Tipping Points In Environmentalist Rhetoric: An Unscientific Survey of Nexis


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.