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Earth nearing multiple ‘irreversible’ climate tipping points

A major scientific reassessment has uncovered that five critical planetary systems are at risk of breaking beyond repair – even if nations restrain warming to 1.5°C, the lower threshold stipulated by the Paris Agreement.

This time last year, a devastating report from the IPCC warned us that the world was well and truly running out of time to act against climate change.

Signed off by 234 scientists from more than 60 countries, it stated that ongoing emissions of warming gasses would likely see the key temperature limit of 1.5°C broken within the decade, breaching the ambition of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The study, which UN Secretary-General António Guterres aptly branded a ‘code red for humanity,’ sent shockwaves across the globe, though little has been done by those in power since to reflect the urgency of such findings.

Today, a major scientific reassessment claims our Earth is hurtling towards multiple ‘irreversible’ tipping points with the potential to bring about massive environmental and societal consequences.

According to the research, these include the collapse of both Greenland’s ice cap (which would eventually produce a huge sea level rise) and a key current in the north Atlantic (disrupting rain upon which billions depend for food), as well as an abrupt melting of carbon-rich permafrost.

All of these critical planetary systems are at risk of breaking beyond repair – even if nations suddenly decide to rally and drastically accelerate their so far feeble efforts to prevent that from taking place.

In addition, at 1.5°C (the minimum increase that’s now expected), changes to vast northern forests and the loss of almost all mountain glaciers could become a reality.

Any further, and it’s probable we’d witness a domino effect, whereby passing one tipping point would help trigger others (from the dying-off of tropical coral reefs and loss of ocean oxygen to the total destabilisation of the Amazon rainforest and major shifts in the Indian summer monsoon) amounting in cascades that would pose a threat to human life as we know it.

The world's coral reefs are dying. Shedd scientists in the Bahamas are searchig for a chance for their survival.

‘The world is heading towards 2-3C of global warming,’ says Professor Johan Rockström, who was part of the study team.

Together they analysed global and regional thresholds beyond which climate changes become self-perpetuating, breaking them down by sensitivity to warming and offering confidence levels of low, medium, and high in estimating the temperatures that will trigger them and the timescales in which they may happen.

‘This sets Earth on course to cross multiple dangerous tipping points that will be disastrous for people across the world,’ he continues.

‘To maintain liveable conditions on Earth and enable stable societies, we must do everything possible to prevent crossing tipping points.’

Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against

As alarming as this sounds, however, Rockström urges that the conclusions of the report are by no means a reason to lose hope.

That despite its undeniably bleak nature we must feel compelled to channel our anxiety into guaranteeing we rapidly cut greenhouse gas emissions – starting immediately – and decarbonise the economy once and for all.

‘We’re not saying that, because we’re probably going to hit some tipping points, everything is lost and it’s game over,’ he adds.

‘Every fraction of a degree that we stop beyond 1.5C reduces the likelihood of hitting more tipping points.’


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