Tipping Points, Inertia and the Titanic

In a recent power point lecture I gave at Bairnsdale U3A I concentrated on 2 aspects of global warming imperfectly or not clearly understood by the general public – tipping points and inertia. This was coupled with repeated warnings of possible dire consequences of global warming that have generally been ignored.

As a metaphor for all these aspects I used the Titanic tragedy and most of the details of what follows can be found in the Wikipedia entry. It appears that the Titanic was warned at least 6 times that they were approaching ice. The first warning was received 2 ½ hours before the collision.  Some of these warnings were acknowledged, some got through to the Captain and there was some human error. Despite the warnings the ship continued at close to full speed. Perhaps the Captain believed his ship was invincible or as one deckhand reputedly had said “God himself could not sink this ship!”

Wikipedia noted that on 14 April the Titanic “was travelling near her maximum speed when her lookouts sighted the iceberg” dead ahead 8 minutes before the collision occurred. From first sighting the Titanic went from full speed ahead to stopped engines and tried to pass the iceberg. But the inertia in the ships motion carried it almost inevitably to its fate and by the time the Titanic struck the Iceberg its speed had only been reduced  to 22 knots.

The inertia of the ship powering along nearly at full speed and ignoring all the warnings meant that by the time the iceberg had been sighted the ‘tipping point’ of the Titanic – between its life and death – had already been passed. Had the previous warnings been listened to, and caution prevailed, the outcome may possibly have been different and the collision avoided.

As a metaphor of our climate systems the Titanic tragedy may be imperfect but it illustrates much of the predicament we are now facing. Many, possibly most of our political leaders, fail to understand the existential threat of global warming. And of those a number appear to have the same hubris as the Titanic captain and crew. Inertia in the system means the planet will continue warming for the foreseeable future regardless of any actions we take now. By the time humanity makes a concerted and organised effort to combat this threat it may be too late. Tipping points will be recognised only with hindsight. The Titanic metaphor also explains something often forgotten about tipping points – that of passing from one state to another completely new one from which there is no return.

And we have been warned many, many times.