Earth on course for catastrophic tipping points, scientists warn

LONDON, Dec 6: The Earth is on course for a series of catastrophic tipping points that would cause misery to billions of people unless fossil fuels are ditched urgently, a group of more than 200 researchers have warned.

Tipping points refer to natural systems becoming increasingly stressed to the point that they irreversibly change, often with disastrous consequences.

Researchers likened the process to a person gradually leaning back on a chair until they lose balance and fall.  

Examples of tipping points include the melting of polar and mountain glaciers where the atmosphere and oceans have warmed so much that melting cannot be stopped.  

Global warming, through fossil fuel use, deforestation and agricultural emissions, is the primary cause of these approaching catastrophes, the researchers said, according to PA Media.

Led by scientists from the University of Exeter, the international team has written the most comprehensive report yet on tipping points, timed to coincide with the UN climate talks in Dubai this week.

They have identified 26 approaching tipping points which include Amazon die-back – where the rainforest can no longer sustain itself and it becomes a savannah – as well as the permanent disruption of oceanic currents that transport heat around the world.

If triggered, these events will make it difficult to grow food and further exacerbate the heating atmosphere, affecting billions of people worldwide.

Professor Tim Lenton, lead author of the report, said: “Tipping points in the Earth system pose threats of a magnitude never faced by humanity.

“They can trigger devastating domino effects, including the loss of whole ecosystems and capacity to grow staple crops, with societal impacts including mass displacement, political instability and financial collapse.” 

The researchers also identified positive tipping points which must be crossed in order to avert climate disaster. 

These refer to changes in behaviour or technology, such as electric car batteries improving in quality while the price falls, making the technology more accessible to the point at which owning an electric car becomes the norm. 

Prof Lenton said of positive tipping points: “This is already happening in areas ranging from renewable energy and electric vehicles to social movements and plant-based diets. 

“Now is the moment to unleash a cascade of positive tipping points to ensure a safe, just and sustainable future for humanity.” 

The report authors identify six recommendations – phase out fossil fuels and land emissions well before 2050; improve climate adaptation and funding for countries that need it; include tipping points in governments’ assessments of how they react to climate change; coordinate policy to trigger positive tipping points; convene an urgent global summit on tipping points and conduct more research into them to improve human understanding.

Dr Manjana Milkoreit, of the University of Oslo, said: “Currently, our global governance system is inadequate to deal with the coming threats and implement the solutions urgently required.

“Some Earth system tipping points are now likely to be triggered, causing severe and disproportionate impacts within and between nations.

“This provides an urgent impetus to strengthen adaptation and loss and damage governance, adjusting existing frameworks and increasing resources to account for tipping point threats.

“Averting this crisis – and doing so equitably – must be the core goal of Cop28 and ongoing global cooperation.”