Climate Compass Blog

Tipping points and climate change: Revisiting The Day After Tomorrow

It has been 10 years since the movie The Day After Tomorrow offered a highly embellished vision of a climate “tipping point” in which polar ice sheets melt, shut down the Gulf Stream, and plunge Europe and much of the U.S. into a deep freeze.

While most of The Day After Tomorrow is safely in the realm of science fiction, there is real science to back up concerns that tipping points in the climate system could cause potentially irreversible, and in some cases drastic, changes in our climate.

Figure 1: Potential tipping elements in the Earth’s climate system overlaid with population density. Question marks indicate systems whose status as tipping elements is particularly uncertain. Source: National Climate Assessment 2014.

Examples include (see Figure 1):

  • Thawing permafrost could inject high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere, accelerating warming.
  • The irreversible loss of large areas of northern or Amazon forests would reduce the planet’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide, contributing to even more warming.
  • Warming could disrupt or displace important features of the global climate system, such as the large-scale circulation of the ocean or the regional monsoons.

Since The Day After Tomorrow premiered in 2004, considerable research has been done to better understand one of the key tipping points presented in the movie: the melting of the polar ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. While melting ice sheets aren’t likely to spawn the freezing cold hurricanes featured in the movie, their loss could affect the ocean’s circulation and would likely raise sea level many feet, increasing flood risks for coastal communities. 

The destabilization of the Antarctic ice sheet is of particular concern. The West Antarctic ice sheet alone has enough ice to raise global-mean sea level by about 14 feet (4.3 meters).

Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory used satellite and air measurements to document an accelerating retreat of six Antarctic glaciers over the past several decades. The team modeled the ongoing retreat of the glaciers and found that full-scale collapse is likely to occur over the next several centuries, which could cause sea level to rise four feet as the glaciers disappear.

A separate set of researchers from the University of Washington found similar results for the Thwaites glacier (also part of the West Antarctic ice sheet), one of the largest regional contributors to sea level rise. The study published this spring found that the glacier has already entered the early stages of collapse, and rapid and irreversible collapse is likely in the next 200 to 1,000 years.

Although these timescales don’t make for a Hollywood blockbuster, they should still be cause for concern. Scientists agree that greater warming means greater risks of crossing a threshold for a tipping point. And once a tipping point is crossed, there’s no turning back. The consequences are often irreversible.  

Even if we manage to dodge tipping points, or if we avoid crossing them in the near term, climate change can still threaten our ecosystems, businesses, and communities. Impacts are occurring now. More frequent and intense heat waves, sea level rise, and changes in rainfall patterns are just a few examples. Although these impacts may not have a discrete tipping point or threshold, their consequences are likely to grow worse with greater warming.

Reducing our emissions helps lower the risk of crossing tipping points, and gives our efforts to build resilience to climate impacts a greater chance of success.

Joe Casola contributed to this blog post.


Don't toss out the good electricity with the bad

One way to reduce power plant carbon emissions is to reduce the demand for electricity. Encouraging customer energy efficiency is one of the building blocks underpinning the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan. But the plan does not distinguish among uses of electricity. That means, without further options, the Clean Power Plan could inadvertently discourage states from deploying electric vehicles (EVs), electric mass transit, and other technologies that use electricity instead of a dirtier fuel.

In all but very coal-heavy regions, using electricity as a transportation fuel, especially in mass transit applications, results in the emission of far less carbon dioxide than burning gasoline. In industry, carbon emissions can be cut by using electric conveyance systems instead of diesel- or propane-fueled forklifts and electric arc furnaces instead of coal boilers.

Under the proposed power plant rules, new uses of electricity would be discouraged regardless of whether a state pursues a rate-based target (pounds of emissions per unit of electricity produced) or a mass-based target (tons of emissions per year).

EPA has a few options to make sure regulations for power plants would not discourage uses of electricity that result in less carbon emissions overall.

Climate Interest, But No Action in the 113th Congress

The 113th Congress (2013-2014) is on track to be one of the least productive and most divided in history. No legislation explicitly mentioning climate change has been enacted into law, but more bills and resolutions related to climate change have been introduced in this Congress than in the previous one. (For brevity, we refer to all legislative proposals, including resolutions, and amendments, and draft bills, as “bills.”)

Only two bills loosely related to climate change (though not directly referencing it) have been passed and signed into law: the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act and the Hurricane Sandy Relief bill, which provided $17 billion and $9.7 billion, respectively, to cope with Sandy’s aftermath.

Of the 221 bills introduced that explicitly reference climate change or related terms, such as greenhouse gases or carbon dioxide, the majority support climate action. These focus primarily on building resilience to a changing climate, supporting the deployment of clean energy, and improving energy efficiency. A number would use some form of carbon pricing to reduce emissions.

My mission at C2ES: Building common ground

I’m honored and excited to be taking the helm today of an organization that has done so much to build common ground for practical climate and energy solutions. Throughout my career, I’ve worked to bring diverse interests together to protect both our environment and our economy. I’m eager to continue that work at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

We are at a critical time, with both the obligation and the opportunity to forge lasting solutions to the profound challenge of climate change. Innovation is opening new possibilities in transportation, energy efficiency and generation, resource extraction, and renewable energy.  With smart and creative policy, we can harness and drive this innovation – and the power of markets – to secure our energy, economic and climate future.

During my time at EPA, in the nonprofit sector, and in state and local government, I’ve worked together with stakeholders to find consensus solutions to complex challenges. From neighborhood redevelopment efforts, to statewide solid waste plans, to working with auto and energy companies on EPA rules, bringing people together has not always been easy, but it’s always proven the best way forward.

And that is precisely what distinguishes C2ES – a commitment to bringing people together to forge practical policy solutions. From the local to the global, C2ES works closely with members of its Business Environmental Leadership Council, with policymakers, and with a wide array of other stakeholders to unpack the issues and options and to build common ground.

I want to thank the C2ES Board of Directors, and most importantly our founding president, Eileen Claussen, for building such an outstanding organization, and for entrusting me with its stewardship. I look forward to working with the board, and with the dedicated and talented C2ES team, to broaden our reach and our impact in the years ahead.   

There is so much remarkable work going on in the United States and around the world to develop innovative, practical solutions that meet our climate, energy and economic needs. I’m excited to bring my own energy to C2ES to help meet this historic challenge. Future generations are counting on us all to keep that vision in sight.

Two smartphone apps help you shop with sustainability in mind

Little things add up. Switching off the lights when you leave a room, adjusting your thermostat when you go to work, or running your washing machine on cold all can save energy, save money, and help the environment. But what about the dozens of other small choices we all make without much thought, from what type of soap we use to what type of food we serve for dinner?

Two smartphone apps can help make the dizzying array of daily choices a little simpler and more sustainable.