Have we reached a tipping point?
I’m sure you’ve heard of “tipping points”. It’s an expression commonly used by climate scientists to identify particular circumstances that, if they happen, there is no way back. One example would be the melting of the Arctic tundra. The fear is that it would release vast amounts of methane currently trapped in ice into the atmosphere, and as methane has 22 times the greenhouse gas capability of carbon dioxide, we would never recover from its release. We can’t put it back.
Another is the melting of the Antarctic ice shelf. It would make a massive difference to sea levels, just by itself. It’s formed over millions of years. Could we ever put it back? In our lifetime? Unlikely.
But can you have other kinds of tipping points? And, more specifically, can society itself have tipping points? Does there come a time when society says, en masse, “OK, I get it now”, and can never return to the time when they didn’t know it, or didn’t feel it? I suspect we are at such a point in time.
Now, such a bold statement as that would need support. A reasonable person would want to know what the issue was that brought society to a tipping point, and what the evidence is that they were at that point. So, that’s my challenge, eh? I have to satisfy you on those two points.
But, my challenge brings your challenge. If you want to refute my argument, you have to convince us that I’m wrong on both points. Agreed? OK, bring it on….
I reckon we have reached a tipping point in the question of belief in climate change. I’m not arguing that it’s all in the bag just yet. I’m arguing that we are on the brink of tipping. So that’s my point number one. But it’s point number two that matters. What’s my evidence?
It’s no single thing. Which perhaps is not surprising. What single thing in our past could we look at and say – OK, there’s the point at which public opinion changed. Life generally isn’t that simple.
Though there have been examples. Our attitude to our involvement in the Vietnam war changed dramatically when we were confronted with that awful image of little Kim Phuc running terrified and naked towards us, having torn off her clothes as they were impregnated with burning napalm, which had already burnt massive sears into her back and arm. But, perhaps fortunately, such moments are rare.
Photo: Nick Ut / The Associated Press
So, in the absence of something that dramatic, we’re looking for a series of indicators. I’ll put some forward, in support of my claim.
It probably goes back further than this, but let’s start at the recent Wentworth by-election. Malcolm Turnbull had been shunted by his party in favour of Scott Morrison. Peter Dutton was the executioner and was supposed to be the new leader, but not even the Liberal Party thought he was electable.
A by-election was then called to replace Malcolm, and independent Dr Kerryn Phelps beat the Liberals’ candidate Dave Sharma, by reminding the voters of Wentworth that Malcolm believed in climate change. And she believed in climate change. Turns out they also largely believed in climate change. Sorry, Dave.
A few weeks later came the Victorian elections. Not only did Labor’s Dan Andrews survive, he wiped the floor with the Victorian Liberals. He stated his belief in climate change and put forward policies to combat it. The Liberals chose to run on a spurious unrelated fear campaign rather than policies. They lost. Bigtime.
Then came Liberal Party MP Julia Banks’ resignation. Bit out of the blue. She had a lot to say about all sorts of things about the Liberals, none of it positive. Climate Change was one of those things.
Suddenly now, out of nowhere, we have schoolkids on strike. They are entirely motivated by inaction on climate change, and are planning further action. They are the voters of the future; more of them are coming on-line every day. By comparison, the Coalitions’ ageing right-wing support base is dwindling at a similar rate. ScoMo and Energy Minister Matt Canavan spotted an opportunity to put down the kids. Quite savagely. They disparaged future voters. Peak Stupid or what?
The AMA has weighed in too, reminding us of the other downsides of fossil fuel energy production – air pollution and the surprising number of people per year that succumb to it, even here in Australia.
And the National Farmers' Federation have had a turnabout. In the past, they have meekly supported the Nationals. The mouse has turned. Their members are at the coalface (oops, pardon the expression!) of climate change. Climate change confronts them in their daily lives. Heatwaves, ever lengthening, drought, floods, dramatic wind events, bushfires. And the fallout, higher costs, lower yields, increasing insurance costs. They’re reappraising their allegiances.
And even the energy companies. They’re telling ScoMo to leave decisions on energy sources to them, because renewables are now cheaper and more reliable. And calling for a price on carbon. What? Whose side are they on? Oh, I see...
I was planning to leave it there (hey, how much evidence do you need?) until I read the article in the Guardian: “Coal, coal, coal and soaring emissions – as a Liberal, I have had enough”, by Oliver Yates. Yates is a lifetime Liberal member, but now feels the party has been hi-jacked by the extreme right and may need reform from outside. His chief beef? Climate Change denial. Woah, this is telling stuff.
I am going to stop there, or I’ll have to rewrite this article tomorrow to take on board new evidence. I could go on for days, but if what I’ve mentioned above doesn’t convince you, you are beyond convincing.
We are at a tipping point. Fortunately only at a societal tipping point for the moment, but the first of the environmental tipping points could be any day now. Environmental science has taken great strides in the last few years, but we’ve never had to deal with tipping points before, so it’s a big ask to expect the scientists to give us fair warning. Best we don’t go near the edge of the cliff. Best we high-tail it to safe ground. What does safe ground look like? I’d venture to say it looks like something that is guaranteed to reduce emissions, and fast.
How to find it? Make it clear that you are looking for it. Our political masters will do the rest. Or else.
Terry McGee, Malua Bay.