Tipping Again


On December 6, 2023, smack dab in the middle of COP28, a powerful, clearly written, and rather comprehensive report, Global Tipping Points, was released by the University of Exeter and the Bezos Earth Fund.

The team of some 200+ researchers clearly sought to call to the attention of world leaders, then meeting in Dubai, a number of virtually unexampled risks that our decades of profligate industrial practices have imposed on critical natural and human systems. Many of them are now approaching key tipping points – defined by the authors as states beyond which further or amplified “forcing” can induce change that is “self-perpetuating beyond a threshold, leading to substantial, widespread, frequently abrupt, and often irreversible impact[s].”

The researchers found substantial evidence that the following systems are vulnerable to tipping dynamics: the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets (vulnerability to collapse), Glaciers worldwide (retreat and loss), Permafrost (thawing), Tropical Forests (dieback), Boreal Forests (dieback), Coastal and Warm Water Coral Reefs (die-off), Coastal Mangroves and Seagrass Meadows (die-off), Marine Ecosystems and Fisheries (regime shifts), and Ocean Overturning (collapse).

Alas, the Global Tipping Points body of work had little to no discernible impact on the final COP28 communiqué. The term “tipping points” appeared only once, in par. 127 of the “Outcome of the first global stocktake” document, where the Parties to the Conference merely “recognize” that:

improved understanding of how to avoid and respond to the risk of low-likelihood or high-impact events or outcomes, such as abrupt changes and potential tipping points, as well as more knowledge, support, policy and action are needed to comprehensively manage risks of and respond to loss and damage associated with climate change impacts.

That virtually indigestible word salad makes some sense, I suppose, though it entirely fails to recognize a key point that the authors in Global Tipping Points stressed – as did James Hansen and colleagues several years back – that some high-impact events or outcomes are themselves becoming high-probability events, as we continue to blanket the planet with additional fossil fuel pollution.

Still, in light of its comprehensive scope, multi-disciplinary approach, and key insights – for instance, that “[t]he current approach of linear incremental change favored by many decision makers is no longer an option” – the report is certain to be considered by a range of bodies. That includes the UNFCCC going forward, when it has more time to deeply consider the resource. Indeed, it is also true for CPR Initiative, as we proceed to craft what we consider to be the most viable options for federal consideration, to help the nation and our planet avert further warming and the range of global tipping points about which we have been warned.

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