In climate science, climate tipping points (CTPs) refer to brinks which, when crossed, lead to larger climate system changes that are often irreversible, severely impacting our planet and human society.
The climate crisis is responsible for many climate tipping points. Now, these tipping points and their uncertainty ranges — that is, the degree of certainty to when and how they might happen — have been mapped in a new study published on 9th September 2022.
As it stands, giant ice sheets, ocean currents and permafrost regions are likely to have already gone beyond the point of irreversible change. Here are further findings on the state of CTPs as outlined in the new research and what steps should be taken to reduce their impact.
1. Our current levels of global warming lie within the lower end of five CTP uncertainty ranges. We are already at around 1.1°C above the pre-industrial level, meaning we could soon reach these CTPs and cause irreversible damage.
2. Within the Paris Agreement range of 1.5 to <2°C warming, six CTPs become ‘likely’ and a further four become ‘possible’. This includes the die-off of low-latitude coral reefs and the widespread thawing of permafrost.
In addition, at the ~2.6°C of warming expected via current levels, an additional CTP becomes ‘likely’ and another three ‘possible’.
- The Paris Agreement goal won’t stop CTPs. Limiting warming to ideally 1.5°C (and below 2°C) is likely still too high a temperature as 1.5°C+ risks crossing multiple tipping points.
- It’s a chain reaction. Worsened effects from crossing these CTPs could then increase the likelihood of crossing into further CTPs.
- Keeping global warming levels low still equals danger. The world is on track to hit ~2 to 3°C of global warming — even if all net-zero pledges and nationally determined contributions are implemented, it may reach just below 2°C at best. While lowering the risks, this rise could still trigger multiple CTPs.
Action Is Needed
The tipping points in this study are just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. Other CTPs are still being looked into, including shifts in the Indian summer monsoon and the critical loss of ocean oxygen. More research is expected to be published in the near future to address further CTPs.
In addition, the current estimates remain highly uncertain, so additional research is needed to pinpoint more accurate temperature thresholds.
“The science on tipping points is far from done,” said Prof. Dr. Thomas Stocker, a climate scientist at the University of Bern and leading voice in the climate change space. “It has barely begun — and much better models are needed to address the question [of] what warming level is critical for which tipping point.”
To limit the number of tipping points reached, change needs to happen. Overall, this new research provides strong scientific evidence for urgent action to mitigate climate change at all levels.
Carbon reduction is just one space in which these efforts are needed, but considering the warming potential of greenhouse gases, it will also be immensely critical in reducing the impact of CTPs on our planet and society.