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Can positive tipping points protect the planet from climate catastrophe?

Chris Langdon

by Chris Langdon

Filed under Climate Emergency

A new analysis of the climate crisis suggests that the Earth is approaching ‘dangerous’ climate change even earlier than expected.

A team of scientists have analysed 16 potential climate tipping points in a peer-reviewed paper published by Science. Its conclusion is that the Earth may have left a ‘safe operating state’ beyond 1°C global warming.

They warn: “The UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) stipulates that all countries commit to avoid ‘dangerous’ climate change, translated through the Paris climate agreement into keeping GMST well below 2°C and aiming for 1.5°C. Our assessment of climate tipping elements and their tipping points suggests that ‘danger’ may be approached even earlier.”

The authors include Tim Lenton, Director of the Global Systems Institute (GSI), Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), and David A McKay, visiting researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, with whom TTU co-operates.

We asked Tim Lenton what he and his co-authors mean about the Earth having left the ‘safe operating space’.

He said: “We really have left stable conditions in the deep sense that if you’ve got fundamental changes already getting under way on the big ice sheets or the loss of big amounts of carbon from the permafrost, or the loss of a critical biome in the tropical coral reefs, then we’ve left what we call the safe operating space. Now, we’re in damage limitation mode. But there’s still a lot of damage that could be limited.”

The paper’s lead author, David A McKay, agrees: “The risks can still be limited with every fraction of warming avoided.”

The authors conclude: “Our assessment of climate tipping points provides strong scientific support for the Paris Agreement and associated efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C.”

The paper is the product of the Earth Commission, the first holistic attempt to define scientifically safe and just boundaries for people and planet, so the Earth does not cross irreversible tipping points. It is the scientific cornerstone of the Global Commons Alliance, a new set of collaborations aimed at a radical change on policies on climate and biodiversity. The Global Commons Alliance is an umbrella body bringing together a global team of academics, NGOs and activists from 50+ organisations committed to working together for change.

The paper’s release is designed to link into the Global Conference on Tipping Points starting on 12 September at the University of Exeter. It is co-funded by the Bezos Earth Fund. Thinking the Unthinkable is helping Tim Lenton and his team to organise and to facilitate it. The conference will discuss how to apply tipping points to social and economic change for a just transition.

There are still opportunities for action to avoid catastrophe. That is the clear view of the scientists TTU collaborates with. But they say that this has to be done from a position of knowledge of what climate catastrophe could mean. They argue it is necessary to think the unthinkable on potential climate catastrophe.

They wrote in a recent paper: “Facing a future of accelerating climate change while blind to worst-case scenarios is naive risk management at best and fatally foolish at worst.” But they reject ‘doomsterism’. In their view, it is a recipe for passivity and inaction which plays into the hand of those in power playing down the urgency of climate change.

To counter ‘passivity’, there has been a second clarion call for action already this September. It comes in a new book, Earth4All. It is just published by the Club of Rome, 50 years after their ground-breaking, Limits to Growth. It proposes five pathways for economic transformation.

Earth4All calls itself ‘a vibrant collective of leading economic thinkers, scientists and advocates, convened by The Club of Rome, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Norwegian Business School’.

The question at the crux of next week’s Global Tipping Points conference is; given the dire prognosis on climate tipping points; how can we use the science - social sciences as well as climate science - of tipping points to help facilitate rapid social and political change for a just transition?

The theory of change behind these initiatives is that we are entering the last moment for radical collaboration to be effective. In the light of inaction by political leaders, scientists and those working on solutions for climate and nature need to work more closely together - at pace. It is about breaking down institutional boundaries, silos and putting aside professional vanities.

The aim is to identify new targeted opportunities to set-off cascades of irreversible change, positive, social (i.e. human) tipping points, by using the science behind climate tipping points.

In Tim Lenton’s view, positive tipping points could transform human societies to protect the planet. In fact, he says the only way to meet our global targets on carbon emissions and biodiversity is through positive tipping points.

Please note: The conference is fully booked. The Tipping Points debate facilitated by Thinking the Unthinkable on 12 September at 1800-1930 BST is open to all, please register here on eventbrite.

The outputs from the conference will feed into a major report on tipping points; targets, tracking, levers and cascades, designed to inform COP27 in November 2022. It will be compiled by the systems change company, Systemiq and the GSI team. A paper outlining, ‘A Tipping Points Research Agenda’ is being shaped through the conference. Furthermore, a cross-disciplinary Tipping Points Alliance is to be launched at the conference. The aim is for it to help produce a first ‘State of Tipping Points’ report planned in time for COP28 in 2023.

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