Tipping Points In Environmentalist Rhetoric: An Unscientific Survey of Nexis


Climate tipping point warnings have reached their tipping point.

Bemused by H&R commenter, rts' post in response to my Rio + 20 blopost earlier today, I decided to do a little spelunking in the Nexis news database to see how often the term "tipping point" started showing up in newspapers and wire service stories. 

To my surprise, the first thing I discovered is that until 2000, tipping points were largely confined to social phenomena, e.g., racial segregation trends in neighborhoods, crime rate trends, and the like. The first mention of a tipping point in connection with an environmental issue that I could find was in a July 6, 1990 New York Times article about increasing hypoxia in the Long Island Sound as a result of excessive sewage flows.

If the situation remains unaddressed, the hypoxia could spread east, said the Connecticut Environmental Protection Commissioner, Leslie Carothers. The western Sound "may be reaching some kind of tipping point," Ms. Carothers said. 

The next mention of a tipping point in a vaguely environmental context was nearly a decade later in a October 24, 1999 article in The Weekly Standard about conflict among environmentalists over birds being killed by wind turbines: 

Wind energy is now inching toward economic viability—production costs have dropped approximately 70 percent since the early 1980s. Political support is also reaching a tipping point: Most electricity reform proposals circulating in Congress require utilities to generate a minimum percentage of power from "green" sources, including wind. With these breakthroughs in sight, green complaints start to rise.

In an April 12, 2000 Austin American-Statesman article about a city council fight over the fate of some springs outside the city this appeared: 

This year may be a tipping point in the city's environmental politics. 

During 2000, the concept of "tipping point" took off on the basis of Malcolm Gladwell's bestseller The Tipping Point which garnered nearly 1,000 mentions before June, 2002 in the Nexis database. So I decided to restrict my search to combinations of "tipping point" and "climate change" and "global warming." After inspecting fewer than 50 articles from that period with those word combinations, only two really fit the criteria. 

Just in time for the turn of the millennium, a January 5, 2001 column by Discover magazine editor Corey S. Powell appeared in the Vancouver Sun musing about the myriad ways the world could come to an end including this first mention of tipping point and climate change:  

Earth could end up much like Venus, where the high on a typical day is 500 degrees Celsius. It would probably take a lot of warming to initiate such a runaway greenhouse effect, but scientists have no clue where exactly the tipping point lies.

On June 8, 2002, The Gazette (Montreal) published a review of 2030: Confronting Thermageddon in Our Lifetime which noted: 

The least likely outcomes are the most catastrophic. The end of the North Atlantic oscillation cycle would mean the end of the Gulf Stream and could usher in an ice age. There might be a tipping point where the gradual increase in the intensity of hurricanes lurches into super storms of astonishing destructiveness. 

After June 2002, the news media's use of tipping point in the context of global warming and climate change exploded (reached its own tipping point?). One caveat: naturally there will be some overlap since many articles will mention both climate change and global warming. In any case here are the totals: 

Between June 2002 and June 2005—CC: 262; GW: 303. 

Between June 2005 and June 2008—CC: more than 3,000; GW: more than 3,000*

Between June 2008 and June 2011—CC: more than 3,000; GW: 2903 

Between June 2011 and June 2012—CC: 1,348; GW; 637

Of course, the problem with tipping points is that they can never be proven wrong; only right in retrospect. And that, of course, makes citing them a wonderful rhetorical device for doomsayers. 

*Nexis cuts off searches in which the number of articles exceeds 3,000. 

NEXT: Obama Beyond Clueless: "The Private Sector is Doing Fine"

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  1. I suggest replacing “tipping point” with “stripping point.”

  2. Have we reached peak ‘tipping point’ yet?

  3. Christ, Bailey is fact-checking our comments. Watch out!

    1. Bailey,

      If you are, please start with Tony and Urine.

      1. We know Tony and Urine are idiots, they’ve become self-parodies. Start with RAL, the Krugman of HampersandR commenters.

  4. For environmentalists, “tipping point” is used both for the climate and for the political reaction. In the climatic sense, its usage is stupid; there won’t be a tipping point in the environment. Environmental effects are generally pretty buffered responses. In the political context, I agree with the use. We may see a tipping point because of overreaction from the political types.

    1. You can see tipping points in the environment. After you are past the buffering region. Think of a small lake being polluted, organisms die, lake gradually becomes more toxic, even more die, and so on. It’s not impossible.

      1. For closed systems that’s often the case. Most often it would require a catastrophic event, like dumping pollution at a high rate, and on a global scale it’s hard to imagine that happening.

    1. You are no free to gambol about the country.

    2. I love the histrionics. Ol’ Gord is just looking for a hefty check. The heavier hydrocarbons in oil may stay for a long time, but the lighter ones, which have the most toxic effects, go away in short order. In a few years everything there will be back to normal. I say this as someone who lives and owns land in an oil producing area and I have seen numerous oil spills in creeks, lakes and woods over the course of many decades.

      1. One could certainly be forgiven for thinking that some commenters on here are more interested in defending the profitability of resource extraction than defending property rights.

    3. At least it was private industry that fucked him. He can probably sue and get a fair payout.

      If it had been the EPA (yes, I know it was in Canada) that decided that his use of his land didn’t suit their whims, then he’d just have to eat shit, since only kooky antigovernment types believe that putting extensive regulations on specific pieces of land that make them unusable for their intended purpose is equivalent to a taking, requiring exercise of the eminent domain power.

  5. Posted this, in slightly different form, in the comments on a different post, but it bears repeating here.

    Haha. One of my facebook “friends” posted a link yesterday to the latest enviro tipping point hysteria, with the oh-so-precious comment It’s all right, Ma, I’m only dying. Of course, this dude is such an overwrought concern troll that his New Year’s resolution for 2010 was to write a letter a day to the editors of one newspaper or another about our species’ imminent extinction as a result of the dreaded climate change. Aside from quite a few Boston area dailies he managed to be published in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Time magazine. For starters. You’d think a year would be enough, but no, midway through 2012 he’s still at it; meanwhile, life as we know goes on.

    Don’t believe me, or in need of some epic self-righteousness? Here’s a reprint of one of his letters, with added commentary, from his diary at Daily Kos. Feel free to peruse as many of his entries as you can stomach, and breathe a sigh of relief if your facebook friends aren’t quite the stern and humorless true-believing luddites some of mine are.

    1. Only worth it for the link to this: http://www.warrensenders.com/journal/?page_id=4545

      Funniest shit ever.

      1. Oh shit, he’s already done violins and drums.

        Actually, do yourself a favor and read his post-Citizens United An Open Letter To Our Corporate Overlords, which is just indescribably, hilariously bad, but was much-circulated and praised as brilliant by people who should know better. Shit, I’d have been embarrassed to turn that in in 7th grade, but it truly demands reading.

  6. Anyone else notice that the US hit a tipping point in CO2 Emissions.

    They peeked in 2007 and have since dropped to levels seen in 2000.


    Of course I don’t think the environmentalists want to talk about that kind of tipping point.

    “Environmentalists invent none existent problem which the market solves by accident” does not get you very many grants and donors to your cause.

  7. My favorite tipping point is that point right where the beer starts flowing from the glass, bottle, or can into my mouth.

  8. Any word on the tipping point of tipping point stories?

    1. Looking at Ron’s numbers of tipping point by a range of years that the tipping point of tipping point stories happened between June of 2005 and June of 2011.

  9. Ron–Do you know of any websites that act as clearinghouse for global warming doomsayer predictions? I would love to see how dismal the Apocolyptics’ batting average is on climate catastrophe predictions.

    1. That would make an excellent Cracked article:

      “8 Most Wildly Inaccurate Environmental Predictions.”

      1. 8? You mean 800, right?

    2. JW,

      Great question. Who monitors these whackos for us? Luckily, Marc Morano, of ClimateDepot.com does.

      Besides his website having the most up-to-date news from the enviro-whacko movement, he’s compiled an excellent report that provides just what you asked for: an overview of doomsayer predictions, and of course their hilarious record of failure:

      “The global warming movement is suffering the scientific death of a thousand cuts. This Climate Depot special report categorizes and indexes the full range of climate developments in a handy A-Z reference guide. The A-Z report includes key facts, peer-reviewed studies and the latest data and developments with links for further reading, on an exhaustive range of man-made global warming claims.”:

  10. The rise of the “tipping point” meme for enviro-doom is pretty clearly an attempt to keep the apocalypse on schedule.

    Clearly, projection of current trends is going to scare anyone. So, they have to posit some sort of phase change. Hence, “tipping point”.

    “Sure, things aren’t so bad now, and aren’t even really getting any worse, but we’re all doomed, because tipping point!”

  11. Every Tipping Point is doomed to reach an O’Neilling Point marking its decay into the realization that all environmentalism is political.

  12. It would be interesting to search for ‘tipping point’ and some stereotypical meme associated with Fundies like hardcore Baptists and the Landover ass-clowns, etc. ‘Godless’ would be a good one I bet.

    And the meme is the same as the Warmers, just a different dystopia: When the fag-hordes roam the steppes unfettered spreading their vile AIDS the Fundies will be there, scolding us they told us so.

    Every cult needs an Armageddon. And the road to Armageddon always involves a ‘tipping point.’

  13. Mathematically , tipping points are rare , said to be “of measure 0” , like a point on a line . Consider we are only about 10 degrees warmer than the 278+ kelvin of a gray ball in our orbit . All the effects of our non-uniform spectrum only change our temperature about 3% from that value and the total change in our temperature since the invention of the thermometer is perhaps 0.3% . We know that there is no tipping point within any small distance above us in either temperature or CO2 because the earth has gone back and forth across that range multiple times before .

    The one obvious tipping point around is about 5 degrees below that 278 number , the freezing point of water . If the sun were 100 degrees cooler , the earth would be mostly a snow ball .

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