Jim Hansen’s Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference – Little Brown – 2000) defines a Tipping Point as, “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” Since Gladwell’s publication, the term has been “adopted” in various disciplines, some of which have applied more quantitative descriptions. The Tipping Point term plays an important role in Climate Change (see my June 25, 2012 blog), forming a set of markers to hopefully help us make changes, before we reach the point of no return that we are all trying to avoid. In a recent survey in Science magazine (Marten Scheffer et al. (11 co-authors) – Science – 19 October 2012, Vol 338, p. 344), Tipping Point was defined as a “Catastrophic Bifurcation,” a term which was taken from mathematical Chaos Theory, and has its own well developed definition. Bifurcation indicates a splitting into two branches; the “fork” in the title of both my book and this blog refers to the same phenomenon. Tipping Points are predictable, an aspect that attracts a great deal of interest for obvious reasons. The financial markets have seen intense activity in this area (see James Owen Weatherall’s The Physics of Wall Street, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), with attempts to predict upcoming financial bubbles. The main premise behind the ability to predict bifurcation is that one monitors the driving forces that tend to restore a system to its state of equilibrium. As the system approaches the tipping points, these restoring forces tend to decrease until they completely disappear.

Last week, Jim Hansen announced that he is retiring (he is 72) from NASA to continue pursuing political and legal efforts to limit greenhouse gases. His retirement has attracted widespread attention (Justin Gillis – New York Times – 4/02/2013). Hansen has been known for both his scientific work and his efforts to bring public attention to the inherent dangers of humanity’s current effects on changing the physical environment. He has focused primarily on climate change in both of these settings. Hansen has been the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS) since 1981. In this capacity, he pioneered both the measurement of the Global Mean Temperature and the development of the General Circulation Model. These allowed for comparison between predictions and experiments, aiding in projecting the future under various scenarios. Hansen was shocked by what he saw, and gave his testimony before a congressional committee in 1988 to warn the rest of the world. That same year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by two United Nation organizations: the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nation Environmental Program (UNEP). The IPCC published its first official assessment report in 1990. It then convened at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June of 1992 to establish the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This served as the precedent for the beginning of the Kyoto Protocol, whose implementation and progress have now more or less stalled.

Throughout this time Hansen was wearing two hats simultaneously: that of the “objective” scientist, whose work was scrutinized and refereed by the scientific community, and that of a “Cassandra,” warning us of the consequences of our current actions. NASA administrators and many scientists criticized him for his dual role (see my May 7, 2012 blog). Some in NASA have argued that NASA should not involve itself in trying to predict the future, worrying that any mispredictions might lead to a loss of credibility for the agency. Opponents claim that his science is colored by a political agenda. He was, however, one of the first to fully realize that with upwards of 7 billion people, each striving for a better standard of life, the future of science and political activities cannot remain separate. We are now part of the physical system. We are part of science. I often use one of the most important principles in science, called Le-Chatelier’s Principle, that states:

 Any system in chemical equilibrium, as a result in the variation in one of the factors determining the equilibrium, undergoes a change such that, if this change had occurred by itself, it would have introduced a variation of the factor considered in the opposite direction.

The equilibrium between humans and the physical environment is now being disturbed, and one possible way the system could restore its own equilibrium would be to wipe us from the face of the Earth.

In this sense, “objective” scientists must become more like physicians. It is not enough to investigate the patient’s symptoms; we have to find out what went wrong and how to cure it. The “patient” in this case is the planet and Jim Hansen is trying with all his might to cure it. The political process is part of that cure. He is one of the earliest “scientist – healers,” and I wish him the best in all his endeavors.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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5 Responses to Jim Hansen’s Tipping Point

  1. Teddy Berman says:

    “When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural… The movement back to harmony will be unstoppable this time.”

    -Le Chatelier’s Principal in Batman Begins

  2. Pingback: Am I Talking Out of Both Sides of My Mouth? | ClimateChangeFork

  3. Futurist says:

    “The equilibrium between humans and the physical environment is now being disturbed, and one possible way the system could restore its own equilibrium would be to wipe us from the face of the Earth.”

    And in whatever written record some future alien visitors read when they happen upon our boiling and carbon-choked planet, there shall be a tiny footnote dedicated to Professor Tomkiewicz and his wife, Dean Louise Hainline, who, through their own hijacking of the “political process,” attempted to remove a bike lane that could have restored some of the equilibrium the people of earth so desperately needed.


  4. The irony of Micha Tomkiewicz lecturing about political process to address climate change is so rich you can cut it with a knife.

    Tomkiewicz and his wife Louise Hainline have been the driving force behind the ridiculous law suit to get rid of the bike lane on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn. The redesign of PPW was the result of a multi-year, grassroots, community-driven political process that included scores of stakeholders from all around the community. It was also part of New York City’s broader “Sustainable Streets” strategic plan.

    Yet, instead of showing up to meetings of his local Community Board, the Park Slope Civic Council, the Grand Army Plaza or participating in the local political process, Tomkiewicz and a small group of his well-connected, well-heeled neighbors engaged a major corporate litigator, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, to try to sue the bike lane out of existence.

    Tomkiewicz’s group uses many of the very same tactics that we’ve seen used by coal industry-funded climate change deniers. Professor Hainline falsely presents herself as an expert on transportation planning data and endlessly quibbles with the City’s studies in attempt to muddy the facts and generate conflict-driven stories in the local press. In NYC’s local press, Prof. Hainline is the exact equivalent of a climate change denying scientist.

    Here’s another great tactic: Even though they are a relatively small, homogenous group interested only in ripping out the bike lane on their street, they made themselves sound bigger by giving themselves two separate (and fantastically Orwellian) names — Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes and Seniors for Safety.

    Of course, NBBL has never proposed any plans for “better bike lanes” and SfS has never spoken out or lifted a finger to do anything about the dozens of seniors who have been hurt and killed by motor vehicles in Brooklyn over the last few years. But, hey, these are all the typical tactics used by Prof. Tomkiewicz’s attorneys at Gibson Dunn when they are helping to make sure, for example, a polluter like Chevron doesn’t have to pay a cent for its massive oil spill and total destruction of indigenous lands in Equador. If you can’t win in the local political process, these are the kinds of tactics you use.

    Finally, there was also that time when Tomkiewicz lied to a local advocacy group, Park Slope Neighbors, to secure a set of data that PSN was make freely available to anyone who asked for it. Again: Why lie? I don’t know. Ask Micha and his colleagues. I guess when the very name of your organization is a lie, it’s downhill from there. Micha’s lying incident is described here:


    If you are one of Prof. Tomkiewicz’s students and he is lecturing you about climate change and political process, I highly recommend reading through Streetsblog’s outstanding “NBBL Files” coverage and asking him about it. I truly wonder what he would tell his students about all of this:


  5. Copernicus says:

    Another way the system could, and has, restored equilibrium is by removing an excess car lane on the street on which Professor Tomkiewicz lives, and replacing it with a bike path, on which small children and other cyclists can now pedal safely and happily, while speeding has been greatly reduced. But that did not please Professor Tomkiewicz, who with his wife and other NIMBYs formed the equivalent of climate change denial groups and sued to have said bike lane removed. Shame on the professor.

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