I wrote this article 33 months ago, in 2008. It still seems relevant.
We live in a world on the brink. Earlier this year  people concerned about the environment, concerned about global climate change, examined closely the matter of environmental tipping points, and they came up with a number, 100 months.
What are environmental tipping points? Think of it like this. You are transporting a heavy object down a flight of stairs. Someone is in front of it, pushing backwards against gravity, someone is behind it, pulling, attempting to do the same. Why? Because if the object picks up too much speed, it becomes impossible to control. It gains momentum which exceeds your ability to slow it down. The only thing you can do in that case is get out of the way and let the object smash itself down the stairs, hoping it survives the trip.
To use another illustration, an environmental tipping point is like a fire burning past the point where anyone can do anything to control it, and you have to just let it burn itself out.
But the trouble with environmental tipping points is scale. You can dodge a piano sliding down a staircase. You can escape a burning house or even outrun a forest fire. But environmental tipping points are global in scale and effect, and they can’t be dodged or avoided. The only possible way to deal with them is to not let them reach that point, is to not to let the disaster gain momentum.
One environmental tipping point may already have been reached, that affecting Arctic sea ice. Global climate change does not manifest itself evenly. The poles experience much more warming than the tropics, and this has resulted in the disappearance of much of the summer ice cover of the Arctic Ocean. The trouble with the disappearing ice is that it served a function in keeping the world cooler – it reflected sunlight. With the ice gone and the less reflective open water underneath exposed, the Arctic climactic system is absorbing much more of the sun’s heat than before, accelerating global climate change.
Your piano is falling faster. Your fire is burning hotter.
Another environmental tipping point is the world’s oceans. With the warming accompanying climate change, the oceans are getting warmer too. What this warming does is to negatively affect the ability of the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide. The oceans have so far been one of the ecosystem’s safety valves, taking up much of the earth’s carbon and placing it where it will not absorb sunlight. With a warmer ocean, this safety valve has progressively narrowed, with less and less carbon being absorbed as the decades go by. This leaves more and more carbon in the atmosphere absorbing more and more heat, and global climate change is accelerating again.
Dodge that piano, Sam.
Then of course there’s the arctic tundra, huge expanses in northern Canada and Siberia characterized by permafrost, ground that remains frozen year round. Except that with ongoing climate change some of this permafrost is starting to melt, and with the melting methane is being released, a greenhouse gas twenty times as effective as carbon dioxide. If enough methane is released, it will become a factor all of its own accelerating the greenhouse effect, accelerating the melting of permafrost, accelerating the release of methane. If this process goes out of control, trying to get it back under control using conventional methods will be useless. We could shut down industry for the entire planet and it wouldn’t be enough.
And believe me, I have only got through part of the list of known tipping points. And there are unknown ones we know nothing about. For instance, pine beetles. In British Columbia, 300 thousand hectares of pine forest have been infected with pine beetles because the winters are no longer cold enough to kill pine beetle larvae. It was not something anybody had predicted before it happened, because there are balances in nature that we have never gotten around to measuring. The world’s ecosystems are huge and complex beyond understanding, and we have no idea of how many pine beetle-like scenarios are waiting out there, ready to ravage our local economies and, incidentally, contribute to the larger disaster. The pine beetle, by endangering our forests, also accelerates global warming because forests, like oceans, take up carbon from the atmosphere, and endangered forests narrow our ecological safety valve.
So to return to my original point, humanity may have 100 months to stave off a disaster beyond our civilization’s capacity to answer. Or maybe 98 months now. [Or maybe 65 months.]
The economy is irrelevant, because if we pass these tipping points no economy on the planet will survive.
High gas prices are irrelevant, because our dependence on carbon fuels is part of the problem.
High taxes are irrelevant, because no amount of extra spending cash will ever buy back the future for our children or our grandchildren if we allow this disaster to happen.
100 months looks like a short time but it may in fact be a conservative estimate about how long we have to save the world from ourselves. And once we pass enough tipping points, there will be virtually nothing we will be able to do. It would be like trying to put out a forest fire by spitting at it.
Spit at that forest fire, Sam.
The answer is to act now and to act decisively. We have an election coming up, and a sitting government which has been identified internationally as the worst government on the planet in respect of climate change. We need to ensure that the Conservative government does not gain a majority, does not eat up half of our hundred months doing precisely nothing.
Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are the enemies of the planet, the enemies of our children’s and grandchildren’s futures.
They need to be defeated.
And they weren’t. Twice. And Canada is still doing precisely nothing about climate change.
Tick … tick … tick …