About Those Tipping Points

By Keith Kloor | June 12, 2012 3:48 pm

Last week, we received this scary bulletin out of Berkley, California:

A prestigious group of scientists from around the world is warning that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth toward an irreversible change in the biosphere, a planet-wide tipping point that would have destructive consequences absent adequate preparation and mitigation.

Since the warning was featured in a prominent journal, many in mainstream media (and the enviro-blogosphere) dutifully treated it as the latest sky-is-falling alert.

The New York Times, taking the sober, detached approach, asked:

Are we nearing a planetary boundary?

That headline is a nod to a much-discussed concept laid out in Nature several years ago (you can read the expanded version here), which made the case for “a safe, operating space for humanity” by identifying thresholds for climate change, ozone depletion, ocean acidification, biodiversity, freshwater use, the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, and land use change.

While the main essay got gobs of attention, it’s worth recalling that Nature also hosted separate commentaries (seven of them) on the planetary boundaries thesis. In its introduction, Nature asked:

But do we understand the Earth system well enough to know the real limits to environmental degradation? And if we can define them, even roughly, would doing so ultimately help or hinder efforts to protect the planet?

Those questions have now been taken up by the Oakland-based Breakthrough Institute, in a blunt critique of the planetary boundaries framework, which they consider to be “a misleading guide to global environmental challenges.”

Here’s the thrust of Breakthrough’s report:

The Earth has entered the Anthropocene, a time in which humans are the dominant force shaping all Earth systems. All of the nine systems and processes identified by Rockström et al. are important determinants, albeit in complex ways, of human welfare  “” indeed, they enable life on this planet to exist. They all need to be managed wisely and consciously. The planetary boundaries concept was suggested as a framework for doing so, and it makes several important contributions worth highlighting. It brings resilience thinking and complex systems theory to the center of the debate, and draws attention to the many interrelated elements and processes of the Earth system . However, our review of the framework has identified some serious flaws, which together make planetary boundaries a poor, even misleading, answer to the challenge of planetary stewardship. The implications of this review apply not only to the planetary boundaries concept in itself, but to Earth Science as a whole, especially as regards the way it interfaces with policy making.

In two follow-up posts that will appear tomorrow, I’ll delve more deeply into the specific criticisms made by the Breakthrough Institute, including elaboration from the report’s lead author. Meanwhile, Jon Foley, an earth scientist at the University of Minnesota, and a contributing author of the 2009 planetary boundaries paper in Nature, has responded to Breakthrough’s critique on twitter and to reporters in email, of which this is an excerpt:

Their entire report is based on two or three straw-man arguments.  Sadly, there is nothing substantive here.  And this isn’t sour grapes, believe me.  I would welcome a useful critique of the Planetary Boundaries concept!  In fact, the original publication in Nature included a half dozen sharply worded comments and critiques, and many were extremely useful in improving our collective ideas…I appreciate many of the points they [the Breakthrough Institute] have raised over the years — especially from their original “Death of Environmentalism” essay.  But I think this report fails to raise anything very new or interesting.  Too bad:  I wish they had.  This concept deserves more scrutiny and challenges.

Foley, in an email exchange, has made a more detailed rebuttal. So I’ll be pulling from that in the second post that will look more closely at the Breakthrough Institute’s critique.  A third, related post will specifically examine how biodiversity has come to fit into the planetary boundaries concept.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: biodiversity, ecology, tipping points
  • Jack Hughes

    The “planetary boundaries” idea is holed below the waterline – by fresh water.
    The critique is correct to point out that fresh water is in independent catchment areas and problems in one area have NO impact on other areas.Australia *was* running short on fresh water but now they have too much. Ditto the UK.The whole report looks like an effort to write an eco-bible for this 21st century religion. An eco-catechism.
    Nice comment on the narure piece sums up some of the problems…
    the idea lacks a falsification criterium, which is essential ““ according to science philosopher Popper ““ for any scientific theory. The authors claim that climate change has already crossed the critical boundary (350 ppm), and they try to show some evidence for this. However, much more interesting question would be what is the evidence that would falsify this theory? For instance, should the Arctic sea ice develop only uni-directionally after crossing the boundary?
    The commenter continues…

    What data or phenomenon would dispute the theory of planetary boundaries?

  • Sashka

    Agree with Jack. The concept of boundaries is a gross simplification, based on nothing and dead on arrival.

  • Fred

    </p>”Prestigious group of scientists…irreversible change…tipping points…”</p></p>Haven’t I heard this somewhere before…lol</p>

  • Fred

    “Prestigious group of scientists”¦irreversible change”¦tipping
    points”¦”Haven’t I heard this somewhere
    before”¦lol

  • http://fund-balance.com Walter Borden

    Input your comments here…More scientific inquiry needs to be put to this, no question. Better to help define the issues. Nevertheless, as we all know, if a toxic weed doubles every day and covers the entire surface of the pond in 30 days, then it will only cover half of the pond’s surface on day 29. This, of course, is part of the reason we see so little action  to combat climate change. Looking at it today doesn’t seem to be so bad. Unfortunately we do not see past the 29th day to tomorrow.  Several of these planetary changes share that condition. Deadzones in the world’s oceans as a result of fertilizer, for example. Or peak phosphate. Resilience it ain’t, depletion it is, i.e. CO2 isn’t plantfood anymore once phosphate depletion kicks in. (See Leibig’s law).Once again lots of (self?) loathing talk from the Breakthrough bunch and paranoia on the right, but no meaningful progress…fossil fuel extraction and its planetary license is quite safe….I always wonder what the Agenda 21 types and their AEI/Academic apologists are so worried about…and the voluminous commenters on this blog typing as if they’re in some small, smart minority fighting the good fight against the evil empire of environmentalism along with Mr Kloor when in fact they’re are very much in the overwhelming majority and have the force of the status quo firmly behind them. So really, what’s all the fuss? It would be be amusing if it weren’t so sad.But you know, if you have a cell phone you can’t be an environmentalist, or whatever superficial nonsense is being traded for genuine debateYes, we all have a carbon footprint, and yes, it can be lowered while still using carbon, and that will make a difference by the Law of Very Large Numbers, diffusion effects, among other factors. One can call it “doom and gloom” all day or be cynical, etc. But these are real, serious problems for now and tomorrow. I prefer to look for solutions. But that does mean actually recognizing a problem…I noticed a typo at top, Berkeley is the correct spelling. 

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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