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The term tipping point refers to the moment when a predicted future change of equilibrium goes from being unlikely to being inevitable. Once a tipping point has been reached, it is usually impossible to stop the impending change.
It is a term that has been bantered around in different circles since the end of World War 2. It started as a physics term to describe electrically controlled mechanical switches, then expanded in sociology research of Morton Grodzins about "white flight" from inner cities in the 1960s. The term was expanded and made generally popular by the title of the Malcolm Gladwell book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little Brown, 2000).
This expression originally described thermostats with mechanical toggle switches controlling heating and cooling units. A heating unit would remain on until the thermostat pushed the toggle switch far enough that its spring took over and flipped the switch to off. This type of toggle is still used today in many older buildings.
Climatology is often the focus for this term because of the many tipping points across the globe. As warming increases there are a number of factors that accelerate the change of the steady state of the climate to a new state. The tipping point for climate is when enough positive feedbacks are triggered that the Earth moves into a new hot (or cold) state, with a hot state being more likely. How hot the new state gets and how long it takes to stabilize into a new state depends on the degree of radiative forcing, or the change in the atmosphere's solar radiation absorption, with greenhouse gas emission being the main cause of current radiative forcing.
Scientists have projected various Representation Concentration Pathway scenarios of varying radiative forcing. Keep in mind the temperature values are mean values of the possible range they could reach.
- The extremely optimistic RCP 2.6, which implies mass, immediate decarbonization and would cause the temperature to peak at 1.5°C before reversing. For this reason, 1.5°C is considered the tipping point below which climate policy makers should aim for, and was the target set by the 2015 Paris Agreement.
- RCP 4.5 and 6.0 scenarios, implying a slower pathway to net zero emissions and eventual stabilization at 2.4°C and 3°C in 2100 respectively.
- The dreaded RCP 8.5, which implies continual expansion of fossil fuel use and 4.9°C temperature rise in 2100, with emissions and temperature continuing to rise well beyond this century.
A common myth, popular among doomers, is that a 2°C rise in global temperature represents some final tipping point beyond which the Earth is completely doomed. The 2°C point was not actually determined by scientists, but by economist William Nordhaus, who ballparked that number based on how much climate action would hurt the economy. Also, as the RCP models point out, there is no binary safe/doomed switch for climate action. Even if the Earth is already wounded, people should still take action to prevent the bleeding from getting worse.
Ecosystems approaching tipping points
As polar caps continue to melt, introducing fresh water in the oceans, the salinity of the ocean changes. This changes currents dependent on the current densities of sea water. Shrinking ice inevitably leads to absorption of more solar energy, creating a global temperature feedback loop.
Continued warming has started to defrost large methane deposits trapped in permafrost and ice despots in the deep oceans.
Major Global Warming tripping points reached
- The melting of the ice in the Amundsen sea sector of West Antarctica. The melting of this ice will result in a sea level rise of 1 meter.
The term was adopted by Morton Grodzins to describe what he was seeing in urban environments in the 1960s. He called the phenomenon "White flight," observing that white families in a neighborhood would stay until a critical number of black families moved in, and leave en masse when that point was reached. This research was continued and expanded by Thomas Schelling, who won a Nobel Prize for it in 2005.
Tipping points are often seen in technology with two competing standards. Competing technologies come out that look strong in different ways, but often the general public does not want to get caught with the loser when one of the two technologies fails. It is often pointed out the VHS/Betamax war was the start of it, when Beta users had to largely trash their expensive players when no more movies were available in that format. This happened again with HD-DVD's loss to the Blu-Ray format.
No one wishes to get caught with an expensive doorstop again. Many people let the early adopters fight it out until one loses, with people watching sales data until one is shown to be unprofitable. Then purchase the products that have already come down in price as suppliers have entered the market.
There are several economic tipping points, and many perceive them as easy ways to build wealth.
Capital is a major one. In principle a person can save enough capital (stocks, bonds, T-bills, cash) that the interest on it plays a major part in the asset's growth rate even without additions from other sources. This applies particularly to retirement accounts, which generally limit the amount that can be invested per year. People with sufficient assets hope to be able to survive entirely or largely on the interest their assets generate without touching principal, since that would lead to an essentially inexhaustible supply of retirement income instead of a fixed life. It also impacts DRIPs (Dividend Reinvestment Programs), where you can get the set dividend payment as growth to your capital in addition to the value of the underlying asset.
There is a great deal of criticism of these plans. It is said that they only benefit upper middle class and wealthier populations. It is very hard to purchase the large number of base assets required when you spend most of your income on food and shelter, with little remaining for long-term investment. It also assumes steady states of asset values and rates of return, or foreknowledge of how they will change so that assets may be unloaded at their highs. It is very hard to predict stock prices in the future, or rates generated by cash accounts.
Product life cycle is another. From the start of sales of a product to early adoption, then rapid growth to market saturation, then decline and death each have different tipping points where investors/businesses try to gauge when they have hit each milestone.
- Wikipedia - Tipping Point Physics
- The Beginner's Guide to Representative Concentration Pathways.
- Jonathan Franzen’s Climate Pessimism Is Justified. His Fatalism Is Not.
- Why is climate change’s 2 degrees Celsius of warming limit so important?
- To further illustrate his credibility, or lack thereof, his model claims a 6°C temperature rise would only cost the global economy 8.5% in GDP.
- Global warming: it's a point of no return in West Antarctica. What happens next?