The United Nations has issued a warning that the Earth is nearing critical thresholds which could harm our ability to address the climate emergency. This warning comes as a result of potential tipping points that could have serious consequences for our planet.
UN researchers have cautioned that humanity is nearing irreversible tipping points, which could significantly harm our ability to handle disasters. These include the loss of flood insurance in affected regions and the depletion of crucial groundwater reserves needed for food production.
These critical moments of risk also involve the disappearance of mountain glaciers, which are crucial for water resources in numerous regions, and the buildup of space debris that can disrupt satellites used to predict severe weather events.
According to a recent report from the UN University (UNU) based in Germany, there are several risk tipping points on the horizon. However, the report also suggests that with proper foresight, it is still possible to intervene and prevent these tipping points from occurring. These points are triggered by minor increases in their underlying factors, but can quickly result in significant consequences.
The potential turning points for risk are distinct from the tipping points related to climate change that the world is currently facing, such as the potential collapse of the Amazon rainforest and the shutdown of a crucial Atlantic Ocean current. These climate tipping points are significant transformations caused by human-induced global warming, whereas risk tipping points are more closely linked to individuals’ lives through intricate social and ecological systems.
Dr. Zita Sebesvari, from UNU’s Institute for Environment and Human Security, warns that our uncontrolled use of water resources and harmful impact on nature is putting us at risk of reaching tipping points that could jeopardize the systems crucial for our survival. She emphasizes that this behavior is altering the risk landscape and undermining our ability to mitigate risks.
The study investigates six instances of critical risk, such as when property insurance becomes unattainable or costly. This results in individuals lacking financial protection when calamities occur, exacerbating their challenges, especially for those who are impoverished and marginalized.
The rise of the climate crisis is causing more frequent and intense extreme weather events. As a result, a major insurance company has ceased providing coverage for properties in California due to the rapidly increasing risk of disasters, such as wildfires. In addition, insurance costs have significantly increased in Florida, leading to the bankruptcy of six insurance providers due to damages from climate-related floods and hurricanes. A report also predicts that half a million homes in Australia may become uninsurable by 2030, largely due to the rising threat of floods.
The report also analyzed another potential tipping point, which occurs when groundwater aquifers are excessively depleted, resulting in the depletion of well water. Currently, aquifers are responsible for preventing half of the food production losses caused by droughts, but with the increase in frequency of droughts due to global warming, this may change.
The report stated that over 50% of the world’s major aquifers are currently being drained at a rate that exceeds their natural replenishment. This poses a significant threat to food production systems should they run out of water.
According to the report, certain countries like Saudi Arabia have already surpassed the critical point of groundwater risk, while others, like India, are nearing it. Saudi Arabia used to be a significant wheat exporter in the 1990s, but now has to import the grain due to the depletion of groundwater wells.
The report also mentioned other critical moments of risk, such as the decline of water supplies from melting mountain glaciers, the saturation of Earth’s orbit with debris leading to collisions with satellites, heatwaves reaching a point where natural sweating can no longer cool the human body, and the cascading loss of interconnected wildlife species resulting in ecosystem collapse.
Caitlyn Eberle from UNU stated that although you may not be aware of risk tipping points currently, you will become familiar with them in the future. These tipping points will likely arise in the next five, ten, or twenty years. However, it is within our control to prevent these impacts from occurring.
According to Sebesvari, true transformative change requires the involvement of all individuals. For instance, when it comes to home insurance, homeowners can enhance their flood preparedness, local governments can enhance their planning strategies, national governments can provide insurance backed by the state, and worldwide efforts from nations and corporations can reduce carbon emissions.
Sebesvari expressed the need for a shift in values, stating that “being a good ancestor” is a prime example. Though it may sound poetic, she believes that the rights of future generations should be explicitly incorporated into decision-making processes. She proposed a tangible way to showcase this by utilizing lower discount rates when considering potential future benefits of investments.
According to Professor Tim Lenton from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, the authors are utilizing a definition of a tipping point that differs from the one that I have been promoting. Their definition places emphasis on strong reinforcing feedback.
The speaker stated that many of their descriptions involve threshold reactions, which present significant dangers. In particular, the potential for human exposure to extreme heat and humidity, as seen in the devastating Asian heatwave earlier this year, can result in fatalities. The speaker refers to this as a critical tipping point for individuals, when our natural ability to regulate temperature through sweat evaporation is no longer effective.