Tipping points are a fact of life. They can be total surprises, such as bombing that final or discovering that inspirational teacher. Or they can be events you anticipate intellectually but still throw you when they actually happen, such as a child’s birth or a loved one’s death. Either way, you cross a threshold into a new normal.
As scientists, professors and parents, we think a lot about tipping points from both personal and professional perspectives. At a personal level, we recognize our lives changed suddenly and forever when we fell in love, got married and had kids. You’re never the same after such events. They are tipping points for the better.
Professionally, we recognize much larger tipping points: those that affect the whole world. In our lifetimes, we’ve seen the human population triple and elephant numbers dwindle so fast that, if nothing changed, none will be left in the wild when the UC Berkeley and Stanford students we teach reach our age. We’ve seen vast dead zones spread through the coastal oceans as a result of pollution. And we’ve literally run ahead of exploding flames when entire landscapes we love went up in smoke as a changing climate doubled the size of fires in the American West, an ecological switch that flipped in 1988.
As paleobiologists, we know planetary change as rapid and intense as what we’ve witnessed in our lifetimes and that promises to accelerate in the absence of mitigating actions is unusual in the history of life. All things considered, Earth has not seen the magnitude and pace of change that people are causing today since the dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago.
Those are tipping points for the worse: the kind on which today’s environmental scientists often focus. But recently we’ve begun to glimpse a different kind of global tipping point: one for the better, where a critical mass of awareness can collectively move actions that guide the planet’s future.
That hope began for us in 2010, when we were part of an international group of researchers brought together by the Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology. The group’s task was to clarify how we might expect the global ecosystem to respond to human impacts.
The result was a scientific paper that suggested that as a consequence of human-caused climate change, extinctions, ecosystem destruction, pollution and population overgrowth, Earth was about to cross a threshold into a “new normal,” with lasting consequences for all species — people included.
Unexpectedly, things began to tip for the better. The article was broadcast in the press, and people wanted to know more. Gov. Jerry Brown called and asked, in just about so many words, “If these are such big problems, why isn’t the scientific community shouting it out from the rooftops? Why don’t you scientists write something policy-makers can use to clearly understand and communicate the issues and their solutions?”
In response, we, along with colleagues, produced the Scientific Consensus on Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems: Information for Policy Makers, which was rapidly endorsed by 522 respected global change scientists from around the world, including Nobel laureates and dozens of members of the world’s most respected scientific institutions. It lays out not only problems, but also workable solutions.
On May 23, 2013, we released the consensus statement with Brown at the 2013 Sustainable Silicon Valley WEST Summit. By now, the statement has found its way to leaders all over the world — to California, to Mexico and Canada, to the White House, to China’s political leadership, to the United Kingdom, to Malaysia, Japan and Nepal, as well as to audiences as diverse as national security advisors, religious leaders, venture capitalists and health care specialists.
Through this experience, we sense that change may be in the wind. Decision-makers are taking note of the science-based realities and acting as exemplified by a recent landmark agreement between California and China and another between the Pacific states in the United States and Canada to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to collaborate on green technologies.
These are hopeful signs — the problems are being recognized, and the threshold for acting to solve them is in sight. But what will it take to push us across that action threshold and tip us into a sustainable future? Our discussions with top policy-makers indicate the answer lies in each and every one of us. Those at the top can only do so much to change the world without a clear signal from the rest of us as to which direction we want to go.
To help send that signal, we’ve launched a new initiative called ConsensusForAction. At that website, you’ll find the summary and full text of the science-based statement about global tipping points that so many world leaders now have at their desk. You’ll also find an easy way to make your voice heard by endorsing the statement, liking, sharing and following on Facebook and in a host of other ways, no matter your interests or preferred modes of communication. And with every one of you who indicates you want to avoid tipping planet Earth for the worse, we move closer to a tipping point for the better: the global consensus to guide the planet where we want it to go, rather than passively letting bad things happen.
ConsensusForAction information: http://consensusforaction.stanford.edu/
Endorse ConsensusForAction: http://consensusforaction.stanford.edu/endorse
Follow on Twitter: @ConsensusAction
By Anthony D. Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology, curator in the Museum of Paleontology, and research paleoecologist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley, and his wife Elizabeth A. Hadly, professor of biology and senior associate vice provost for undergraduate education at Stanford University.