Volume 10, #10 January 19, 2006 POLITICS WITH BITE! CONTACT HELP previous BACK ISSUES next

The Two Tipping Points

by Jeff Stevens

Is it the end of the world as we know it? And do you feel fine--or full of millennial dread? The answer may depend both on who you're asking, and on which world you're asking about--the natural world, or the political world.

As for the natural world, lately there's been a lot of worried talk among the environmentally concerned about a "tipping point" approaching involving global warming, that truly grave and gathering threat that Bush the Protector still refuses to confront. But there may also be a tipping point approaching in the political world, one which would bring a welcome change in the climate of American politics--at least for those of us tired of living in the deep dread cast over the world by Bush the Plunderer these past few years.

Let's consider these two tipping points in turn, understanding a "tipping point" to be a point in a process where the rate at which the process proceeds increases dramatically, provoking a drastic change in a given climate--which could be either meteorological or political.

Consider first the ecological tipping point. The scientific community has identified this tipping point as a delicate threshold where a slight rise in the Earth's temperature could cause a dramatic change in the Earth's ecological balance, which could trigger a far greater increase in global warming, whereby melting icecaps, rising oceans, and chaotic weather would become irreversible facts of life.

Is this tipping point approaching? Have we in fact passed it already? Recent events--including, but not limited to Hurricane Katrina--unfortunately suggest that at least the former is true.

In August, the New Scientist reported that in Western Siberia, 250 million acres of permafrost are beginning to thaw for the first time since the Ice Age, gradually exposing the world's largest peat bog. In the Dec. 17 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, the US National Center for Atmospheric Research reported that as this bog thaws, it will release billions of tons of methane--a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide--into the atmosphere, which will drastically accelerate the process of global warming.

Also last month, a group of Arctic scientists reported the recent acceleration of thawing ice in the Arctic Ocean. Among these was the University of Washington's Ron Lindsay, who fears along with his colleagues that the North Pole region may have already passed a "tipping point" from which it can't recover. According to Lindsay, "One of the big factors [in the Arctic thaw] is the increasing melt in summer and the increasing amount of heat absorbed by the ice-free portions of the Arctic Ocean." Lindsay called this a "self-reinforcing feedback process."

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado, satellite photos taken last year show that there is now 20 percent less Arctic sea ice than in 1978, when the first such photos were taken. Ted Scambos, a research scientist at the NSIDC, said:

"The Arctic is a major driver for Earth's weather cycle. [The melting] we see is going to be very profound in terms of global weather change.... We think that these feedbacks are starting to take hold and that we're going to see an accelerated decline in sea ice."

Who can we turn to in order to cease, if not reverse, the approach of this first tipping point? This question brings us to the second tipping point. Let's define this as the point at which a given body politic--for example, the American public, the mainstream US media, and, most importantly, our elected representatives in Congress--finally get so collectively fed up with the arrogance and incompetence of its alleged leadership--such as, to pick an even more random example, the Bush administration--that it awakens from a long, fear-induced slumber and starts collectively calling bullshit on power. As a result, the leadership, facing such a "point of no return," irreversibly loses its grip on power.

Is this tipping point approaching? Have we in fact passed it already?

Let's consider the signs, beginning with the currently unfolding Abramoff scandal. In the wake of Jackgate, as the stench of nationwide Republican Party corruption finally becomes too unbearable to ignore--even by the mainstream media--the spirit of "throw the bums out" is apparently already thick in the political air--even and especially in the MSM--ten months before the 2006 US midterm elections. In addition, the NSA spying scandal has given new life to--and new Congressional backing for--calls for Bush the Prevaricator's impeachment, another factor that could at last provoke a "tipping point" in the American political climate.

If this is indeed the case, perhaps it's not the ozone layer that's opening wide (not just yet), but rather a major opportunity for American progressives to reclaim the political direction of our country. A historical moment appears to be emerging in which the Democratic Party can afford to shed its skin as the party of Lieberman and grow into the skin of the party of Kucinich--and, yes, sweep the Congress on a solidly progressive platform in 2006. As preparations and strategies for November are already gathering momentum in Democratic Party circles, now is the time for progressives to get proactive about who will emerge victorious in a post-Jackgate national election.

It's not just Jackgate and Spygate in play here--it's also The War. The Nation, in its Nov. 28 lead editorial, boldly declared: "We will not support any candidate for national office who does not make a speedy end to the war in Iraq a major issue of his or her campaign. We urge all voters to join us in adopting this position."

A bold and welcome stance, indeed. Keeping in mind the connection between the two tipping points in question here, to this we should add: "Nor will we support any candidate for national office who neither acknowledges global warming as the single greatest long-term threat to our national well-being, nor pledges immediate legislative action to fight global warming as a central part of his or her platform."

The Nation has also pledged to "help identify--and encourage support for--those candidates prepared to bring a speedy end to the war and to begin the hard work of forging a new national security policy that an end to the Iraq War will make possible."

Let us add to this pledge, too. Let's work to "help identify--and encourage support for--those candidates prepared to take action to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions nationally and globally, and to begin the hard work of forging a new national energy policy that a commitment to sustainable development will make possible."

Avoiding the approaching ecological tipping point--if it's not too late--must become America's national priority, both at the grass roots and among our elected leadership. Can we take advantage of the approaching political tipping point to usher in leadership that will recognize global warming as a far more genuine and urgent threat than alleged terrorist chimeras? The two tipping points, and the US midterm elections, are closer than you think.

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