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Icebergs near Ilulissat, Greenland

Icebergs are seen near Ilulissat, Greenland on May 16, 2021. (Photo: Ulrik Pedersen/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

'We Must Wake Up!' Study Says Climate Tipping Points Loom—But Some Are Avoidable

The researchers' findings offer a "compelling reason to limit additional warming as much as possible," the paper asserts.

Brett Wilkins

In order to avert a series of "disastrous" climate tipping points, humanity must do "everything possible" to limit global heating to 1.5°C, warn the authors of a study published Thursday.

"Our new work provides compelling evidence that the world must radically accelerate decarbonizing the economy."

The analysis, published in Science, found that the climate emergency—which is caused largely by human burning of fossil fuels—has driven the planet to the brink of numerous "climate tipping points," or CTPs.

Five such CTPs—including the melting of Greenland's ice sheet, Amazon rainforest destabilization, and the collapse of the Gulf Stream—may have already been passed.

"Climate tipping points are conditions beyond which changes in a part of the climate system become self-perpetuating. These changes may lead to abrupt, irreversible, and dangerous impacts with serious implications for humanity," an introduction to the study explains, adding that the paper "indicates that even global warming of 1°C, a threshold that we already have passed, puts us at risk by triggering some tipping points."

"This finding provides a compelling reason to limit additional warming as much as possible," the publication asserts.

NPR reports:

The new study is the latest and most comprehensive evidence indicating that countries must enact policies to meet the temperature targets set by the 2015 Paris agreement, if humanity hopes to avoid potentially catastrophic sea level rise and other worldwide harms.

Those targets—to limit global warming to between 1.5°C and 2°C... compared to preindustrial times—are within reach if countries follow through on their current promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

But there is basically no wiggle room, and it's still unclear if governments and corporations will cut emissions as quickly as they have promised. The Earth has already warmed more than 1°C since the late 1800s.

"The study really underpins why the Paris agreement goal of 1.5° C is so important and must be fought for," David Armstrong McKay, a researcher at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom and a lead author of the paper, told The Guardian.

"We're not saying that, because we're probably going to hit some tipping points, everything is lost and it's game over," he added. "Every fraction of a degree that we stop beyond 1.5°C reduces the likelihood of hitting more tipping points."

Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research director Johan Rockström, one of the new study's researchers, said: "The world is heading towards 2°-3°C of global warming. This sets Earth on course to cross multiple dangerous tipping points that will be disastrous for people across the world."

"To maintain liveable conditions on Earth and enable stable societies, we must do everything possible to prevent crossing tipping points," he added.

Study co-author Tim Lenton, also of the University of Exeter, said that "since I first assessed tipping points in 2008, the list has grown and our assessment of the risk they pose has increased dramatically."

"Our new work provides compelling evidence that the world must radically accelerate decarbonizing the economy," he added. "To achieve that, we need to trigger positive social tipping points."

Lenton was referring to events that trigger "dramatic acceleration of social change."

As an example earlier this year, he cited what he literally described as an "Ah-Ha moment"—when members of the eponymous 1980s Norwegian new wave band not only purchased an electrified Fiat Panda, but also successfully took on Norway's registration tax and won an exemption for electric vehicles.

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