Tipping Points and Grandchildren

I am ashamed at what is happening to the planet our Lord gave us to hold in stewardship.

As we start a new decade, the 2020s, I find myself reflecting on the earth I will leave my grandchildren. In particular, I am contemplating our climate. Many scientists are concerned that current changes in climate are approaching tipping points. Tipping points are moments in processes when a change becomes self-reinforcing; after the tipping point, the process accelerates and becomes unstoppable. If we are indeed approaching or even crossing a tipping point in climate-related events, then changes that result may be irreversible.

Many things that control our biosphere are mediated by feedback loops that act to stabilize the environment. A change at one point in the system elicits a secondary change that offsets the first change, resulting in an overall stable set of conditions. For example, the circulation of warm and cold water in the Northern Atlantic brings warm water to the Northern European coast and returns deeper, colder water to the tropics. This circulation maintains a warmer Europe and stabilizes the climate across large areas, moving heat away from the tropics and bringing colder water into that area.

Other systems seem to be controlled by positive feedback loops: a change in one aspect leads to a consequence that makes the change larger, and the situation intensifies. One instance may be sea ice cover in Arctic waters. Ice and snow are white and thus reflect much sunlight back up away from the earth, preventing it from warming the surface. Open water is darker and so absorbs more of the light and its heat. For a long time, the chronic surface ice in the Arctic Sea has kept temperatures down. Currently, because of the warming climate, there is more open water, leading to more sunlight absorption, which further increases the temperature, leading to further ice loss. It is now likely that the Arctic Sea will become ice free in the summer; this process may be one reason why the north is warming faster than other parts of the world.

Risks and signs
What makes this heating in the Arctic a concern is that ice packs and glaciers on Greenland also seem to be melting faster. The melting of sea ice has no effect on sea levels (the weight of the ice floating on water is already included in the sea level) but the ice packs on Greenland and in the Antarctic are on land. If they melt faster than the amount of snow added each winter, the water that flows from them will increase sea levels. Even a small rise in sea levels will put many countries at risk of flooding and loss of land.

At this point, it is not clear how fast the changes we are seeing in the Arctic are happening, but the signs are not encouraging. Increased fires in northern Canada and Russia are also accelerating the changes we are seeing. And at my university, researchers are documenting how Arctic permafrost in our north is thawing at an alarming rate, unfortunately releasing more greenhouse gases. All these changes combine to increase the rate of climate change.

I have grandchildren who, unless our Lord returns, will inherit the world we leave them. I am ashamed at what is happening to the planet our Lord gave us to hold in stewardship. Perhaps it is time to consider how we might make sacrifices like those many of our grandparents made during the world wars a century ago. Rationing, going to fight overseas, buying Victory Bonds, and in Europe hiding Jews were individual and community decisions that sometimes had immense costs but were necessary because our faith demanded them of us to live justly. Today we need to ask our leaders and pray for policies that will clearly address the environmental need and then fairly share the cost of the sacrifice across our country. Our children and grandchildren should not bear the burden of our unfaithfulness.

  • Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

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