Climate change is pushing the world towards a series of “tipping points” which will see rapid and irreversible change across the natural and social worlds, say a group of leading experts.
A tipping point occurs when a small change triggers an often rapid and irreversible transformation, and the effects can be positive or negative.
Before a tipping point is triggered, the Earth or social system has already undergone destabilisation, so a small change is sufficient to tip it.
We need to trigger positive tipping points.
An international team of more than 200 researchers, including Dr Viktoria Spaiser from the School of Politics and International Studies at Leeds, have contributed to the most comprehensive assessment of tipping points ever conducted - the Global Tipping Points Report.
At a launch event at COP28, the researchers warn that a further rise in global temperatures could trigger a number of negative tipping points, with devastating consequences for the planet and humanity.
They point to thinning of glaciers and ice sheets in the Antarctic, where the loss of ice cover accelerates warming of the oceans - or the way a dense forest could tip to an open savannah.
Professor Tim Lenton from the Institute 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.
“But tipping points also offer our best hope: we need to prioritise and trigger positive tipping points in our societies and economies.”
Positive tipping points
The scientists argue that positive tipping points which exist in social systems should be harnessed to bring about changes in society to prevent catastrophic global warming.
For example, tipping points in society can result in a change in “social norms” which define the behaviours that are acceptable or desirable in society.
The rise of anti-fossil fuel sentiments could tip into becoming established social norms around the world, with crucial implications: for example political parties that want to issue new oil and gas licenses would lose voter support, heating homes with gas or driving petrol cars will become unacceptable and as will pension fund investments in the fossil fuel industries.
Dr Spaiser, an expert in sustainability research and computational social science, said: “The rise of anti-fossil fuel norms is seeded by social movements, such as young climate activists and the demand at COP28 to finally agree to phase-out all fossil fuels is a clear sign that these norms are gaining traction. The inclusion of a call to phase out fossil fuels in the COP28 agreement could be the "small" change that could result in a tipping point.
“Once this tipping of anti-fossil fuel norms occurs, cascading effects are possible, such as the acceleration of clean energy deployment and re-channelling of financial flows away from fossil fuels.”
The Global Tipping Points Report provides a range case studies and policy recommendations for various sectors, including energy, transport, food and land use, finance and digitalisation.
Professor Lenton added: “Now is the moment to unleash a cascade of positive tipping points to ensure a safe, just and sustainable future for humanity.”
The report makes six key recommendations:
- Phase out fossil fuels and land-use emissions now, stopping them well before 2050.
- Strengthen adaptation and “loss and damage” governance, recognising inequality between and within nations.
- Include tipping points in the Global Stocktake - the world’s climate “inventory” - and Nationally Determined Contributions, each country’s efforts to tackle climate change.
- Coordinate policy efforts to trigger positive tipping points.
- Convene an urgent global summit on tipping points.
- Deepen knowledge of tipping points. The research team supports calls for an IPCC Special Report on tipping points.
Associated research papers on tipping points are published in a special issue of the journal Earth System Dynamics.
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