Similar to the financial crisis of 2008, or the over-fishing of the seas, the dynamics of the global warming problem are pretty well known. What is not known are all the possible ‘tipping points,’ those events (big or small) that can push the dynamic forces into crisis, and how rapidly crises can develop. That’s the message in a soon to be released paper, Regime shifts in ecological systems can occur with no warning, by Alan Hastings, University of California Davis (USA) and Derin Wysham, John Innes Center (Norwich, UK). Predictably the general media headlines will look like this: “Top scientist says global warming tipping points hard to predict.” In today’s global warming PR climate, that’s probably all too often going to be read as: “Scientists admit they can’t get a handle on global warming.”
Ironically, global warming tipping points are difficult to predict, as is attaining precision and certainty for huge dynamic (often changing) problems such as climate change. It’s ironic, because with good intentions (and often not) people will use what is uncertainty at the margin (90% probability, 10% uncertainty) to cast a pall of doubt over the whole issue. Most of the scientists involved would happily take the 10% that they are wrong; but they can’t because most of what they are seeing in the data (e.g. facts) tells them the 90% is the way to bet. Then along come scientists such as Hastings and Wysham, telling them that while the probability of global warming may be high, in fact, the severity and suddenness may be worse than expected.
Alan Hastings in particular is well known and acclaimed in the ecological community for his ground-breaking computer models of biological problems. The models developed for this paper concentrate on the ecological impact of global warming. As Hastings describes it…
“Many scientists are looking for the warning signs that herald sudden changes in natural systems, in hopes of forestalling those changes, or improving our preparations for them,” said UC Davis theoretical ecologist Alan Hastings. “Our new study found, unfortunately, that regime shifts with potentially large consequences can happen without warning — systems can ‘tip’ precipitously.
“This means that some effects of global climate change on ecosystems can be seen only once the effects are dramatic. By that point returning the system to a desirable state will be difficult, if not impossible.”
[Source: University of California, Davis ]
In short, even with global systems, changes can happen unnoticed until they become really bad. It speaks to the whole problem: If you set up the conditions where tipping points may occur, then you may have no recourse but to endure the consequences.
Some may regard this attitude as unduly pessimistic…even fatalist. Others would say it forces us to deal with the root causes of global warming – the indiscriminate emission of greenhouse gases. Still others would counter that getting enough of the world to limit greenhouse gases means limiting economic growth, which isn’t going to happen – and so back to pessimism. This new study tends to reinforce the idea that we’re likely to have some nasty surprises, which will be very difficult to avoid.