CLIMATEWIRE | Human activities are sending the planet hurtling toward a series of dangerous tipping points, scientists warn. The world is approaching thresholds of no return as temperatures rise, water resources shrink, plants and animals go extinct and humanmade materials accumulate in natural systems.
These tipping points could reshape life on Earth if human societies don’t swiftly and radically transform. Natural systems could collapse, food and water supplies could plummet, and human health and well-being could dramatically decline.
That’s the message of a stark United Nations University report, released Wednesday morning. The report warns of six impending global tipping points, each driven by rampant human pollution and extraction of natural resources.
Extinctions are accelerating. Groundwater resources are depleting. Mountain glaciers, with their valuable freshwater supplies, are melting and shrinking. The skies are filling up with space debris, threatening humanity’s ability to launch satellites and monitor global warming and other changing conditions on Earth.
That’s not all. Temperatures are skyrocketing, raising the risks of unsurvivable heat. And worsening climate disasters, including floods, wildfires and hurricanes, are driving insurance costs beyond affordable limits.
Past a certain threshold, each of these tipping points could have disastrous consequences for human life on Earth. And the consequences of any one tipping point is inextricably connected to all the others, the report suggests.
“The report also shows that risk tipping points are not isolated cases — they’re also interconnected,” said Jack O’Connor, a lead author of the report and a senior scientist at United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security, at a press briefing announcing the findings Wednesday morning. “So passing a risk tipping point in one system can have cascading impacts that can put risk up in other systems.”
Shrinking water resources threaten agriculture and jeopardize both human survival and the health of natural ecosystems. Accelerating extinctions can cause entire natural systems to collapse, another threat to human supplies of food and resources.
The rising risk of unbearable heat can also threaten agriculture, water supplies and natural ecosystems, and it poses another major threat to human survival in the hottest parts of the world. It can trigger mass climate-driven migrations, too, which can spark conflict across the world.
Even space debris carries serious global implications. Earth’s orbit is swiftly filling up with broken satellites, discarded rocket parts and other scraps. This “space junk” poses a growing risk of collision with active satellites. And past a certain threshold, the report warns, “existing space infrastructure would eventually be destroyed and future activities in space could become impossible.”
That’s a big problem. Humans use satellites for countless services. That includes communications, as well as observing global temperatures and monitoring the progression of climate change on Earth. That means space pollution also threatens humanity’s ability to keep tabs on all the other tipping points on the list.
Meanwhile, rising insurance costs threaten the stability of human communities in the face of worsening climate disasters. The report notes that insurance costs in some areas have risen by as much as 57 percent since 2015, and insurance companies in certain at-risk areas have opted to limit coverage options or even leave the market entirely. One recent estimate found that around 520,940 homes in flood-prone Australia are predicted to be uninsurable by 2030.
Inaccessible insurance can lead to catastrophic financial losses for people living in disaster-prone areas, the report warns. And it can worsen issues of inequality in communities around the globe. Wealthier people may have the option to move to less vulnerable areas, while lower-income people may be forced to stay and face the risks of living in disaster zones without insurance coverage.
Authors of the report likened the impending tipping points to a car speeding past warning signs to the edge of a cliff.
“What we see is that often not only are we failing to slow the car down, but often we are pressing our foot down further on the accelerator,” O’Connor said.
A global transformation
The new report is the latest installment in an annual series on interconnected disasters, first published in 2021. The previous two reports have focused on specific examples of disasters around the world, including extreme weather and climate events, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, extinction events and even the ammonium nitrate explosion in Beirut in 2020.
Each of these disasters is part of an interconnected web of human activities and natural systems, the reports argued. That’s true even for disasters that don’t have obvious roots in natural systems, such as the Beirut explosion. That event was worsened by insufficient disaster response efforts in Lebanon, an issue with the potential to exacerbate a variety of other disasters and extreme weather events, the authors argued.
The event also caused Covid-19 cases in Lebanon to skyrocket, as overwhelmed hospitals lowered their testing and isolating standards and displaced people were forced to shelter in large groups together.
The new report broadens its scope beyond recent individual disasters, focusing instead on the risk of broader global tipping points. Yet it makes a similar argument about the interconnected nature of these issues — none of them occur in isolation, and each tipping point has cascading effects on human and natural systems all over the world.
While the report paints a dire picture of the risks, it emphasizes that human societies still have agency over their future. Avoiding catastrophic tipping points is possible if human systems undergo a dramatic global transformation.
“Our report is not saying that we are doomed to cross these risk tipping points, but rather it’s supposed to empower us to see the paths ahead of us and to take steps toward a better future,” O’Connor said. “We are still driving the car, and we still have a choice.”
The solutions fall into two main categories, the report suggests. Human systems must avoid activities that raise the risk of crossing disastrous thresholds. And they must adapt to the damage they’ve already caused and the consequences of tipping points that can’t be entirely avoided.
Extreme heat is rising around the world, for instance. And mountain glaciers are swiftly melting, too, meaning some communities are now confronting the loss of their freshwater supplies. These are impacts that have already arrived, can’t be avoided and require immediate adaptation efforts.
Both avoidance and adaptation efforts have two main categories of future action, the report says. Communities must work to delay their progression toward catastrophic tipping points. And they must also move to fundamentally transform human systems, making them safe and sustainable for the future.
That means entirely reimagining the way daily life and human communities operate. It could involve strategies such as redesigning cities with more green spaces, efficient buildings, sustainable energy and transportation systems and equal accessibility to vital services to simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cope with rising heat and reduce socioeconomic inequalities.
Many of the actions pursued by human societies today emphasize delay tactics, rather than transformation, said Zita Sebesvari, a lead author of the report and deputy director of United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security, adding that they’re “clearly not enough to actually steer away society from those dangerous tipping points.”
“The report emphasizes that the real actions we have to look into are the so-called ‘transform’ actions,” she said. “Getting back to the car analogy, this would mean to get out together from the car and question why are we speeding toward that dangerous cliff.”
Such solutions must address the underlying problems that led to these tipping points in the first place, the report warns. And that requires collective global concern and collaboration.
“Changing established systems and behaviors is never easy, but this is the choice we must make if we want to avoid risk tipping points,” the authors state. “The question we face is simple, yet profound — what kind of future do we want?”
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.