Tipping points that work in our favour

Regular readers of this column may have sensed, as Amy Hiller wrote last week (Letters, Mercury, 27 September) a focus on “all the bad news about climate change”. She listed things we can do, “working together with optimism”, to fix this wicked problem. 

There are indeed many things we can do, and we must not give up. But nor must we allow policymakers to get away with the falsehood that their current efforts are adequate.

The only conclusion to be drawn from a series of research papers earlier this year on high-latitude warming is that our climate is on a knife edge. Then last month came new Swedish projections underlining that we are closing fast on dangerous tipping points – thresholds beyond which large parts of the climate system become self-perpetuating.

The paper found that at 2C of warming, once considered the “safe” limit, mountain glaciers would be fast disappearing, both Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets would be in a state of collapse causing metres of sea level rise, summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean would be gone, and the Atlantic Ocean circulatory system would be dramatically slower.

Beyond 3C of warming, northern permafrost would be releasing vast quantities of once-frozen methane, a potent greenhouse gas. We got a preview of that last week when an act of sabotage breached a Baltic Sea pipeline causing millions of tonnes of Russian methane to escape to the atmosphere. The Ukraine war is making the unthinkable thinkable.

But to address Amy Hiller’s point about positive thinking, it’s worth remembering that tipping points don’t just happen in the climate space. Other tipping points can work in our favour. If they take effect quickly enough we may yet be saved from total calamity.

A critical tipping point is financial. When enough large fossil fuel investors see the profitability curve start to flatten in out-years they will opt out, and that can happen very quickly. With big money finding another home, fossil fuel companies will die.

This can have a cascading impact, to the point where no-one wants to be associated with carbon, be it coal, oil or gas. If the Tasmanian government believes it makes economic sense for a current proposal to make hydrogen from “clean” Fingal Valley coal to proceed, it needs to think again. Coal’s day has passed. 

We are seeing this play out in the electricity market. Last week came the news that large coal-fired power plants in both Victoria and Queensland would close in 2035, a decade earlier than previously planned. Workers interviewed were not surprised. They don’t like to hear it, but like coal-workers everywhere they can see the writing on the wall.

Transport is another potential tipping point. In Norway, the global electric vehicle (EV) leader, all-electric vehicles make up nearly 80 per cent of the market. In Europe more broadly the figure is about 14 per cent, in Canada it’s 8 per cent and in the US approaching 5 per cent. As for China, there are now more EV buyers there than in the rest of the world combined.

Until this year Canberra has never given a hint of policy support for owning an EV, yet a growing proportion of new car buyers has already taken the plunge. All-electric new car sales in Australia today are 2 per cent of the total (another 8 per cent is hybrid petrol-electric).

Sensible motor vehicle buyers think ahead a few years, and right now they would have to seriously consider switching to an EV. With EV buyers increasing each year, eventually there will be no market for the petrol clunkers we currently own.

Almost everywhere you look there are potential positive tipping points. Alliances are forming at an increasingly rapid rate between governments and government agencies (including at a local level), community organisations, natural resource managers, private landowners, and all manner of NGOs and user groups aiming to hasten moves towards a low-carbon future.

They do this because they have picked up science’s alarm signals about the true state of affairs and heard scientists’ calls for action. They know that the situation is worse than what political leaders – even those touting “ambitious” emissions targets – would have us believe. 

Governments everywhere, even unelected ones, will be forced to raise their climate responses to emergency levels when the momentum created by all those people and groups, plus the financial market’s aversion to stranded assets, starts to take effect.

The existence of tipping points in nature may lead us to despair, but it shouldn’t. We have our own tipping points which, taken together, can reverse that rising emissions graph.

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