Tipping Points

For the last few days, I was lucky enough to attend and participate in an event packed full of inspiration, art and climate science. We at CISC had been working with the Earth Institute at Columbia University, The British Council and the UK based organization TippingPoint, to organize the first United States held TippingPoint conference. The event worked to bring together about 90 of the New York City region’s top climate scientists and active artists to think about, discuss, and deliberate on the climate crisis we face.

Home sweet home.

Home sweet home.

The event itself was a leap of faith and a reminder that extraordinary things come with minimal fine print, directions or user guides. Participants (and planners might I add) had relatively little knowledge of what kind of event we were getting into save for a few listed highlights: Wally Broecker’s attendance–for those who do not know, he coined the term climate change and is a grandfather of climate science–and a provocation speech by Jeffrey Sachs on day 2. Other than that,  discussions populated the agenda. And we in turn populated the discussions.  This was an “open-space” conference format. Open-space facilitated conferences came out of event feedback where participants would continually say, “The best portion was lunch or the conversation I had at the bar…” So, the idea is, why not have  a conference where we can have one long lunch session? Why not have an event where we can decide what we want to talk or learn about? And as our adept and quite funny facilitator pointed out, “There was no Plan B.”

Breakout sessions over the 2 days included: creating direct collaborations between artists and scientists, public experiments, practicality, dealing artfully with climate contrarians, Antarctica vs. the Wall St. Journal Editorial Board, putting the public to work, and many many more delightfully spontaneous themes that bridged the science and art nexus.

Major themes that meant something to me. 1 – Climate Change is not yet understood or deeply cared about by most Americans. (Only 36% of Americans believe climate change is human caused, down from 47% in April of 2008.) 2 – We have no ethical framework to deal with climate change, since our usual ethical framework does not deal with the future. 3 – We need to express collective responsibility and action. If climate change threats could be controlled regionally, would we be more willing to deal with it? 4 – Changing light-bulbs is not enough. We have failed miserably on the solution side of things. 5 – Climate Change is already effecting the world’s most vulnerable citizens. When there are droughts in California, we have water restrictions. When droughts occur in Ethiopia, people perish. 6 – More people need to dedicate their lives to solving this issue because it is THE issue of our lives. And if (when) they do join, they have an army of inspired, able and down right fabulous  individuals to work with.

Jeffrey Sachs, after explaining that geologists have given the official ok, after official testing, to use the term Anthropocene Epoch-a new human driven geological epoch that has replaced the Holocene Epoch of the last 12,000 years–reminded us that a world with 9 billion people will be crowded. But this is not the time to start asking for a return to a simple existence with nature. People will die before and when this happens. This is the time to understand that humans have now taken over the entire operating system of the planet. It no longer controls itself. Think about that…

Regarding the sense of shared responsibility, I want to leave you with a thought about tipping points for a moment. Few of the things said over this weekend moved me more than the idea that we might come to a point where we have to tell our children, or our mothers and brothers, “We wrecked it.” We inherited something flawed and instead of re-envisioning it or re-configuring it to a better state, we killed it. There is no turning back, there is no chance to fix this.

We can not begin to imagine what this means. We can begin to read about it, but sit and think for one moment about what it might mean to really go beyond the threshold of this earth, to be the last weight needed to tip the scale, so we can never return to what once was. How will we feel about carbon taxing or climate change politics then?

According to Sachs–and climate scientists–more research is needed on what exactly this tipping point might be. But what we do know is that all humans (many to a FAR greater extent) have somehow moved us to where we are in the progression toward no return. We, through no fault of our own, have inherited this legacy in the name of economic development and certain modes of production. And we need to deal with that, in the hopes that those after us will inherit our legacy and deal accordingly with it. If we do not, the fault certainly is our own. We must take the responsibilities of our time which clearly is much more than the sum of our contemporary parts.

While the content of the weekend’s events were certainly worth fearing–thinking about the sheer power of one species to have changed the geological era in which we live is frightening–I do believe that the more positive and hopeful contributions we might make to our human-controlled planet override the fear. The simple fact that this event existed, that we have minds as great as our problems and creativity as limitless as the number of people on this planet must mean something.  The biggest take away from the weekend’s event for me: We must remain–or become–passionate about the world in which we live. It is beautiful in ways that we may not fully understand , but that we now control.


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Comments (1)


  1. Appreciate Carina’s eloquent recap and response to the Tipping Point conference. Thanks! For someone like me deep in the urban policy weeds on climate issues, her breadth of response is refreshing.

    At the same time, while her dismay at the low level of US public urgency about climate is warranted, public opinion on most environmental issues is typically tepid. It takes either a disaster (Love Canal) or a braiding of group interests (early days of federal grants to build sewage treatment plants) to set green plans into motion.

    When it comes to climate, the futurity problem Carina mentions is very real. More surprising, is the lack of effective braiding of interests on fronts like energy efficiency, green tech (especially energy efficiency)RD & D, green jobs, fossil fuel geopolitics/security and even Pentagon concern about climate change. I’m stumped why these type of issues and interests, combined with selective corporate support (as the departure of some household names from the US Chamber of Commerce over its climate hostile position) hasn’t moved the nation further.

    While it’s great to see cities really getting ahead of the curve on climate innovation, cities can’t succeed on their own.

    Hope to be reading lots of comments on this blog!

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