The Straw That Broke The Planet's Back

A section of the ice sheet covering much of Greenland is seen in this Aug. 17, 2005 file photo. Scientists say the ice is thinning and blame global warming, predicting a 3-foot rise in ocean levels by the end of the century through a combination of thermal expansion of the water and melting of polar ice.
This column was written by Julia Whitty.
What if 12 asteroids were on collision courses with earth? What if we could alter their trajectories and save our planet by the cumulative effect of our individual efforts? What if science and history proved that we were fully capable of such heroism? What would it take to get us started?

John Schellnhuber, distinguished science advisor at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the United Kingdom, has identified 12 global warming tipping points, such as the deforestation of the Amazon rain forest or the melting of the west Antarctic ice sheet. Any of these, if triggered, will likely initiate sudden changes across the planet, as cataclysmic as any asteroid strike.

So what will it take to trigger what we might call the 13th tipping point, the shift from personal denial to personal responsibility? What will tip us toward addressing global warming with the urgency it deserves, as the mother of all threats to homeland security?

A 2005 study on Americans' perceptions of global warming found that most are moderately concerned, but 68% believe the greatest threats are to people far away or to nonhuman nature — a dangerous and delusional misperception. Only 13% perceive risk to themselves, their families or their communities.

Many secretly perceive global warming to be an insoluble problem and respond by circling the family wagons and turning inward. Yet science shows that human beings are born with powerful tools for solving this quandary. We have the genetic smarts and the cultural smarts. We have the technological know-how. We even have the inclination.

The truth is we can change ourselves with breathtaking speed, sculpting even "immutable" human nature. Forty years ago many believed human nature mandated that blacks and whites live in segregation; 30 years ago human nature divided men and women into separate economies; 20 years ago human nature prevented us from defusing a global nuclear standoff, but in 1987 the U.S. and Soviet Union singed the INF agreement. Nowadays we blame human nature for the insolvable hazards of global warming.

Research out of the Max Planck Institute in Germany suggests how we might help ourselves evolve. We behave as better environmental citizens when educated about the science of global warming, and when our individual actions are visible to those around us — a phenomenon known as "social facilitation." Perhaps if we're vigorously informed of how global warming endangers our neighborhoods, we'll individually forego the McMansions and the Hummers and make other sustainable choices. Anything less compromises our children's future.