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TIPPING POINTS, LEVERAGE AND THE CLIMATE CHANGE CRISIS:                                              

"What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future"

Rajendra Pachauri, Chair, UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

    Margaret Mead, anthropologist


The Chinese symbol for “crisis” includes two concepts: danger and opportunity.

The purpose of this chapter is to call attention to both dangers and opportunities related to climate change.

The primary danger to which we want to call attention is that, as noted in the above quote from Rajendro Pachauri, “What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future.” We will refer to several specific dangers, but our emphasis will be on the urgency of the two to three year time frame to which he refers.

The primary opportunity to which we will call attention involves “tipping points” and “leverage points” (defined in the next paragraphs and explored in the next section) and to the possibility that “We” are a potential leverage point for coping with the dangers of climate change.

"Tipping points" are points in the functioning of a system (including the system of all life on Earth) where small change can result in large effects. Up to a tipping point, changes in the system have little or no effect until a critical mass is reached. At that point, a further small change can 'tip' the system into a significantly different way of functioning.

Examples: (1) Melt enough Greenland ice and you are no longer sending meltwater into the ocean but whole glaciers; (2) Pump enough CO2 into the atmosphere and it can reach a “point” where the last part per million of gas has an effect similar to the last 100th degree Celsius that turns a pot of water into billowing steam; there is a shift to a runaway greenhouse effect.

Recently a panel of the US National Academy of Sciences employed ‘‘degenerate fingerprinting’’ to forecast the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation under a 4-fold linear increase of atmospheric CO2 over 50,000 years. A gradual decline in ocean circulation is observed for nearly 40,000 years, but then, suddenly, a “tipping point” is reached and the circulation collapses without warning. 


Cessation of circulation on this scale would cause greatly magnified warming close to the equator while freezing and re-glaciating the eastern coast of North America and much of Western Europe. The "pile-up" effect as the conveyor slows would back up into the Indian and Pacific oceans. All oceans would diminish their capacity to gather and store heat, creating a much larger seasonal and decadal temperature variation at Earth's surface. The effect all of this would have on plant and animal life, and on human habitat, would be catastrophic.

"Leverage points" are those points at which a relatively small amount of effort can bring about a large change in a system’s functioning.

The opportunities of the climate change crisis are to identify the leverage points where relatively small amounts of effort by us can bring about the kinds of change we need to minimize the threats of climate change and, in time, stabilize our environment at a sustainable, habitable level.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Group (IPCC) has found that the world has very little time in which to act to prevent a series of major climate related disasters of immense global proportion and to minimize global warming and other environmental degradation. The IPCC has acknowledged recent findings that the changes are occurring even faster than their five-year study predicted as of early 2007. Climate change is combining with a growing world energy shortage and overpopulation (creating inflation, world food crises, and potential economic, political, social and overall human crises). These interrelated crises need to be dealt with before we pass certain tipping points — where little causes have big effects and change happens suddenly, making ecological and human catastrophes irreversible. But, even where certain changes – some of which are already occurring — cannot be prevented, rapid action at key leverage points can reduce negative impacts and facilitate positive change.

Tipping Points and Climate Change

Few of the attempts to avoid the dangers of the climate crisis will matter if human behavior remains unchanged. Some in public policy circles have proclaimed, “lifestyle is not on the table,” meaning that states should not consider trying to change the way people behave. And yet, our human behavior is at the crux of our climate problem.

On January 15, 2006, Rajendra Pachauri described how lifestyle changes could curb climate change. What we choose to eat, how we work, how we use electricity, the buildings where we work and live, how we travel, and what we buy all matter.

The writer Stephanie Mills observes: “Because the planet is finite and somewhat of a closed system, we all live intimately with the results of our acts. Things do add up and, as population grows, there are more of us adding to the adding of things. Similarly, the benefits from many individuals actions of self-restraint, frugality and material simplicity will add up.”

In his book, The Tipping Point: How Small Things Make a Difference, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that social movements behave much the same way as epidemics do. Gladwell points to three elements that cause epidemics to spread, and says that these same elements are fundamental to any large-scale social change. They are: The Law of the Fewsome people spread disease (and ideas) better than others. The Stickiness Factor — the potency of viruses (or ideas and actions) can become universal. Ideas and actions to reverse climate change need to continue evolving and draw in people from around the world. The greater context of our climate dilemma suggests that if a favorable human tipping point is to occur, it needs to be able to cross cultures, genders, age groups, and races. It will need to be sticky across all those differences. The Power of Context the conditions under which the change is considered tend to either reinforce the change or thwart its spread. Commitment is not enough. The committed have to act, and share their commitment with others.

Social commentator Sharon Astyk writes: "[T]here is no possible way that we can make the necessary environmental cuts without sacrifice. Ninety percent or more over 10 years is a big deal, and some of it will hurt – period. There are thousands of people who really don't want to hear that part - they think that if we just elect the right leader or we just do the right thing we can make everything easy and place all the burden magically on someone else. But we can't. Ninety percent means 90% across the board. That doesn't mean that it can't be made better and easier, but it does that this will cost us.”


Astyk continues, "How do we make that idea palatable? Personally, I think denying the need for self-sacrifice is a huge mistake, and so is apologizing for it, or minimizing it. I think the absolute opposite strategy is called for -- we have to make it a challenge, an honor, a gift to do this. That is, of course, how we have gotten people to make sacrifices and endure hardship before – giving their lives in wartime, climbing big mountains -- we've emphasized how exciting the challenge is, and how lucky they are to participate, how doing so makes them exceptional and heroic. The more we tell people that sacrifices won't be required, the more we make them nervous about the very idea.”

Expanding Our Paradigm of Who "WE" Are 

How would you answer the question, "Who are you?" 

In Birth of the Chaordic Age (Berrett-Kohler, 1999), Dee Hock, founder of VISA (one of the largest enterprises in the world) said: "We are living on the knife's edge of one of those rare and momentous turning points in human history. Liveable lives for our grandchildren, their children, and the children's grandchildren hang in the balance ... We are experiencing a global epidemic of institutional failure. ... Poised as we are on the knife's edge between socio-environmental disaster and a livable future, one question cuts to the core of our future: Will the result be chaos... or will we emerge... into a new world of profound, constructive organizational change?... The answer lies in the very concept of organization and in the beliefs and values of individuals." 

Although Hock’s focus is on the community of an organization, the same question can be asked about our global community. Reframing our dilemma suggests a set of interrelated questions:

  1. What do WE conceive of as our purpose in our world?"

  2. What do WE mean by 'WE' and ‘our’?" 

  3. What is our “current reality” (our current worldview)?

  4. What is our vision of how WE would like our world to be?"

  5. How can WE move from where WE are now to where WE would like to be?

The traditional approach of western science, and popular thinking following from it, has focused our consciousness on narrow issues and goals. While there is power in this reductionism, its failure to consider the global effects of our actions is a major cause of our current environmental crises. We need to catch up with the cutting edge of post-modern science, particularly in physics and biology, which, in agreement with ancient wisdom, understands that major problems, including those involving the environment, require holistic approaches and the dedication of large numbers of people.

Changing Consciousness as a Tipping Point

To appropriately deal with the complex of crises, it is essential to bring about a global mind change, so that human understanding and action are based upon recognition that: 1) Everything is connected. All acts affect everything else, so the full range of relationships needs to be taken account of in every action. We need to come to see that the world is not you and I, but WE – a “WE” that recognizes the unity in diversity. 2) Each location – in space, time, and consciousness – is unique. General principles must be adapted to the particular circumstance of each place. What works in one place may not work in others. 3) The web of relationships is complex so that: (a) it is impossible to understand and predict all the effects of an action – so that caution must be taken in acting; (b) very dangerous acts should either not be taken or undertaken with extreme care; (c) past and ongoing actions must be continually reviewed and appropriately adjusted. 4) In a complex world, small changes can have large impacts if taken at key moments and in key places. In changing consciousness and other changes, leverage points should be sought to make appropriate “tipping” (large scale change) possible.

The keys to being able to bring about a global tipping are: (a) changing/shifting our worldviews so that our separate, individual I-centered views become both personal and global (I/We-centered); (b) networking and dialoguing with others as we envision the meaning of being part of a world that works for all life; (c) acting in ways consistent with that vision, including reaching out and dialoguing; and (d) building a network of global interactive dialogue.

“Genuine dialogue cannot be arranged beforehand… the course is of the spirit, and some discover what they have to say only when they catch the call of the spirit.” — Martin Buber

Practical Strategies

To succeed, our tipping point strategy will need to be: Practical – it must focus on reversing climate change substantially and bring us back from the brink of catastrophe; global emissions must not exceed what we (the living system of Earth) can tolerate. Simple – it must be easily accomplishable and replicable. Desirable — it must confer immediate advantages to individuals over and above what they are presently experiencing. To attract and stick, our tipping point strategy will need to confer greater enjoyment of life or other advantages to individuals, and it must do so in an era of severe population pressure on multiple, essential, but steeply declining natural resources and an epochal transition in energy reliance.

Julia Whitty called attention to tipping points and their relevance to the climate change crisis in an article, "The Thirteenth Tipping Point: Twelve global disasters and one powerful antidote," (Mother Jones, November/December 2006). Whitty identified 12 potentially catastrophic tipping points — Amazon Rainforest, North Atlantic Current, Greenland Ice Sheet, Ozone Hole, Antarctic Circumpolar Current, Sahara Desert, Tibetan Plateau, Asian Monsoon, Methane Clathrates, Salinity Valves, El Nino, and West Antarctic Ice Sheet. She compared them to asteroids and asked, "Is it likely that 12 asteroids on known collision with earth would garner such meager attention?"

Whitty postulated that "We" (all humanity) have the potential to become a 13th "tipping point" that can prevent or minimize the threats of catastrophic climate change. By shifting our consciousness to care of the planet, we can serve as a powerful antidote to potential global disasters. In changing consciousness and other changes, leverage points should be sought to make appropriate “tipping” (large scale change) possible. See infra, the chapter about “Attitude Change.” Organizations already pursuing the “I/We” strategy include wecansolveit.org, wiserearth.org (with more than 100,000 member organizations), and wetheworld.org. Moreover, organizations such as Natural Step are working to shift the business/industrial paradigm.

Some threats are irreversible because of our past actions, but they can be minimized. The challenge is to develop our ability to cope with the threats and, in time, stabilize our Earth's climate at a sustainable, desirable level.

Part of the challenge in crafting the Bali agreement was that some States felt that other States had reaped the benefits of industrialization at the expense of the global commons and therefore a debt was owed. We recognize that there is a tendency to equate a higher standard of living with greater consumption of non-renewable natural resources, and therefore for developing nations to try to match speeds with industrialized nations in spending down one-time natural capital.

However, the goal of consuming our way to prosperity is called into question by any glance at a world map of relative happiness. On such a map, the “standard of well-being” in Bhutan is above that of Canada -- and Malaysia is above the USA.  By moving from Gross National Product indices to Gross National Happiness indices, we can begin to measure the overall satisfaction level of entire societies, using metrics associated with culture, values, communication, shared vision, and the sense of personal empowerment and fulfillment.  This shifts us away from depletion of resources as the standard measure of progress and towards improvement of life as a better measure. [See, e.g. Brown, Barrett C. (2006), The Four Worlds of Sustainability, AQAL: Journal of Integral Theory and Practice).

Another point of view about the meaning of happiness is also relevant.  Aristotle conceived of happiness as “a whole life well lived.”  Given that concept it makes a significant difference if we each view our “pursuit of happiness” as meaning our individual happiness or our collaboration in pursuit of our collective happiness.

Painting a picture of an idyllic future just ahead, beckoning, while in the same moment experiencing the real-world environment of human population explosion, cascading species extinctions, ecosystem demise, unprecedented resource depletion and scarcity, economic collapse and military adventurism is certainly challenging. And, yet, it could well be the only alternative that has a chance to succeed.

We know from ocean sediments, ice cores, and other evidence that over hundreds of thousands of years the equilibrium between carbon dioxide input and removal has never been more than one to two percent out of balance, a strong indication of a natural feedback wisdom. That one or two percent balancing point is thousands of times smaller than our current emissions from industry or the destruction of forests and ocean carbon sinks. Earth's natural feedback has acted as a thermostat for the long-term stability of climate and that, in turn, has been essential for the prosperity of human civilization.  

During Earth's history these same balancing mechanisms have sustained liquid water and prevented runaway greenhouse and icehouse conditions over time scales of millions to billions of years. Now, in just an instant of geological time — the industrial era of the past two centuries — this balance has been thrown out of kilter and may now be approaching, or at, an irreversible tipping point. Human ingenuity was a leading cause of Earth's tip into imbalance. If it is not already too late, we humans may also hold the power of the tip back into balance. We need to come together, recognize the common threat, and act now to redress the balance.

There are many leverage points where, once the resolve to act is found, we can apply our collective abilities to tip the climate back towards balance. To name just a few: re-greening the desert (permaculture.org.au); climate neutral countries [New Zealand, Iceland, UK (see carbonneutral.unep.org, zerocarbonbritain.com), beyond-carbon neutral companies (wbcsd.org, co-operativebank.co.uk).]We need dreams. We need the stories that go with those dreams. We need those stories to infect us, inspire us, pick us up when we tire, and push us to new and even better dreams. Antoine-Marie-Roger de Saint-Exupery wrote, "If you want to build a ship, don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

As an aid in comprehending the immensity of our global challenge, go to the series of photographs "Earth from Space"


Astyk, S. (2008, in press). Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front.DiCarlo, Russell E. (1996). Towards a New Worldview: Conversations at the Leading Edge.

Harmon, Willis (1998). Global Mind Change: The Promise of the 21st Century (2nd edition).

Hock, Dee (1999).  Birth of the Chaordic Age (Berrett-Kohler).      

Russell, Peter (1983). The Global Brain: Speculations on the Evolutionary Leap to Planetary Consciousness.

Lenton, T. M., H. Held, E. Kriegler, J.W. Hall, W. Lucht, S. Rahmstorf, and H.J. Schellnhuber,   "Tipping elements in the Earth’s climate system," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105:6:1786 –1793,  2007. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0705414105 .

Mills, S. (2007), Tough Little Beauties: Selected Essays and Other Writings of Stephanie Mills                      

Zeebe, R. E., and K. Caldeira. “Close mass balance of long-term carbon fluxes from ice-core CO2 and ocean chemistry records.” Nature Geoscience, doi:10.1038/ngeo185, 2008. www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v1/n5/index.html.