Some environmentalists warn of a coming tipping point for the environment: a point where no matter what humans do, there will be catastrophic and irreversible destruction, the likes of which will threaten the ability of our species to live on the planet. However, there is actually no one tipping point for Earth as a whole. There are individual systems that can change in irreversible and damaging ways, but life on our planet does not have an on/off switch. The fight for a healthy environment isn’t a cut-and-dry win or a loss, but always somewhere in the middle.
The Bad News
Unfortunately, we have already failed if environmental success is considered to be restoring the planet to its completely natural state, with no anthropogenic changes present. Our impact as a species has already caused irreversible damage. Extinction rates are already 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the natural background rate, sea level will continue to rise for hundreds of years as ice sheets melt, and the ocean experiences thermal expansion, and ocean acidification and temperature are also projected to continue changing for centuries. Some plastics stay in the ecosystem for up to 500 years and will continue to break down in the oceans and on land (see The Ocean Cleanup and 4Ocean’s efforts to clean up ocean plastic and deal with it properly).
Every Decision Matters
The previous paragraph may make it seem like there is no point in trying to save the planet. While there may be no “fixing” the Earth to where it was before the industrial revolution, that does not mean we should give up. In fact, it makes every action and decision all the more important. Every environmentally conscious effort you make will positively impact the planet. That doesn’t have to be towards a particular goal or threshold; it is simply a good thing.
Similarly, one might buy their partner flowers to bring them joy. Not to get them to a specific threshold of joy but because it increases the “goodness” for the person and their partner. Every time you decide to walk the ten minutes instead of driving, purchase the more sustainable clothing item, or shop at the more environmentally conscious grocer, you are helping the planet, which is therefore helping you and your peers, as everyone depends on the Earth for all parts of their lives.
Some may take the science and think, “The planet is doomed anyways. I might as well not try.” But this does not make any sense. Giving up increases the level of “doom” the planet faces. Not giving up decreases it. So, everyone must keep pushing their governments, corporations, and themselves to do better for the earth so that we can avoid as much environmental destruction as possible.
You Can do it Alone
The idea of individual decisions all having an impact (no matter how small) brings more power to individuals. Positive changes made by individuals are not futile; they matter. Of course, it is better to have more people doing good for the planet, but that doesn’t mean you need to act in unison with a large group of people to do something good. You can do it alone.
This also counters the argument that “if they aren’t going to do anything, I won’t either” because there is no way to blame one’s inaction on others. The decision to help or hurt the environment is entirely up to you.
The Illusion and Truth of a Tipping Point
Many major reports use phrases such as “to meet the target of 1.5 degrees of warming” or “to stay under 350 ppm of CO2”, implying a certain threshold of environmental destruction humanity will or will not cross. These can be helpful but also misleading.
They are helpful for two reasons. First, they give people something to strive for and rally around. The problem with the previous arguments in this article is that people like to have a goal. Knowing that each action exists separately from all the others is not conducive to the satisfaction of accomplishment humans crave. Setting ambitious targets for reducing warming, biodiversity protection, avoiding ocean acidification, etc., give humanity something to work together towards.
The second reason “threshold language” can be helpful is that it can show us the tipping points of individual parts of the Earth system. For example, scientists have shown that the Amazon rainforest will turn into a tropical savannah at a certain level of warming, significantly reducing its ability to uptake carbon and preserve biodiversity. Understanding the exact point at which this happens is extremely difficult, but knowing a rough estimate can help us understand what we need to do to save the Amazon. This applies to many other parts of the Earth system, such as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), coral reef die-off, and Greenland ice sheet collapse. These thresholds for individual components of the Earth are scientifically backed and very important for policymakers to understand. Still, they do not act as an on/off switch for life on the planet.
These thresholds can also cause some harm. While this is rare, a country already meeting specific requirements may not be incentivized to do any extra environmental good, even when these actions would still be beneficial. Overall, this doesn’t seem to be a big problem, as countries are consistently below thresholds, not meeting them. It can also cause people to give up when they see projections showing humanity falling short of the thresholds we have set for ourselves. This can inspire thoughts of being done for, which are not backed up by facts but make sense because the numbers are not what we would have liked. Of course, these thresholds make sense for certain parts of the Earth; the Great Barrier Reef is doomed if we do not stay under a certain threshold, but it should not apply to life itself on Earth.
An Answer to Will the Earth Reach a Tipping Point of Environmental Destruction
So, to answer the article’s title: Will the Earth Reach a Tipping Point of Environmental Destruction? No, the Earth will not reach a tipping point of environmental destruction. It will reach many different ones for the other parts of the Earth system, but our longevity on this planet will not be an on/off switch. Every action we take matters and can benefit the Earth, whether as an individual or part of a mass movement. Every person has the power to do something, so it is crucial never to give up. Because every bit of carbon hurts, and every tree planted helps.
Chappell, Bill. “NPR Choice Page.” Npr.org, 2019, www.npr.org/2019/09/23/763389015/this-is-all-wrong-greta-thunberg-tells-world-leaders-at-u-n-climate-session.
Hanson, Nate, and Brandon Lewis. “Yes, the UN Report Says Human-Induced Climate Change Has Caused Some Damage That’s Irreversible for Centuries.” Verifythis.com, 2021, www.verifythis.com/article/news/verify/environment-verify/climate-change-un-report-irreversible/536-0b211fce-9125-4800-b381-bc2f56fd588a.
Resnick, Brian. “The Arctic Had a Scarily Low Amount of Ice This Past Winter.” Vox, 15 Mar. 2018, www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/3/15/17099686/arctic-warm-winter-sea-ice-melting-facts.
S, Robert, et al. “Scientists Uncover Evidence of Impending Tipping Point for Earth.” Berkeley News, 6 June 2012, news.berkeley.edu/2012/06/06/scientists-uncover-evidence-of-impending-tipping-point-for-earth/.
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