Avoiding tipping points

20th May 2024


Gillian Gibson calls for urgent action to avoid environmental tipping points

As we reach the end of a decade and begin a new one, it is often time for reflection. For me personally, that happens tomorrow. Perhaps it is timely that two pieces recently appeared in the Guardian which sum up my feelings.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in an age where children had a great deal more freedom than is perhaps currently the case. I am horrified by the idea that children are attached to a mobile phone, and their parents know their every move. How would parents feel if the tables were turned? My freedom came with a childhood which was post war, with very little in the way of luxury; toys were few, winter was spent huddled under coats on the bed to keep warm, and the winter of 1962 struggling through snow drifts to get to school then sitting in wet shoes was not ideal! But summers were spent with various relatives; my great grandfather, (born in 1862 - the changes he had seen in his life!) my great uncle, and my godfather, all of whom had a keen interest in nature. I was taken for long walks, shown birds eggs nestled in a sheltered place, or their young, clamouring to be fed. Flowers with different structures adapted to the pollinators which visited them. Such privileges cannot be bought.

This easy innocence continued until my fourth decade, when I was teaching biology, environmental science (such as it was then) and human biology. The UN held a meeting at which Gro Haarlem Brundtland was present when the notion of a sustainable future was put forward. At that point, the suggestion of climate change was a relatively new concept; the levels of atmospheric CO2 were still manageable, though rising. I was fascinated, and concerned, in equal measure. My career changed, and I began working in environmental science, both in research, and in communicating its importance to others. Eventually this became a part of the professional development which we see required for Chartered Environmentalists, which I have delivered for many years.

So what of the two Guardian pieces?

With regards to the first one (https://www.theguardian.com/en...) I have endeavoured to remain positive in the face of mounting evidence that ‘things’ are going in the wrong direction. The word despair was used in the first piece. I despair not for myself, but for future generations, not least my grandchildren. The piece focuses on climate change. It describes a world I do not recognise, nor would want anyone to endure.

The second one (https://www.theguardian.com/co...) looks at the consequences already being felt as a result of that changing climate. To say it sounds apocalyptic is probably not too strong a description.

As far as the second piece is concerned, we all need to be fed. We need to value biodiversity. But we need to value the food itself, the land which provides it, and the people who toil on our behalf to be paid appropriately, not the lowest price which can be achieved by large companies haggling.

There is something which shouts at me loud and clear from these two pieces: greed. Greed and selfishness. Greed by large organisations choosing to continue making money at other people’s expense. Selfishness from individuals knowing that their actions, including overconsumption, damage the planet, yet choose to behave in the same way.

If you have got this far, thank you. If you are looking for an answer, I am sorry, I don’t have one. In a world of elections this year, but beset by war, I do not see ordinary people hammering at the door of governments to do something about climate change. Yet this is without doubt the most important thing facing us. The rising price of fuel and food, scarcity of water, disappearance of natural resources are all inextricably linked, but few (if any) politicians are fighting on a platform of environmental improvement.

Neither of the pieces referenced above made major headlines. How many tipping points will we need to pass before the warnings from the professionals are heeded? We have it in our power to make the tipping points recede into the future, to stop the scary data and put things back as they were. If you have it in your capacity to spread the word to governments that this all matters, please, do so. Shout it from the roof tops. The scientists can only provide the data; the rest of us need to use it to best advantage.

Gillian Gibson FIEMA is an environmental scientist and owner of Gibson Consulting and Training

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