Environment Magazine

Crying ‘wolf’ Overlooks the Foxes: Challenging ‘planetary Tipping Points’

Posted on the 28 February 2013 by Bradshaw @conservbytes

tipping pointToday, a paper by my colleague, Barry Brook, appeared online in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. It’s bound to turn a few heads.

Let’s not get distracted by the title of the post, or the potential for a false controversy. It’s important to be clear that the planet is indeed ill, and it’s largely due to us. Species are going extinct faster than the would have otherwise. The planet’s climate system is being severely disrupted, so is the carbon cycle. Ecosystem services are on the decline.

But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – we have to be wary of claiming the end of the world as we know it or people will shut down and continue blindly with their growth and consumption obsession. We as scientists also have to be extremely careful not to pull concepts and numbers out of our bums without empirical support.

Specifically, I’m referring to the latest ‘craze’ in environmental science writing – the idea of ‘planetary tipping points‘ and the related ‘planetary boundaries‘. It’s really the stuff of Hollywood disaster blockbusters – the world suddenly shifts into a new ‘state’ where some major aspect of how the world functions does an immediate about-face.

Now there are plenty of localised examples of such ‘tipping points’, often characterised by something we call ‘hysteresis’. In their latest paper entitled Does the terrestrial biosphere have planetary tipping points?, Brook and colleagues define hysteresis as:

… “a situation where the current state of an ecosystem is dependent not only on its environment but also on its history, with the return path to the original state being very different from the original development that led to the altered state. Also, at some range of the driver, there can exist two or more alternative states.”

and tipping point as:

“the critical point at which strong nonlinearities appear in the relationship between ecosystem attributes and drivers; once a tipping point threshold is crossed, the change to a new state is typically rapid and might be irreversible or exhibit hysteresis.”

Some of these examples include state shifts that have happened (or mostly likely will) to the cryosphere, ocean thermohaline circulation, atmospheric circulation, and marine ecosystems, and there are many other fine-scale examples of ecological systems shifting to new (apparently) stable states. However, claiming that there is a major planetary boundary for our ecosystems (including human society) just over the horizon, where we witness such transitions simultaneously across the globe, is simply not upheld by evidence.

Brook and colleagues demonstrate that the latest fervour in crying the planetary boundary ‘wolf’ has been largely predicated on arbitrary thresholds, and ignores the fact that regional tipping points are unlikely to translate into planet-wide state shifts. The main reason is that our ecosystems aren’t that connected at global scales, despite all the ways in which we are disrupting the system.

In essence, the paper provides an elegant theoretical framework against which one can test the existence or probability of a planetary tipping point for any particular ecosystem function or state. To date, the application of the idea has floundered by the lack of specified criteria that would allow the terrestrial biosphere to ‘tip’. From a more sociological viewpoint, the claim of imminent shift to some (depauperate) state also risks alienating people from addressing the real problems (foxes), as they summarise nicely in their final statement:

“… framing global change in the dichotomous terms implied by the notion of a global tipping point could lead to complacency on the ‘safe’ side of the point and fatalism about catastrophic or irrevocable effects on the other.”

In other words, let’s be empirical about these sorts of politically charged statements instead of crying “Wolf!” while the hoards of foxes steal most of the flock.

CJA Bradshaw

P.S. A version of this post was published simultaneously at The Conversation.

-34.917731 138.603034

You Might Also Like :

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

These articles might interest you :

  • Frank Turner, Sam Coffey, and Bad Cop / Bad Cop Takeover Toronto!

    Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls played the middle show of a three-night takeover of The Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto on Thursday night, and things... Read more

    The 23 September 2018 by   Phjoshua
  • Our Favorite TV Shows of All-Time

    Even though we live in Los Angeles where the weather is nice most of the year, during the fall we sometimes just want to stay in, prepare a cup of hot cocoa... Read more

    The 23 September 2018 by   A Girl In La - Style Blog
  • Finished Boys Bedroom Makeover: Ethans Blue, White And Red Big Boy Room

    Finished Boys Bedroom Makeover: Ethans Blue, White Room

    Our little boy Ethan's, bedroom makeover is now finished and it feels so good to finally be able to say that! If you've been following our renovation journey,... Read more

    The 23 September 2018 by   Alex_bumptobaby
  • Will Our Inventions Make Us Irrelevant?

    Will Inventions Make Irrelevant?

    We have the tools to redesign life to fulfil our wildest dreams. But do we know ourselves any more, asks Yuval Noah Harari in his latest book 21 Lessons for th... Read more

    The 23 September 2018 by   Thinkibility
  • House of Indya

    House Indya

    The festive season is already knocking on the door. Am sure many of us including me obviously is active in binge mode searching for ethnic collections like... Read more

    The 23 September 2018 by   Chayanikarabha
  • How to Worsen Diabetes: Follow the ADA and CDA Advice

    Worsen Diabetes: Follow Advice

    If you have a new diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, or have been dealing with the condition for years, where's a natural place you might go for support and... Read more

    The 23 September 2018 by   Dietdoctor
  • Safely Stored Away

    Safely Stored Away

    A bit of a panic today when I saw that temperatures might go down to 3C tonight and tomorrow night.  Whilst I had started to move some of my tender plants... Read more

    The 23 September 2018 by   Patientgardener