Harmful tipping points pose some of the gravest threats faced by humanity

The world is on a disastrous trajectory.

By Prof. Tim Lenton et al | 6 December 2023
Global Tipping Points

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The following has been extracted from the Global Tipping Points Report 2023. This report is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

Harmful tipping points in the natural world pose some of the gravest threats faced by humanity. Their triggering will severely damage our planet’s life-support systems and threaten the stability of our societies.

For example, the collapse of the Atlantic Ocean’s great overturning circulation combined with global warming could cause half of the global area for growing wheat and maize to be lost. Five major tipping points are already at risk of being crossed due to warming right now and three more are threatened in the 2030s as the world exceeds 1.5°C global warming.

The full damage caused by negative tipping points will be far greater than their initial impact. The effects will cascade through globalised social and economic systems, and could exceed the ability of some countries to adapt. Negative tipping points show that the threat posed by the climate and ecological crisis is far more severe than is commonly understood and is of a magnitude never before faced by humanity.

Currently, there is no adequate global governance at the scale of the threats posed by negative tipping points. The world is on a disastrous trajectory. Crossing one harmful tipping point could trigger others, causing a domino effect of accelerating and unmanageable change to our life-support systems. Preventing this – and doing so equitably – should become the core goal and logic of a new global governance framework. Prevention is only possible if societies and economic systems are transformed to rapidly reduce emissions and restore nature.

The current approach of linear incremental change favoured by many decision makers is no longer an option. Existing governance institutions and decision-making approaches need to adapt to facilitate transformational change.

Crucial to achieving this transformational change are positive tipping point opportunities, where desirable changes in society become self-propelling. Concerted actions can create the enabling conditions for triggering rapid and large-scale transformation. Human history is flush with examples of abrupt social and technological change. Recent examples include the exponential increases in renewable electricity, the global reach of environmental justice movements, and the accelerating rollout of electric vehicles. Negative tipping point threats could be mitigated if there was a vast effort to trigger other positive tipping point opportunities.

Unfortunately, in the time lag during which appropriate governance and action might be realised, negative tipping points could still be triggered. This means that societies must urgently be made more resilient to minimise the vast and unequal harms. Critically, more resilient societies are also needed to ensure that collective focus on triggering positive tipping point opportunities can be sustained even through a negative tipping event. This resiliency can be achieved with ‘no regrets’ actions that anyway make societies more sustainable, equitable and prosperous. The existence of tipping points means that ‘business as usual’ is now over. Rapid changes to nature and society are occurring, and more are coming. If we don’t revise our governance approach, these changes could overwhelm societies as the natural world rapidly comes apart. Alternatively, with emergency global action and appropriate governance, collective interventions could harness the power of positive tipping point opportunities, helping navigate toward a thriving sustainable future.

Global Tipping Points is led by Professor Tim Lenton from the University of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute with the support of more than 200 researchers from over 90 organisations in 26 countries. The Global Tipping Points Report was launched at COP28 on 6 December 2023. The report is an authoritative assessment of the risks and opportunities of both negative and positive tipping points in the Earth system and society.

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