Melting Point: Gladwell’s Tipping Point in Climate Science

By Rachel Newstadt

The idea of a “tipping point,” as explained by Malcolm Gladwell, is a relatively simple one: change in a system builds slowly, then reaches a certain level, the tipping point, and change is then sudden and dramatic. He further explains his theory with characteristics of these tipping points, which include: there are a certain few who can have disproportionate impacts on the change, and the context in which the change is happening matters. This idea is an elaboration of a type of gradual change explained by Paul Pierson: threshold effects, in which forces generate incremental changes until reaching a critical level, triggering “major changes” (Pierson 86).

An example of a process that is argued to have a tipping point is climate change: as the earth warms, it will reach certain tipping points, and going over these thresholds of global temperature will lead to massive changes in the world as we know it. A number of authors have argued that tipping points are clear throughout environmental science, but a particularly relevant study was one done by Tim Lenton of the University of Exeter, discussing ice melt and sea level rise. Lenton discusses the role that the melting of various ice sheets will impact the future, leading to more melting ice, and, eventually a tipping point, beyond which the entire ice sheet will be forever lost, significantly raising sea levels. A few ice sheets he examines (the Arctic, and Greenland ice sheets, the Yedoma Permafrost) are examples of the “certain few” with a disproportionate impact referred to by Gladwell. Additionally, the context -- other contributors to sea melt (ozone holes, etc) -- will contribute to these changes. Climate science is incredibly complicated, but ice melt and sea level rise is a clear example of an aspect of this science with a tipping point.