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As one of the most prominent environmental problems facing humanity, climate change has been the basis of debate among scientific researchers, professors, and politicians, Professor Emeritus of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Robert Socolow said. 

On Monday, a panel of five University professors, accompanied by a crowd of undergraduates, graduates, and professors from the University, as well as other universities, assembled to shed light on the social and physical effects of climate change and the concept of a “tipping point.”

“While the physical effects of climate change have been heavily explored, a less commonly understood concept is its influence on culture and economics,” professor Stephen Pacala of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology said. “In many instances, the social effects are of greater importance than the physical changes.”

According to Pacala, the “tipping point” in climate change is the theoretical instance at which sudden and drastic changes to the Earth’s ecological system dramatically impact the world. Since the rhetoric associated with a tipping point in climate change often frames the irreversibility of global damage as a distant problem, the general public tends to take less action, Pacala explained.

Melissa Lane, Class of 1943 Professor of Politics and Director of the University Center for Human Values, agreed with Pacala.

“The confidence trap caused by the notion of tipping points causes many to perceive that we have more time than we really do to act upon climate change,” Lane said.

Lane noted that individuals are also likely to believe their own contributions to the climate problem are negligible, analogous to voters’ perceptions on their impact in elections. Contrary to this instinct, she stressed that it it indeed beneficial for citizens to take initiative in the face of possible failure rather than attempt nothing to stem planetary damage. 

Marc Fleurbaey, the Robert E. Kuenne Professor in Economics and Humanistic Studies, seemed to disagree. Introducing practicality and economics into the discussion, Fleurbaey discussed the concept of ambiguity aversion, in which a known risk is favored over unknown risks. He extended this economic theory into the context of climate change.

“Almost all tipping points have deep uncertainty, meaning their consequences and probability distributions vary,” Fleurbaey said. “We should focus our efforts onto affairs that we’re certain about rather than concerning ourselves with unpredictable events.”

Pivoting from Fleurbaey's point, Robert Nixon, professor of English and Thomas A. and Currie C. Barron Family Professor in Humanities and the Environment, discussed the cultural impact of climate change. He explained that common phrases, referred to as “metaphoric meltdowns,” have been the result of society’s acknowledgement of climate change. Such phrases include “skating on thin ice” and “the tip of the iceberg.”

The effect of climate change extends to narratives and the literary world as well, according to Nixon.

“Speculative nonfiction of recent years, such as 'The World Without Us' by Alan Weisman, is the product of a growing concern of our planet’s future,” Nixon said.

Charles Copeland '19, a Geosciences major and attendee at the lecture, was particularly pleased with the discussion panel.

“I love [Climate Futures Initiative] events even though they’re not primarily targeted towards undergraduates because I always learn a lot from them,” Copeland said. “It’s great to learn from interdisciplinary perspectives, and there’s a lot of research and thought at Princeton that goes on outside of the classroom.”

Monday's lecture even attracted professors from other universities, such as professor Rachael Shwom of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University.

“It [the panel's content] was very innovative thinking from a range of disciplines on the implications of using tipping points as a way to think about our climate system,” Shwom said. Shwom explained that she also works in the field of climate change, specifically in integrating tipping points in modeling economic and social damages.

Rather than think of climate change as a tipping point in the near future, Pacala concluded, society should begin to view it as a current crisis.

The panel took place on Monday, September 25, at 4:30 p.m. in the Louis A. Simpson International Building. 

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