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
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
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.