How do those interested and active in stopping man-made climate change get everybody else to realise the urgency of the threat and change their behaviour accordingly? It is a question that has generated a lot of discussion in the Green movement, the outcome of which will have profound consequences for the entire planet. Speaking at a public meeting organised by the World Development Movement in May 2008 newly elected Green MP Caroline Lucas noted that the language of fear and disaster surrounding climate change is both “deeply scary and deeply unhelpful.” According to Lucas “trying to terrify people into action” simply doesn’t work.
To illustrate her argument Lucas mentioned the discourse of tipping points, the topic of Beyond the Tipping Point, a short documentary directed by Stefan Skrimshire, a Research Associate in Philosophy of Religion at the University of Manchester.
“At certain points in time elements of the Earth’s system, triggered by positive feedback loops, can switch from small changes to huge ones”, Skrimshire, the narrator of the film, explains. Huge changes in this case meaning accelerated, uncontrollable and importantly, irreversible, climate change. An increase in 4 degrees, according to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, will likely lead to a marked decrease in global food production, “major extinctions around the globe”, a 2-7 metre sea level rise and more frequent and severe flooding, heatwaves, droughts and water pollution.
There is little agreement about where these tipping points are precisely located, although many climatologists believe we may have passed a number already. For example, as early as 2005 the respected NASA climate scientist James Hansen warned“We are on the precipice of climate system tipping points beyond which there is no redemption.”
Bypassing the science of these thresholds and choosing to focus on “impact on our imaginations” the film is broken up into a series of easily digestible sections dealing with questions such as ‘Do tipping points generate action or apathy?’, ‘Are we trying to prevent climate change or adapt to it?’ and ‘Are the challenges too great?’. All huge topics taken on their own, but the experts, academics and activists interviewed give incisive answers that both lay persons and experienced campaigners will be able to engage with and debate.
What effect does this looming point of no return have on those involved in climate protest and action? Leo Murray of direct action group Plane Stupid argues the climate science of tipping points and feedbacks means there is a limited time period available for effective action against climate change. “If ever we are going to act on climate change, we need to do it now”, he says. Polyp, an activist and political cartoonist, continues this line of thinking, highlighting how the end of slavery and civil rights for African-Americans took decades to achieve. “It’s no longer viable for that sort of social justice to happen at that sort of pace”, he notes. “It’s got to start happening much more quicker.”
Raising more questions than it answers, Beyond the Tipping Point is a refreshing take on an issue that will only grow in importance in the future. One thing missing is a discussion of the corporate forces involved in deliberately planting doubt and uncertainty in the public debate, surely a key reason behind the general public’s relative inaction on climate change. But this is a minor criticism of a film that, considering it focuses in part on the very survival of the human species, is surprisingly positive and hopeful.
“We must try as that is what it is to be human”, concludes the University of Southampton’s Dr Mark Levene at the film’s close.