Tag: global tipping point

Debate: What Good Are Planetary Boundaries?

Commissariat Point, South Australia, Australia. Image credit: Georgie Sharp/Flicker through a Creative Commons license.

Commissariat Point, South Australia, Australia. Image credit: Georgie Sharp/Flicker through a Creative Commons license.

Bob Lalasz is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy.

Does Earth have limits — limits to how far we can push its natural systems and deplete its resources, beyond which we will incur major blowback?

Almost every environmentalist would answer “yes” — and have pugnaciously strong opinions about what we should do (or stop doing) to avoid crossing them. But what does science tell us about those limits? Which are really science-based? Can innovation can stretch any of them?  Are they useful for motivating policymaking and behavior change?

A world-class panel of scientists grappled with these questions last Thursday’s during “The Limits of the Planet: A Debate” — the final forum in this year’s “Nature and Our Future” discussion series, sponsored by The Nature Conservancy and held at The New York Academy of Sciences headquarters in lower Manhattan.

The major disagreements of the evening came over whether outlining global limits for the stable functioning of nature (as opposed to tipping points for individual ecosystems) is good science — and whether “limits” are the correct approach to achieving environmental goals. On this point, not everyone was in the Bill McKibben/350.org camp.

“The evidence is incontrovertible that there are local tipping points — for coral reefs, for instance– but not so for global ones,” said Erle Ellis, a panelist and associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Baltimore, Maryland County. “It’s not a runaway train. Ecosystems change, but it’s not a domino effect. You can change all the systems on the planet. But does that constitute a global tipping point?”

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