what a reasonable goal would be for our year-end campaign. I figured out that if everyone in our network donated $25 – we’d meet our goal of raising $10,000 Canadian. Even though this is only a fraction of what is required for the work we need to do, it would send strong message of support when we appeal to foundations, governments, and others who have greater capacity; the kind of capacity that would enable The Rockies Institute to excel adaptation programming and, in our efforts, to minimize suffering by building our resilience to disasters like wildfires.
Thank you for taking time to read this personal appeal and for considering our “cause” which really, is everyone’s cause.
Please also help spread the word; the more people who show their support of our work, the stronger our position is to larger funders.
Andy Dobson, EEB, Eno Hall, Princeton University, NJ 0854, USA.
Winter might not be coming. Or when it does, it will increasingly be in a much-reduced form: less frost and snow, more grey skies and rain. Unfortunately, as much of the northern world has seen this year in Montreal, Japan, Greece, the United Kingdom, California and Sweden, summer can arrive with much more of a vengeance: more droughts, heat, humidity and wild fires.
This is not good news and as any climate scientist will tell you, it’s certainly not fake news. Our weather is changing. Greenhouse gas emissions due to industrial activity and the conversion of forests and savannas to agriculture are the principle drivers of current, massively observed, changes in climate. Our understanding of the science that underlies this is not perfect, but it is as exact as any other area of science that brings together mathematics, massive amounts of data, and hugely replicated experiments. In fact, more sound than much of medicine, and nuclear physics. We all check the weather forecast every morning and it gives us an accurate assessment of what the weather will do for the next 20 to 48 hours. Variations and expansions of the same set of models are used to make predictions of how the climate will evolve as we add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and what this will do over the next decades to centuries. Imagine how much wealthier we would all be, if mathematical models for the money markets had the level of predictive skill of the daily weather forecast. The middle pages of the daily newspapers would be much diminished. In the clubish world of economic forecasting, less than 5 percent of forecasters get any forecast correct. This is roughly what you would expect with a large number of people each making a random forecast. In marked contrast, 99% of climate scientists are agreed about climate change and its consequences and causes. Yet, some politicians and many members of the public seem happy to revere hedge fund dealers as mathematical geniuses, while simultaneously denigrating climate scientists. This is of course a travesty driven by a mixture of ignorance and large political donations from those with a vested interest in not taking the blame for climate change. Similar situations arose when it was pointed out that there were significant health effects associated with smoking tobacco. The companies who have been driving and denying climate change are likely to eventually face legal settlements that parallel those paid by tobacco companies.
The bill this time will be much, much higher. So energy companies need to seek advice to help find technological and social solutions to climate change under which they can continue to operate. Perhaps the politicians who accepted campaign donations from the energy companies should seek similar advice, or they too will face increasing pressure to help foot the bill. As will the children of energy industry magnets and their political concubines? Not least because ‘climate change’, as with all forms of environmental change, is an inter-generational problem. One where the “sins of the fathers” will be hugely reaped by their offspring. Potentially, climate change will eventually precipitate new legal precedents for collecting intergenerational compensation.
When the climate change debate first started in the late 1980’s several high-profile meetings examined both the available evidence for climate change and the possible consequences. Those who seek to cast doubt on the accuracy of the predictions will find it instructive to go back and read some of these documents (Dobson, Jolly et al. 1989, Schneider 1989, Peters and Lovejoy 1992, Root and Schneider 1995). One again wishes that our highly revered economists were as accurate in their predictions! Many of the climate driven events we have seen in the last few years were consistently predicted during the earliest discussions of climate change: declining Arctic sea ice, increased frequency of summer heat-waves, significant increases in levels of precipitation in some areas and large reductions in others, leading to declining crop yields. The only major error in these analyses was that these impacts were predicted to occur much later in the century. Part of this was expediency, the climate scientists did not want to appear unnecessary alarmist, but there was also a significant belief that climate would respond more slowly to an accumulation of greenhouse gasses than we are currently seeing. Part of it also reflects the further accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere over the last quarter century. To me, the scariest thing about climate change, is that not that everything predicted is now occurring, but that it is happening much earlier than was originally predicted. The former is a testimony to the skills of the climate scientists, the latter underlies politician’s inability to make long-term policy. Most worrying is that because climate is a highly non-linear system, one in which small tweaks give rise to large changes, this means that future weather events will quickly attain new extremes. So we can either bury our heads in the sands of our primitive belief systems, or we can try and precipitate political and social change to slow climate change before it is too late to reverse it.
The Rockies Institute provides a vital forum for these discussions as does “Climate Central” (www.climatecentral.org) for those who rarely leave their web-browsers. The primary goal of both is to educate people about the consequences of climate change while also fostering research that looks into their impacts in places like the Canadian Rockies and in Indigenous communities, particularly the impact on those living close to the land. The impacts of climate change will have a subtle underlying geographical variability. Temperature will rise much more rapidly in the Artic regions, than in the Tropics. The rapid decline in Arctic sea-ice provides strong testimony to this. This in turn creates a set of secondary feedbacks: as the tundra melts, it will release large amounts of stored CO2 that will enter the atmosphere and further enhance rates of warming. Similarly, the huge fires than have been burning over the past few summers in Canada’s boreal forests add more CO2 back into the atmosphere. The decades it will take for these forests to regrow emphasize that it is much harder to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, than to put them up there in the first place.
At first sight mountains would seem to be pre-adapted to deal with climate change. If the earth gets warmer, than plant and animal communities can simply move upslope and colonize areas that correspond to the climate they used to experience. The problem here is that montane vegetation disperses only very slowly and of course mountains tend to get smaller the higher up them you ascend. This means that montane habitats will get smaller and support less diverse communities of plants and animals if their only recourse is to migrate upslope. Much larger challenges face species living in the prairie; the distances they will have to move to find the climate conditions they are adapted to may be many hundreds of miles to the north and the soil quality will inevitably be poorer as these areas have been covered in thinner layers of vegetation for centuries. This change in soil quality will also undermine any delusions that significant new agricultural areas will open up in the once boreal areas of Canada and Russia. The low-quality soils will provide very restricted crop yields for only a limited number of years. Similarly, increased access to fisheries in the Arctic will be undermined by the problem that marine productivity in Arctic regions is driven by refraction of light into planktonic regions at the edge of the ice. If the area of sea ice shrinks, it’s perimeter will shrink, and the future of Arctic fisheries will be rapidly curtailed.
This synergistic interaction between climate change and decreasing agricultural yields presents a major threat to biodiversity as it will initially increase pressure to convert more wildlands to agriculture. This route leads to disaster as agricultural productivity is always dependent upon water and the principle source of water for agriculture will be the large forested water sheds that supply water to agriculture in lower lying regions. If these lands are converted to agriculture, there will be no consistent supply of water for crops and agriculture will fail. This implies that fears about climate changes action on agricultural productivity should lead to significant increases in protection for water sheds, particularly in montane regions which stimulate rainfall and whose forests hold this precipitation before releasing it slowly for downstream use. Glaciers perform similar functions, but these are rapidly eroding, there is now only one Glacier remaining in Glacier National Park across the border from Canada’s Waterton Lakes park.
What can be done to slow climate warming? First off let’s underline that there are no viable easy technological fixes. This makes solving climate change, much harder than the related problem of atmospheric ozone that created holes over the Arctic and Antarctic whose expansion allowed harmful levels of ultra-violet light to pass through the atmosphere. Fortunately, the industries that created the ozone problem (largely refrigeration and aerosol manufacturers), also had the solution; replace fluorocarbons with alternative chemicals. Policy changes, specifically the Montreal protocol, could thus be quickly adopted and initiated, particularly as the people who’d created the problem could enhance their profits by adopting its solution. Climate change presents more significant policy challenges, that will certainly require a range of solutions (Pacala and Socolow 2004). Some energy companies have been investing in photovoltaic energy research, seeking similar win-win scenarios to the ozone manufacturers. But the initial subsidies that helped initiate photovoltaic and wind energy have largely been killed off, largely due to political pressure from less agile companies who can continue to profit from oil and gas. Slowing and reversing rates of land conversion can provide another option, this will need to be combined with increases in agricultural efficiency, so that more crops can be grown on land already converted from pristine forests. Significant amounts of land restoration will be necessary, particularly the conversion of degraded agricultural and industrial land back to forest and savanna covered in plants that suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it back in the soil. These are all labor- intensive projects, they may even employ more people than are currently employed in the energy and timber extraction industries. Society as a whole should benefit from these activities. Global security would also benefit significantly from climate change mitigation, the recent wars in the middle east can be traced back to drought and crop failures interacting with bad governance giving rise to civil war. Similar conditions in Africa have helped drive migrations and the refugee crisis. The US has recently suggested that global defense spending needs to be raised to 4 percent of Gross Domestic product. If Nations more explicitly recognized the underlying cause of civil war and the refugee crisis, they would defensively spend at least this amount on environmental defense and climate mitigation. We might then see a significant decline in migration and the conflicts that arise when people are forced to rise up and rebel in the face of imminent starvation. Swords need to beaten back into plough shares and pipes for crop irrigation. Farmer’s Markets need to replace the vacuous pomposity of military parades.
Land restoration and preservation needs also to be undertaken in ways that allow plant and animal species to disperse across the landscape in response to climate change, and potentially back again, ‘if’ we manage to control climate change. But this is a very big ‘IF’. It requires political will and societal belief, neither of which will be easy to inspire in systems that take many electoral cycles to show effects. The statistical flaws inherent in political democracy undermine its ability to deal with such problems. Most politicians are rarely elected by more than 20% of the populace (less than 50% of people turn out to vote, and most elections are fairly close races between two or more candidates). This generates short-term thinking in politicians who must constantly focus on re-election and balance fund raising from less than 1% of their electorate, with policies that illicit votes from their less wealthy constituents. When it works this imperfection creates the diversity of opinions in representative government that is its principle strength; it prevents bad things happening (Runciman 2018). Concomitantly, this completely stifles innovative government. This requires visionary leaders with a strong mandate to govern and who make policy decisions based on sound scientific evidence. This will require deeper and broader education of both the public and political leadership about the perils of climate change and environmental degradation. There are very few precedents for legislating for events over such prolonged time horizons; anything we do now to modify climate change, will not have an effect for at least 25 years. But, the consequences of not acting will be increasingly dire for children born this century: prolonged droughts, wild fires and floods will leave many people hungry, angry, and very grumpy with the families of the politicians their parents elected. Winter may not arrive at all for their children; but summer will become relentless.
Well worth reading.
Dobson, A. P., A. Jolly and D. Rubenstein (1989). “The greenhouse-effect and biological diversity.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 4: 64-68.
Pacala, S. and R. Socolow (2004). “Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies.” Science 305(5686): 968-972.
Peters, R. L. and T. E. Lovejoy (1992). Global Warming and Biological Diversity. New Haven, Yale University Press.
Root, T. L. and S. H. Schneider (1995). “Ecology and climate: research strategies and implications.” Science 269: 334-341.
Runciman, D. (2018). How Democracy Ends. New York, Basic Books, Perseus.
Schneider, S. H. (1989). “The Greenhouse Effect: Science and policy.” Science 243: 771-782.
Immediately, one might ask, what impacts? Well, where Im from, Cape Town, South Africa, I can tell you about one of the worst drought in recent memory, that the city could run out of water for more than 4 million citizens in the next few months. Read about the wildfire in North America? What about the melting of ice in the Artic that will have catastrophic implications for the indigenous people and the environment? These are just a few of the impacts of climate change around the world.
Well, scientists have sufficient knowledge about the impacts of climate change on the environment, people and biodiversity and have made great strides in combatting these impacts. However, we are still on a downward trajectory towards extinction. Extinction not only in terms of biodiversity and landscapes, but also of people, their cultures and traditions. The most affected people, are indigenous people who live in close association with nature. What is weird is that these beautiful peoples have the necessary knowledge and skills to deal with a changing climate, and have done so for centuries. However, their actions have recently become hindered by a magnitude of barriers including a lack of support from their governments.
This is why I came to Canada to share my experiences on working with indigenous communities in southern Africa and how they adapt to their changing climate. I was invited to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Cities and Climate Change conference by the Government of Alberta and The Rockies Institute (TRI) from 4-7 March 2018 to partake in two panel discussions about the value and use of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) in combatting climate change. The conference brought together thousands of scientists, policy makers, practitioners and others from around the globe to Edmonton, Alberta to assess current climate change knowledge and to discuss a way forward in terms of research and cities’ responses to climate change.
My first panel contribution was in the ‘Village of Hope’ pre-conference session. It was the first time such a platform was created for indigenous peoples and scientists to share their views on climate change and its associated impacts. We had our discussions in sharing circles, as indigenous peoples usually do, and over plenty of good cultural foods throughout the session. There was no time limits and no ‘celebrities’ where everyone was treated equally and acknowledged for their own valuable contribution towards the discussions. At least for this short period, at hopefully many more in the near future, we did it the indigenous way, which was very different from the colonial and Eurocentric ways of formality, structure and top down.
Given this unique platform, people were very comfortable and ideas were flowing. In circle one, we learned that there is an increased need for some indigenous community members in Canada to understand how climate change affect them, including the elders, youth and women. As such, TRI and the Blackfoot community embarked on a process to create climate change awareness and understanding through community workshops and hiring a climate change coordinator who is based on the Blood tribe reservation. Their next steps would include developing adaptation and mitigation strategies with the participation of all relevant stakeholders. We also heard from Dr Leroy Little Bear, the most fascinating and knowledgeable speaker I ever heard in my entire life, that for the Blackfoot tribes who live in sync with nature, landscape degradation and disappearance of species as a result of climate change would make them less Blackfoot, and in a sense less human. This could be said to all indigenous people having their livelihoods closely coupled to nature.
In the circle, where I presented in, a practical model for knowledge sharing between the global north and south specifically on climate change adaptation was discussed. The discussion identified that we need to consider that for this model to work, it needs to be a bottom up process, include vulnerable youth and women, and view the climate crises holistically in combination of other societal issues such as poverty and crime. We also recognised that international treaties such as the Paris Agreement are difficult to implement due to resource limitations and this will raise challenges that would prolong adaptation responses. The benefit of building climate resilient indigenous communities for cities around the world would include; a sustainable landscape where they could harvest resources such as water, energy and food from and a reduction in climate migrants who seek a better life by migrating out of rural areas to cities. Given this heap of benefits in building resilient livelihoods, we are exciting about bringing the Blood tribe to South Africa and take the Nama clans to Canada for knowledge exchange and learning on climate change adaptation.
The conversation on the important role IKS could play in climate change adaptations continued the Monday during a panel session on Application of Multiple Knowledge Systems for Evidence-Based Decision Making: Opportunities and Challenges for Ensuring Resilient Communities. Here, we discussed why it is important to braid the two knowledge systems (indigenous and scientific) to inform climate change adaptation and mitigation programmes. There was great passion from the panel and they all unanimously agreed that firstly, IKS is an important source of info and secondly, that it could be used to inform not only future IPCC reports but also climate change adaptation actions at landscape levels where impacts are mostly felt. Indigenous knowledge holders could also inform research agendas where some of their indigenous methodologies and theories could be used and tested. The process, of exactly how these two knowledge systems could be effectively braided is still under discussion but examples at local level where they have been braided (not integrated) have been given, but these examples are few. However, key messages emerged that when these knowledge systems are braided it should be a transparent and participatory process, validation needs to occur at appropriate levels, trust building needs to take place and that people’s rights and their valuable contribution they can make towards combatting climate change should be respected.
My interactions with indigenous Blood tribe of Treaty Seven at Standoff
I was full of expectation that travelling to the other end of the globe to meet up with the Canadian Blood tribe. My expectations were fundamentally fashioned by the limited material that was available on the internet on the tribe and based on my more than a decade of working with the descendants of Nama clan. The Nama people essentially suffered the same fate regarding the impact of colonialism on the Blood tribe but are still continuing their traditions of pastoralism in the South African version of ‘reserves’ for indigenous people. And this was basically my frame of reference in understanding the impact of acculturation and the dispossession of grazing land have on indigenous tribes. Furthermore, literature I’ve accessed on acculturation mostly painted a negative picture on the degeneration of cultural practices, boundless socio-economic challenges, and a perceived backwardness in terms of agricultural production systems. To be honest my perceptions didn’t carry a lot of positivity.
My two-day trip from Cape Town to Canada didn’t allow me enough time to mentally prepare for the extreme Canadian cold that I would face, which is in complete contrast to the extremely hot conditions in Namaqualand, South Africa. Protected from the cold with layers of layers of insolation our travels to the Blood tribe took me to the place called Standoff. I gazed through the vehicle’s windows to catch my first sighting of a traditional tipi, but to my surprise it was the well-established infrastructure that first caught my eye. This is something I’m not familiar with from my South African context.
It was such a privilege for me and my colleagues from the United States (Dr Karl van Orsdol) and South Africa (Dr Mmoto Masubelele) to set foot onto Treaty Seven territory, the Blackfoot Reservation after the conference. To welcome first comers like us with such great openness and humility is almost unprecedented these days. And to honour us with gifts, resembling Blackfoot culture and traditions was really overwhelming. As in the Blackfoot way, we had very insightful conversations over some cultural food. We were offered delicious Saskatchewan berry soup together with some biscuits and meat, dried the traditional way.
The director of the Blood Tribe Lands Administration, CLoAnn Wells, presented a short PowerPoint on the Treaty Seven Land, the institutional arrangements of her administration and their links to the Chief and Council. Afterwards, we discussed their functions and the challenges as an administration including the roles of the environmental protection agency (EPA). I was so impressed by their ‘efficacy’ and from my experience, they function better than any other traditional land agency I ever interacted with.
The EPA team took us out into the field, thanks Elders William and Adam, and the two vibrant young ladies, Kansie and Diandra. We braved the cold, and were shown the different land uses on the reserve which included extraction of oil by companies which they lease some parts of their lands to and some cattle ranches. We discussed challenges of the lack of reliable stocking rates and a rotational resting system to inform management of the rangeland, and the impacts of wildfires on the reserve. However, the EPA team is working hard to gather the necessary data and have been monitoring the rangeland for impacts including those brought about by climate change.
I saw similarities and differences in the challenges the Blood tribe and the Nama people in South Africa are experiencing in terms of climate change and the use of indigenous knowledge. 1) Current IKS are not keeping up with the rapid changes in climate and this impede their ability to adapt, 2) knowledge transfer is inadequate between elders and youth who often aspire more modern city lifestyles, 3) losing valuable indigenous knowledge since this knowledge is often kept orally in songs, ceremonies and theatre, and 4) indigenous knowledge is not adequately used in climate change adaptation plans and programme that affect their land. We hope that these few observations could spark the conversations between the Nama and the Blood Tribe when we will bring them together in both Canada and South Africa in the near future.
I left Canada inspired but mindfully reiterating the words of Dr Leroy Little Bear, that “we as humans need to take a step back and rethink the way we interact with nature, we need to change our ways or we will all become less human” to remind myself that we still have a lot to do to build resilient climate communities.
Approximately 720 million years ago, the world was encased in ice, frozen from pole to pole. This “Snowball Earth” – an uninhabitable planet, save for a few spots of refuge for bacteria along the equator – stayed frozen for about 80 million years before thawing out. Carbon dioxide had been bubbling from volcanoes and vents underneath the surface of the ice for millions of years.
Finally the carbon dioxide probably built up to 300 times today’s levels – surpassing a critical tipping point – and the greenhouse effect caused the ice sheets to melt. “We went out of the freezer and into the frying pan”, says Timothy Lenton, an Earth system scientist at the University of Exeter.
Since the unfreezing of Snowball Earth, multicellular life has emerged. Dinosaurs came and went. For the last tiny fraction of geological time, humans have populated the planet. If the Earth has been around for 24 hours, humans appeared in the last few seconds. In an even shorter amount of time, the industrial revolution has unfolded and human activities in parts of the world now put demands on natural systems across the globe in unprecedented ways.
Overfishing has led to the collapse of cod populations in the United Kingdom, Canada, and other Atlantic Ocean countries. Nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff have led to algal blooms that suck oxygen from lake waters and are sometimes toxic. And continued human-driven, or anthropogenic, global temperature rise has altered India’s summer monsoon patterns – Lenton and his colleagues speculate that the consequences of human activities will eventually turn the Amazon rain forest into savanna, and melt the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.1
From a human-centred point of view, we are in danger of putting ourselves into a situation that seems nearly as untenable for our civilisation as Snowball Earth, and on a much faster timetable. As the habitable version of Earth spins on its tilted axis, the different systems contained within it – the biosphere, atmosphere, and geosphere – currently provide services vital to our survival and well-being.
But they can also shift at critical tipping points. A tipping point is where a system can flip and turn into something different. Reversing the actions that pushed the system to tip does not mean the system will tip back. And the scale at which these changes happen – from your back garden to the boundaries of the atmosphere – becomes important.
Identifying tipping points, researchers say, could help communities stave off potentially drastic changes in the future. Or it could help them push towards tipping points to create changes that might lead to more desirable circumstances.
Where did the term “tipping points” originate?
The idea of a tipping point had been around since the 19th century when French mathematician Henri Poincaré was studying the movement of celestial bodies and realised that systems could shift rapidly from one equilibrium to another. He didn’t call the point at which the system shifted a “tipping point”, but knew that systems could reach a critical point where they would bifurcate. Literally, systems come to a fork in the road and can follow one path or the other.
The recognition of tipping points runs counter to the idea of linear thinking, where one event leads to another. In a linear world view, effects are additive and predictable, and to a large extent reversible. The real world has shown us repeatedly that this is not the case. Tipping points are most visible in single events, but actually stem from the dynamics of multiple factors.
For example, the cod population of the Atlantic northwest collapsed in what was seemingly a single event of overfishing in the 1990s, but was actually the result of decades of overfishing by many fishing fleets, improvements in fishing technology, a growing market and demand for cod, and other factors. The ensuing fishing restrictions did not lead to a rapid recovery of the fish population and, 20-plus years on, it has still not returned to what it was.
Not until 1957 did Morton Grodzins, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, first formally use the phrase “tip point”. He used it to describe the threshold at which whites began to move out of a neighbourhood once African Americans started moving in.2 The first ecological application of a “tipping point” appeared approximately two decades later, when ecologist C. S. “Buzz” Holling was studying forests in Canada that were prone to spruce budworm infestations. In one possible state, predators could keep the destructive spruce budworms in check. In another, the pests could unleash their prowess by defoliating the forest and thrive until the trees died out. Holling was able to show that certain stressors could flip what seemed to be a stable ecosystem into an alternative state.
But the term wasn’t popularised until Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Pointwas published in 2000. In it, Gladwell highlighted myriad social examples where sudden and unexpected change made a big difference. For instance, he describes how epidemics of sexually transmitted diseases can take off because of the interactions of multiple conditions, from housing infrastructure to the availability of medical care.
While the concept had been around in the ecological sciences for decades, the climate science community didn’t use the term “tipping point” until after Gladwell’s book revived the phrase, first formalised in the scientific literature by Lenton and his colleagues in the mid-2000s. Then, in 2009, 28 leading scientists – including Lenton and Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre – identified nine “planetary boundaries” that mark conditions vital for human survival.3
The nine boundaries together represent an Earth system that maintains the functions and processes that have made it possible for humans to survive and thrive, particularly in the past 10,000 years, or the current geologic era called the Holocene. The researchers were able to quantify seven of them, and showed that we’ve crossed four: climate change, biodiversity loss, land-system change, and altered nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans. The planetary boundaries do not directly correspond to tipping points, instead they describe conditions that mean an increased risk of reaching them.
“We worked together to articulate that tipping points are possible, that it’d be good to study them, and any sensible approach to the future would at least account for them”, Lenton says.
In 2015, he and other researchers wrote that “perhaps the most ‘dangerous’ aspect of future climate change is the possibility that human activities will push parts of the climate system past tipping points, leading to irreversible impacts.”4 In light of this, Lenton believes it’s important to map out the early warning signals that can indicate that a system is close to tipping from one state into another.
If the tipping points in different systems can be identified, then individuals, policy makers, and communities can conceivably change their actions to prevent reaching these tipping points altogether. And, if there’s no way to avoid the tipping points, the stakeholders can take action to absorb the consequences once system A tips into system B. “A trivial investment in the millions [for an early detection system] could warn us of something that could hurt us in the trillions”, Lenton says.
Early warnings, however, rely on understanding the feedbacks in a system that shape it and that could cause it to tip. That can be difficult. “When you get closer to a tipping point, your system will become more variable”, says Oonsie Biggs, a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. “It can be very unclear as to where the system is going.”
Tipping points in practice
“People are generally managing systems like there are no thresholds”, says Biggs. She thinks that it is “better to assume that there are many of these thresholds and what they may be rather than assume that there are none.”
In her research, Biggs and her colleagues have studied multiple ecological systems that have tipped from one state into another and documented these instances in the Regime Shifts DataBase.5 By understanding how shifts can happen in certain systems, people can get a better sense of the conditions under which they occur, and ultimately be able to influence how those systems are managed to avoid reaching tipping points – or to push towards them, Biggs says.
Avoiding undesirable thresholds or tipping points requires resilience. Resilience describes the capacity of a system – be it an individual, lake, forest, city, or economy – to deal with disturbance, change, and development, through persistance, adaptation, or transformation. Resilience in itself, however, is neither a good nor a bad thing.
“You may value some components of an ecosystem whereas other people value different components of an ecosystem”, says Anne Salomon, a marine ecologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada. “It’s not a matter of good or bad, it’s a matter of difference.” Asking questions about the specific context helps clarify wanted outcomes: resilience of what system, to what tipping point, and for whom?
Resilience thinking, then, embraces the idea that humans and nature are so inextricably intertwined that they should be thought of cohesively as one social-ecological system. It describes an approach for looking at systems, how they function, how they are perturbed, and what drives the behaviour that causes such perturbations.Resilience researchers have proposed seven principles that contribute to building resilience to minimise risk of hitting undesirable social-ecological tipping points. For instance, having more diversity in a system could give it a greater capacity to deal with change. Having connectivity between different elements in a system could also offset potential disturbances. “But you don’t want to be overconnected”, says Biggs, pointing to the risk of diseases, pests, or other unwanted epidemics spreading far and fast. Learning about a system and building social trust in it, as well as the willingness to act, can also be vital. “If this foundation is laid before a crisis, you can just draw on social resources or capital to act in a coherent way”, she says.
In South Africa’s national parks, for example, scientists, park managers, and rangers have come together to identify the potential thresholds in ecosystems to lay a foundation to manage the fish in their rivers, their elephant populations, savanna ecosystems, and the spread of fire. By identifying potential tipping points, rangers and managers can then look for indicators to monitor the activity in their ecosystems of interest. If they see anything alarming, “then they will have a management meeting where they make a decision to avoid hitting the threshold or to reverse the course of activity”, says Biggs.
Tipping for good
While much attention has been paid to “negative” tipping points – that is, when a stable equilibrium suddenly reaches a critical point and changes into something else entirely – an equal amount of attention might be necessary in investigating “positive” tipping points, or the restoration of a particular ecosystem.
The featured stories share similar ingredients for success, such as genuine community participation, the co-adaptation of a community and ecosystem, and allowing nature to run its course and unveil its capacity for self-organisation and restoration. “The main ingredients for success centre around the characteristics of the technology that enable things to be turned around, and the second is about the social organisation for making these changes happen”, says Marten. And the biggest barriers, according to Marten, are overcoming social obstacles that stand in the way of tipping a system back.
As humans can derive value from different states of a system, we may want to control which way a system tips. “The health of an ecosystem is in the eye of the beholder”, says Salomon of Simon Fraser University. “Health is a normative term, depending on what you want from an ecosystem.” Salomon has gathered some insights into resilience thinking from studying kelp forests – the “poster child of tipping points”, she says – along the British Columbia coast. Kelp forests are known to switch dramatically between forested and deforested states, and communities along the coast have maintained a mosaic of both states.
In one state, a rocky reef could have what looks like a liquid forest made of kelp floating above it. In another, the kelp is gone and sea urchins cover the rocky reefs. Depending on how humans enact laws or practices that modify the populations of sea otters, which are known to prey on sea urchins, the reefs can either be lush and green, or rocky and seemingly barren. But because coastal communities derive value from both kelp and sea urchins – urchins can be harvested and sold commercially, whereas kelp provides a habitat for fish and shellfish – they have maintained a patchwork of forested and deforested states by controlling the hunting of sea otters.
What Salomon has learned from transforming the state of kelp forests from one state to another ties back to the fundamentals of resilience in social-ecological systems. “It’s recognising that humans are just one component of a complex system with strong feedbacks and interactions, recognising the ecological and social interactions within these complex systems, and then collaboratively figuring out how to change our governance of the systems and how we interact with them to get them to a desirable state”, she says.
Seeing tipping points before they tip
Tipping points happen at many levels, from sea urchins and kelp forests to the entire planet’s atmosphere. We know that a Snowball Earth is not good for humans. We also know the same is true for global warming. One conceivable future resulting from climate change would be one where the Sahara desert could be a greener, wetter place with more vegetation – which could be good news for farmers and herders in the region. But elsewhere, people will suffer, as climate change also leads to large and irreversible sea-level rise that will wipe out whole island nations, as well as large deltas where humans have tended to settle over multiple generations.
What risks are societies willing to accept – and which ones can actually be foretold in a chaotic and non-linear world? Seeing tipping points could give some actors, whether they are policymakers, corporations, or communities, the power to change course. But can tipping points actually be identified?6
While we can conceive of futures caused by climate change, pinpointing the exact moments that, for instance, will lead to the greening of the Sahara, or the reversal of ocean currents, might be more difficult. Acknowledging, and maybe even identifying, tipping points in the social-ecological systems in which people live and on which they depend means having a better chance of modifying behaviour to tip the scales for the outcomes people want.
TRI’s co-founder and volunteer president, Laura Lynes recently co-authored a paper titled: Interconnected place-based social-ecological research can inform global sustainability published in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. Highlights of the paper are:
Long-term networks of place-based research can inform global sustainability.
Place-based research fosters co-construction of local sustainability solutions.
Transference and scaling-up of place-based insights faces several challenges.
New institutional frameworks, settings and communities foster place-based research.