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Economic development and the tipping point

February 14, 2019
By: Mark Skinner

As the number of weather-related news stories increase, more Americans are recognizing the world’s climate is changing (see here and here, for instance). Cold temperatures and large amounts of precipitation may hold our immediate attention (we are, after all, a culture increasingly obsessed with the short-term, instant or immediate), but a larger story is unfolding that has the scientists who have studied various aspects of climate-related issues for decades increasingly using a two-word phrase that could have terrifyingly significant repercussions if, and when, we can look back to see it is truly happening. The phrase is tipping point – that moment when certain aspects fueling climate change will fuel themselves, creating feedback loops independent of our own future behavior. 

Here are just a dozen science news releases since the quiet Thanksgiving release of the Fourth National Climate Assessment that present new, even more compelling data not available during the writing of the NCA’s call for urgent action:

  • “Huge cavity in Antarctic glacier signals rapid decay” (1)
  • Greenland ice melting rapidly, study finds (2) and shows no signs of abating (3)
  • “Rapidly receding glaciers on Baffin Island reveal long-covered Arctic landscapes,” exposed after 40,000 years (4)
  • “Melting ice sheets release tons of methane into the atmosphere” (5)
  • “2018 fourth warmest year in continued warming trend, according to NASA, NOAA” (6)
  • UK forecast suggests next five years will be Earth's warmest period since records began (7)
  • Ocean warming is accelerating (8)
  • “A warming world increases air pollution” (9)
  • “Climate change reshaping how heat moves around globe” (10)
  • “Extreme rainfall events are connected around the world” (11)
  • “Climate change tipping point could be coming sooner than we think” (12)

Galileo is quoted as saying “It is surely harmful to souls to make it a heresy to believe what is proved.”  Nevertheless, at least one recent analysis suggests 150 members of the newly seated Congress are on record as being in denial of climate change and the current administration continues to move U.S. policy in the wrong direction for mitigating the pace of future change.

But we need to ask ourselves, which direction is economic development policy and practice, and yes, even science and technology-based, innovation-oriented development, moving the United States? Away from the tipping point and reversing human contributions to climate change — or toward it? 

We may be able to point to a few dozen clean energy initiatives across the country or a handful of
sustainable-oriented projects within the individual portfolios of our university R&D enterprise and venture development organizations, but we have to accept the vast majority of economic development — projects receiving tax abatements, luring inducement incentives, encouraging urban sprawl and greenfield development, exasperating reliance on automobiles, encouraging ag industry consolidation, and subsidizing workforce training in unsustainable jobs — is increasing  the known contributors to human-induced climate change. 

Are the current reward incentives for economic developers encouraging most to ignore the data that science is presenting to us? Shouldn’t public investment in future development be smarter than this? 

Happy Valentine’s Day, Planet.

climate change