Warning of existential threat to civilisation as impacts lead to cascade of unstoppable events
The world may already have crossed a series of climate tipping points, according to a stark warning from scientists. This risk is an existential threat to civilisation, they say, meaning we are in a state of planetary emergency.
Tipping points are reached when particular impacts of global heating become unstoppable, such as the runaway loss of ice sheets or forests. In the past, extreme heating of 5C was thought necessary to pass tipping points, but the latest evidence suggests this could happen between 1C and 2C.
The planet has already heated by 1C and the temperature is certain to rise further, due to past emissions and because greenhouse gas levels are still rising. The scientists further warn that one tipping point, such as the release of methane from thawing permafrost, may fuel others, leading to a cascade.
The researchers, writing in a commentary article in the journal Nature, acknowledge that the complex science of tipping points means great uncertainty remains. But they say the potential damage from the tipping points is so big and the time to act so short, that to err on the side of danger is not a responsible option. They call for urgent international action.
A saving grace is that the rate at which damage accumulates from tipping could still be under our control to some extent, they write. The stability and resilience of our planet is in peril. International action not just words must reflect this.
Prof Tim Lenton at the University of Exeter, the lead author of the article, said: We might already have crossed the threshold for a cascade of interrelated tipping points. The simple version is the schoolkids [striking for climate action] are right: we are seeing potentially irreversible changes in the climate system under way, or very close.
As a scientist, I just want to tell it how it is, he said. It is not trying to be alarmist, but trying to treat the whole climate change problem as a risk management problem. It is what I consider the common sense way.
Phil Williamson at the University of East Anglia, who did not contribute to the article, said: The prognosis by Tim Lenton and colleagues is, unfortunately, fully plausible: that we might have already lost control of the Earths climate.
The new article comes as the UN warns action is very far from stopping global temperature rise, with the world currently on track for 3C-4C. The commentary lists nine tipping points that may have been activated.