I commend you all to this month’s cover story in Mother Jones: "The Thirteenth Tipping Point," by Julia Whitty. It’s written in that Malcolm-Gladwell-lite style that’s so popular these days, filled with fascinating tidbits drawn from academic research you wouldn’t normally hear about. It doesn’t quite make its central point, but that’s all right — it’s more evocative than argumentative anyway, and it’s a smashing read.

Most interesting to me was something I hadn’t heard of — an effort by John Schellnhuber, research director at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, to identify the earth’s 12 most vulnerable places, those most likely to flip over a tipping point into cascading and devastating changes. They are:

  • The Sahara desert — global warming will shrink it, leading to less dry dust blowing and carrying nutrients into the ocean to seed plankton.
  • The Amazon rainforest — global warming will dry it up and kill it, leading to massive species loss and the release of accumulated CO2 equal to humanity’s entire 20th century output.
  • The ozone hole — it’s healing way slower than scientists initially thought, and global warming is expected to start it growing again.
  • The Greenland ice sheet — global warming is melting it; if it goes completely, sea levels could rise up to 23 feet, flooding huge and populous coastal areas.
  • The Tibetan plateau — it’s a huge ice sheet that reflects light and heat; if it melts, it will start absorbing heat instead, exacerbating warming.
  • Salinity valves — areas around the globe where bodies of saltwater feed into freshwater in a delicate balance; changing ocean temps could change the balance and destroy species that depend on it.
  • The North Atlantic current — carries warm water up and keeps Northern Europe temperate; global warming could shut it down, creating an ice age in the region.
  • El Niño — global warming could make them more severe and frequent, causing droughts some places and floods others, damaging food production.
  • West Antarctic ice sheet — could melt and raise sea levels by around 20 feet.
  • Methane clathrates — buried under the ocean floor and Siberia; climate change could release it, boosting global warming by 25% in some estimates.
  • The monsoon — global warming could weaken the Indian monsoons, devastating the country’s agriculture.
  • The Atlantic circumpolar current — disperses nutrients crucial to marine life; global warming could slow it significantly.

These are all scary in isolation, but as Whitty adeptly describes, they affect each other as well. One tipping point could easily set off others. She asks: "Is it likely that 12 asteroids on known collision courses with earth would garner such meager attention?" A better question: Would 12 known terrorists with nuclear bombs garner such meager attention?

Also intriguing was some research on risk analysis (PDF) done by Anthony Leiserowitz (with whom I just had a long and interesting conversation — hopefully you’ll be seeing more of him).

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Leiserowitz’s study of risk perception found that Americans fall into “interpretive communities” — cliques, if you will, sharing similar demographics, risk perceptions, and worldviews. On one end of this spectrum are the naysayers: those who perceive climate change as a very low or nonexistent danger. Leiserowitz found naysayers to be “predominantly white, male, Republican, politically conservative, holding pro-individualism, pro-hierarchism, and anti-egalitarian worldviews, anti-environmental attitudes, distrustful of most institutions, highly religious, and to rely on radio as their main source of news.” This group presented five rationales for rejecting danger: belief that global warming is natural; belief that it’s media/environmentalist hype; distrust of science; flat denial; and conspiracy theories, including the belief that researchers create data to ensure job security.

The naysayers are 7% of the population, but they basically run the country, which is a … suboptimal state of affairs.

And one final tidbit of interesting research:

Interestingly, research out of the Max Planck Institute in Germany found that people are more likely to take action to protect the climate when they are seen to be doing so. …

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In Milinski’s version of the game, players were asked to contribute money — in some rounds anonymously, in other rounds publicly — to a common pool used to pay for a magazine advertisement warning the public of the dangers of global warming and listing simple means to limit individual carbon dioxide emissions. Some rounds enabled players to reward or not reward fellow players whose “reputations” as donors from previous rounds were revealed. Some groups received scientific information on the causes and consequences of climate change; others did not.

The results showed that almost no one was willing to donate money anonymously. Those who did had received the scientific education. Overall the largest donors were those both tutored in the science and able to donate publicly. In the reputation rounds, players generally only rewarded fellow players who were known to be donors. Clearly, we are inclined to behave as better citizens when we are educated and when our actions are visible. Perhaps if we’re vigorously informed of the neighborhood dangers of global warming, we’ll make sustainable and sensible lifestyle choices. Abetted by knowledge, social facilitation might begin to reward prudence.

Food for thought.

Anyway, as they say: read the whole thing.

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