climate crisis Tim Radford

Catastrophic Climate Tipping Points ‘Probable’ Above 1.5°C

Even at the today’s average global temperature increase, there could be devastating, irreversible consequences that would permanently change the planetary climate regime.
[U.S. National Park Service/rawpixel]

By Tim Radford | The Energy Mix

This story includes details on the impacts of climate change that may be difficult for some readers. If you are feeling overwhelmed by this crisis situation here is a list of resources on how to cope with fears and feelings about the scope and pace of the climate crisis.

The risk of serious climate “tipping points” will rise dramatically if countries fail to hold global warming to the Paris agreement target of 1.5°C, according to a new study in the journal Science.

Even at the today’s average global temperature increase—a rise of 1.1°C driven by profligate use of fossil fuels and the destruction of vital natural ecosystems—there could be devastating, irreversible consequences that would permanently change the planetary climate regime, concludes the team led by georesilience analyst David Armstrong McKay of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the UK’s University of Exeter, and the Earth Commission.

And yet “the world is heading towards 2° to 3°C of global warming,” said Johann Rockström, co-chair of the Earth Commission and director of the Potsdam Institute, and another of the authors.

“This sets Earth on course to cross multiple dangerous tipping points that will be disastrous for people across the world. To maintain livable conditions on Earth, protect people from rising extremes, and enable stable societies, we must do everything possible to prevent crossing tipping points. Every tenth of a degree counts.”

Already, “we can see signs of destabilization already in parts of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, in permafrost regions, the Amazon rainforest, and potentially the Atlantic overturning circulation, as well,” McKay said in a release. “As global temperatures rise further, more tipping points become possible.”

At present temperatures, all these alarming outcomes are still just possible events. At a new global average rise of 1.5°C, such transition switches from possible to probable, the researchers found. And five additional tipping point crises become more menacing at around this level of temperature rise. With each one-tenth of a degree Celsius increase, the hazards multiply.

The idea of a climate tipping point became a defined orthodoxy in 2008. Think of it in practical, mundane terms: A gardener can tilt a barrow full of garden compost to a certain level without spilling any, because inertial force keeps the load stable. Lift up the handles a little more, and some of the load is spilled. A fraction more, and the cascade becomes sudden, inexorable, and complete.

So, too, goes the thinking about climate tipping points. The hospitable planetary climate of the last 10,000 years has nurtured human civilization and guaranteed the supply of food from the world’s farms. But this stability is underwritten by enduring temperature differences between polar, temperate, and tropical zones; by the vast tropical rainforests, the mountain glaciers and ocean currents that absorb, conserve and distribute heat, and by a pattern of winds that can vary by the day, month or season, but tend to return to long-term norms.

But the forests, the ice shelves, and the reliable flow of ocean currents that moderate the climate are guaranteed by the stable long-term planetary average temperatures that have endured since the close of the last Ice Age.

And as these temperatures rise, the ecosystems that maintain the forests and ice shelves become unstable. A wheelbarrow empties swiftly once beyond its tipping point. The collapse of the polar ice caps will be much, much slower and the point of no return less obvious. But at some point, such a collapse will become unstoppable. Nobody can be sure of where that point lies on the temperature spectrum.

But researchers who combed through 200 studies of potential tipping points published since 2008 are now sure that planet Earth is already in the danger zone.

The answer is, of course, to dramatically reduce fossil fuel use as swiftly as possible. “The chance of crossing tipping points can be reduced by rapidly cutting greenhouse gas emissions, starting immediately,” McKay said.

With a temperature rise—driven by greenhouse gases linked to fossil fuel use and combustion—of at least 1°C since the launch of the Industrial Revolution, the Earth’s climate stability is already at risk.

The researchers identified altogether 16 distinct major biophysical systems that are involved in regulating the planetary climate: these are the so-called tipping points. Nine of them—including the Antarctic ice sheet and the Amazon rainforest—have the capacity to affect the entire Earth system. Seven—think of the West African monsoon, the boreal forests, or the already-vanishing mountain glacier —could have profound regional consequences if tipped.

“Importantly, many tipping elements in the Earth system are interlinked, making cascading tipping points a serious additional concern,” said study co-author Ricarda Winkelmann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “In fact, interactions can lower the critical temperature thresholds beyond which individual tipping elements begin destabilizing in the long run.”

Co-author Tim Lenton, an Earth Commission member who directs the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter, said: “Since I first assessed climate tipping points in 2008, the list has grown and our assessment of the risks they pose has increased dramatically. Our new work provides compelling evidence that the world must radically accelerate decarbonizing the economy to limit the risk of crossing climate tipping points.”

In the last nine years, other research teams have identified potential ecosystem collapses with possibly devastating consequences: in the Amazon rainforest, for instance, and in West Antarctica and Greenland. The latest study confirms, and adds emphasis to, the greater anxieties locked into the climate crisis, in a world in which all the evidence so far points to a temperature rise significantly beyond the Paris target.


    1. The content warning about climate change stress a the top of the article seems absurd and silly considering our actual situation. So much of psychology today defines itself as vocational rehab, just winding people up to have another go at maintaining their billionaire masters. In light of this truth, such a content warning amounts to denialism. It’s like warning passengers on a crashing plane not to cry or scream. “Don’t raise a ruckus folks, ’cause that ain’t normal.”

  1. It is clear to me humanity won’t make it to catastrophic climate change.

    World War is coming like a speeding freight train.

    Nobody seems to care.

    This is how I know it will happen. Well that, and the completely psychotic behavior of Washington and the collective west.

    Not long now.

    1. Your rhetoric is always resignation.
      Be glad you’re old and don’t have far to go.

    1. Denialists are just like warmonger patriots.
      They always worry more about their investments than ecology.

  2. Here’s the problem i see with this piece – at 1.1 degree increase, all this stuff IS happening, at a faster rate even than predicted – so my question is, even if we stopped warming the atmosphere any further – would all this stuff “stabilize” – or would it continue deteriorating at least at the same rate – obviously, if the temp rises higher the rate would be even faster – seems to me not only is it necessary not only to STOP the flow of man made atmosphere warming stuff, CO2, methane, etc (read fossil fuels) into the atmosphere, but to actually DECREASE the amount that is ALREADY there ….

    The author lists all the bad stuff that we know is happening NOW, but lists them as “still just possible events. At a new global average rise of 1.5°C, such transition switches from possible to probable” – we were warned about this over 30 years ago and we paid no attention – in so many ways we are STILL paying no attention (opening new oil and gas leases, e.g.)

    So what we really need to do is a) decrease our energy use considerably b) decarbonize our energy production, and perhaps most importantly, c) utilize and increase natural “carbon capture” mechanisms, i.e. “green stuff,” e.g. trees and healthy soil (greatest natural carbon sucking stuff on the planet)

    Net Zero says “hey, we can put more carbon stuff in the atmosphere as long as we suck the same amount out!” Duh, as this article points out, at the increased temp we are at NOW, all these systems are destabilizing ALREADY.

    The author “gives a list of resources” about how to “cope” with our “fears and feelings” – too bad our “fears and feelings” weren’t sufficiently stoked 30 years ago. At this point the solutions proposed now, “Green Energy” and technical carbon capture, are all that is proposed and these, let’s be honest, only really in the context of decreasing the RATE of ongoing deterioration – nobody, except the “fringe” perhaps, is talking about Net Neg – to the point where those ongoing 10,000 year old natural stabilizing forces can resume ….

    The author seems to want to sorta dance around the truth – and give us “resources” so our “fears and feelings” won’t “overwhelm” us ….

    Well, seems to me better to be “overwhelmed” by “fears and feelings” which may finally prod us to doing what we need to do, than be overwhelmed by fire and water …..

  3. I always try to understand different positions in a debate. In this one, on climate change, the arguments and facts brought forward by Siegel’s seem, to me at least, to make some sense. I have yet to find any presentation that proves him fundamentally wrong: temperatures are rising, but at a much slower rate than then the IPPC predictions and driven by a different cause.

    As fossil fuels currently dominate virtually every aspect of our economy and we have passed the peak oil point. …Could the real agenda be to timely start the long and difficult transformation away from them in time to avert complete societal collapse?

    1. Who’s Siegel?
      He ain’t no Tim Radford.
      This is not a debate: It’s a shared reality.

  4. And yet, people still keep having kids. These parents keep exercising their divine right to posterity, just so they can manufacture yet another human to add to the crisis. And kids being born now probably won’t even make it to their 40th birthday.
    I’m 61 now, made every concious effort to never have kids; even cost me two wives. Just think how much I’ve contributed to save the planet.
    People like me are the real heroes, although it’s still to late for a ticker tape parade.

  5. It’s nice to see more information about the environmental collapse.
    It’s the most pressing problem facing the entire planet, and it’s going to put all our intellectualizing into painful perspective. Mr. Radford’s numbers are close, but optimistic. In April, 2020, Nature Magazine wrote that carbon emissions are “setting the stage for 5 °C of warming by the end of the century.”

    Ten months ago, Loughborough University (Australia) wrote, “According to UK Met Office analyses, global temperatures that are 4°C above pre-industrial levels may be reached as soon as the 2060s. ”

    No one knows how soon things are going get wildly lethal, but you can safely bet that it will be “faster than expected.”

    We have had stable climate for more than 10,000 years. We have had the same CO2 pattern between ice ages and interglacial periods for at least 800,000 years, and it is estimated the same stable pattern has existed for 3 million years, but we don’t have the ice cores to prove it. The CO2 has ranged from a low of 180 ppm to a high of 280 ppm (it reached 300 ppm one time in 800K years), with an average of 220 ppm. There is no way whatsoever that 420 ppm CO2, rising at over 3.5 ppm per year at this time (will be above 430 within three years), and 1900 ppb CH4, also increasing rapidly, are going to return to a stable state even if we quit burning CO2 tomorrow.

    An increase of 4C will most likely happen before the end of the century. It will probably happen before mid-century, because warming is going to increase faster as time goes on, as the GHGs increase, as the ice cap melts more, as the forests burn more, as we pump ever more CO2 into the atmosphere, and as the methane hemorrhages out of the ground.

    Until it is announced that “they” have devised magical technology that sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere and even more importantly out of the oceans, global heating is worse than a killer asteroid.


    Looks like Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Ministry for the Future” (2020) about global catastrophe is pretty much right on.

    One review called it “optimistic.” It isn’t. It’s about the near certainty elite pol and econ interests won’t do anything to upset the status quo and what few options there are for everyone else.

    But there are some. I’d bet the clever and radical responses by those most impacted will also turn out not to be mere fiction.

  7. climate cannot be predicted—hysteria is paralysis. preparation will define the future—better water management, crop production for use rather than exchange. this requires a more objective centralized federal policy–subsidies incentivize etc sometimes beneficially overhear cases not

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