Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell had a powerful impact on the way climate change was marketed to the public, without even knowing it. Gladwell’s marketing book, published in 2000, embedded the phrase “tipping point” into the public’s imagination, and this in turn was used to raise the urgency of climate change.
It seems ridiculous today, with climate sensitivity models being tuned downwards, natural variability recognised as increasingly important, and climate institutions talking about a period of long-term cooling. Much of the urgency went out of the window after countries failed to agree on a successor to the Kyoto agreement at Copenhagen in 2009, and the costs and taxes of “low carbon” strategies are political poison.
But back in the mid-noughties, it was very different. The idea that the climate was reaching a “tipping point”, and that global temperature would runaway uncontrollably, was rife. It created a sense of urgency that helped pass legislation such as the UK’s Climate Change Act in 2008.
This story emerges from the FOIA2011 archive – the so-called Climategate 2.0 emails released last week. Although it hasn’t had the immediate and dramatic impact of the first leak two years ago, the breadth of social networks uncovered in these emails will keep historians busy for years – and whets the appetite for the 95 per cent of UEA emails still under wraps.
How ideas divide science and us
The idea of climatic tipping points is fascinating for several reasons.
The question of whether ecosystems are inherently stable – or unstable – preoccupied biologists for much of the last century – and was the subject of Adam Curtis’s film The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts, in a BBC series for which I was assistant producer, and which Curtis summarised here. Fashions change, and so do myths. Arthur Tansley, who invented the word “ecosystem”, believed in “the great universal law of equilibrium”, and this was pursued for decades. Today, the idea that ecosystems are delicate and unstable instead dominates.