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Rutgers and Harvard Scientists Team Up to Investigate Consequences of Climate Change

Team Investigates Climatic “Tipping Points” and Their Importance to Humans on Earth
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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—In his 2000 book "The Tipping Point," author Malcolm Gladwell summarized the characteristics of "tipping points" as being contagious and involving a large change that results from small changes and occurs quickly.

However, scientists at Rutgers University and Harvard University do not fully agree with that definition and attempted to clarify the terminology in a study published on July 11 by Earth's Future.

In the scientific community, climatic "tipping points" refer to the point at which certain climatic "tipping elements," such as the Arctic ice sheet or the Amazon Rainforest, are committed to a state change, without the change having been realized. This state change can be abrupt or gradual.

Malcolm Gladwell's popularized definition implies a state change is imminent once a tipping point has been crossed.

"First, the ‘tipping point’ terminology is potentially confusing: its use in the climate science literature is clearly inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s popularization, yet the use of the term in climate science doesn’t totally align with its popularized use," the authors said in an interview with Earth's Journal.

"For example, Malcolm Gladwell characterized tipping points as ‘abrupt,’ but if we’re talking about ‘tipping points’ in an ice sheet, the consequences of crossing a critical threshold may take many centuries to play out."

Since the term tipping point carries a connotation of "abruptness" that conflicts with its use in climate science, the authors made it a goal of their paper to "offer a set of terminology that doesn't conflict with popular understandings and can be consistently applied across both natural and human systems".

The authors concluded that the best term for this is 'critical threshold.'

According to the authors, it warrants concern that the consequences of crossing critical thresholds may take centuries to play out.

"If the lag between crossing a critical threshold and an impact is too long, we may not notice until it’s too late to do anything about it," said Robert E. Kopp, the study’s lead author and an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Rutgers.

"If we notice that we’ve done something wrong, it may be possible to intervene and limit the damage." 

The authors also made it a goal of their study to survey the literature on "social tipping elements" sensitive to climate change and "climate-economic shocks." 

Social tipping elements are things such as mass migrations and conflict-development traps, public opinion and policy changes, and technological or behavioral changes, which all can have an impact on climate change. 

Changes in some climate tipping elements and social tipping elements have the ability to trigger climate-economic shocks--large, rapid losses in a country's economic capacity. 

The authors believe research on the triggers of climate-economic shocks has been scarce in climate science literature. 

"We think that more work could be done identifying the triggers that we know cause significant economic shocks—things like large-scale environmental disasters and civil conflicts with clear environmental connections, but also things like financial crises with less clear connections—and investigating how these might be affect by climatic change," the authors  told Earth's Journal

In the study, the authors propose a research agenda that advances the integrated assessment of climatic tipping elements, social elements sensitive to climate change, and climate-economic shocks.

Study authors include Rachael L. Shwom, an associate professor in the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers; Gernot Wagner, a research associate at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Jiacan Yuan, a post-doctoral fellow in the Kopp-led Rutgers Earth System Science & Policy Lab.

“There’s been a lot of attention paid to climate tipping points where some major change in the climate happens, but this study gave me a chance to think about how social systems will respond to climate change,” Shwom said.

“Social system tipping points can worsen or reduce the impacts of climate change.”