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Pushing the planet into the danger zone for climate tipping points
by Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts, agencies
 
Aug. 2022
 
As global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, a group of climate scientists say it’s time to start paying more attention to the most extreme, worst-case outcomes, including the potential for widespread extinctions, mass climate migration and the disintegration of social and political systems.
 
“Facing a future of accelerating climate change while blind to worst-case scenarios is naive risk management at best and fatally foolish at worst,” an international team of researchers wrote this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
 
More than half of all cumulative carbon dioxide emissions have occurred since international climate negotiations started in 1990. Global warming is accelerating and driving a steep increase of extremes like heat waves, wildfires and flooding.
 
Most recent scientific estimates show that, under current policies, the world is headed for at least 2.4 to 2.7 degrees Celsius warming by late this century.
 
As a result, the authors set 3 degrees Celsius warming by 2100 as a benchmark of extreme climate change. They chose that level of warming because it exceeds the current established targets of the Paris climate agreement, and because there are “substantially heightened risks of self-amplifying changes between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius warming that would make it impossible to limit warming to 3 degrees Celsius.”
 
The scientists call for establishing a research framework to assess the risks associated with extreme climate change and recommend that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change compile a special report to give decision-makers a more accurate and realistic picture of the growing threats. The international community should also consider establishing a climate emergency brake, perhaps with a new treaty that would require an emergency response if research shows imminent, irreversible climate tipping points.
 
Recent scientific advances increasingly show that dangerous climate impacts are occurring faster than researchers once predicted, said Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “We also have so much evidence that we are coming closer and closer to tipping points and irreversible changes,” he said.
 
He said that recent research on planetary boundaries and hothouse Earth scenarios, as well as policy discussions around the world and even the outcomes of the ongoing IPCC 6th assessment, do not really address the risks of catastrophic climate change.
 
The rapid rate of human-caused warming, he added, could be “pushing the on-buttons of irreversible trajectories at lower temperature levels than we had previously had reason to be really concerned about.”
 
Several elements of the planet’s physical systems are already at or very near tipping points, including tropical coral reefs, he said, which will be wiped out at 1.5 degrees of warming.
 
“We’re essentially there,” he said. “You could kind of say that’s victim number one and this is happening on our watch, as we speak. The second is Arctic summer ice, which is also in that range where the scientific uncertainty is so narrow that we can say with high precision that we are very close to losing it.”
 
Similar warning signs in other critical systems like the Amazon rainforest, ocean currents that distribute heat globally and even in the high-altitude jet stream that blows weather systems around the world increase Rockstrom’s worry.
 
“At 1.2 degrees Celsius of global mean temperature rise, you suddenly have an abrupt, unexpected amplification (of impacts) because of interactions with the tipping elements,” he said, adding that scientists have underestimated the pace of change the past 30 years.
 
“We’re underestimating the risk. Every time, things are happening faster than we had predicted.”
 
Catastrophe, he said, will be when human interventions can no longer slow climate change, he said. ”We will just be sliding, you know, gradually just drifting off in the wrong direction in terms of sea level rise and climate niches that cannot support human life.”
 
Complex Systems Can Shock One Another
 
“We are facing a risk and consequence issue, but have thus far been very reluctant to understand the collective scale of the consequences,” said University of Manchester climate researcher Kevin Anderson, who was not involved in the paper. “If the consequences are that great, then perhaps policy makers may … develop meaningful mitigation strategies.”
 
“We know the least about the scenarios that matter the most,” said lead author Luke Kemp, a catastrophic risk scholar at the University of Cambridge. “Current climate change is more rapid than the warming involved in previous mass extinction events. Previous societal crises and transformations were in response to modest, natural regional fluctuations. We now face fast, severe, global, man-made climate change.”
 
It’s not possible to do good risk assessment without studying low-likelihood events that have high-impact outcomes, said co-author Tim Lenton, a University of Exeter climate scientist who has focused on tipping points research for the past 15 years.
 
After the death last week of his mentor, friend and inspiration, James Lovelock, Lenton noted that the new research fit with Lovelock’s famed Gaia hypothesis that the entire Earth functions as a self-regulating system.
 
“It sort of goes back to the way he was asking us to look at the climate crisis when he was writing even 20 years ago,” he said. “I’m pretty sure he would approve of this kind of approach. Not because he was a pessimistic person, he was a real optimist and a happy person. But maybe the way to be a happy person is to look hard at the risks and rule them out, or at least know what you’re playing with.”
 
The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shied away from focusing on extreme climate impacts “partly because we’ve been getting it in the neck all the time from oil-funded denialists or skeptics, pushing this message of uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty,” said Lenton, whose research has been cited in IPCC reports.
 
The IPCC consensus process is partly political, as well, he said, which influences how the drafts get edited down and what gets included or taken out.
 
“As people, as societies we need a good risk assessment of climate change,” he said. “We don’t need to know just the most likely outcome, we need to look at the low likelihood, high-impact things.”
 
More research needs to look at how environmental tipping points can interact with unexpected troubles like pandemics and war, he said, and researchers studying other social stressors need to consider the impact of climate change.
 
“We have modeling on these different things, food systems, migration, conflicts, but it seems like nobody has really put together the toolkit to take a proper look at the possibility of cascading risks, including social fragility,” he said.
 
“There is a collective sense, because of what we’ve just lived through and what we’re living through right now, that the world is a much more unstable and volatile place than we were brought up to think as we marched through the late twentieth century.”
 
Lenton said the authors considered the fact that their paper could mistakenly be construed as feeding into the narrative that climate collapse is inevitable.
 
“Already some charitable trusts and foundations have decided that the game is up and that we’re in the realm of catastrophe and breakdown and we need to talk about deep adaptation,” he said. “I hope they’re wrong, but I struggle to avoid the conclusion that a lot of people are going to be harmed, and they’re going to want to move around the planet to get away from intolerable climate conditions.”
 
“We’re stuck in that nation-state, build-a-wall mentality that isn’t going to serve us well when the world is changing so profoundly around us,” he added. “We’ve been tied to agriculture for thousands of years, but the agriculture itself is going to have to move.”
 
Global warming will also pose challenges for global food security, said study co-author Kristie Ebi, who was lead author of the health chapter in the Fourth National Climate Assessment for the U.S.
 
“Under a doubling of carbon dioxide, in some important crop plants, you see a 10 percent reduction in protein, and about a 30 percent reduction in B vitamins,” she said. “There’s also about a 5 percent reduction in micro nutrients.”
 
Over 800 million people in the world already experience food insecurity, she said. “About 1 billion have micronutrient deficiencies and 1.5 billion women and girls suffer from iron deficiency.
 
“When you start thinking about the consequences of inadequate nutrition, and what that means for brain development, what that means for education, how that intersects with all of the other risks of a changing climate, you realize that that has significant potential catastrophic consequences,” she said.
 
Ebi said she’s also worried that the spread of mosquitoes carrying diseases like dengue fever and yellow fever is another climate impact that could quickly spiral out of control.
 
“Dengue fever is the most common viral disease carried by mosquitoes,” she said. “About 400 million people get it every year. And we know that the mosquito is changing its geographic range. As temperatures go up, mosquitoes are going to more places.”
 
And the spread of yellow fever could be even more catastrophic, she said. “There’s not that many doses of the vaccine for yellow fever worldwide,” she said. “Just think about the math. How are you going to protect against a disease that could have a very high mortality rate if it shows up? That is a nightmare scenario. And, yes, COVID clearly showed we’re not ready for it.”
 
New climate models that can accurately show 3 million years of climate history show that, at no point during that time, has Earth come close to warming 2 degrees Celsius, Rockstrom said.
 
“It tells you a lot about what does 2.4 Celsius imply, which is the trajectory we’re following,” he said, “and it’s happening at a blink of geological time. That, to me, gives a high degree of scientific confidence that we’re facing disaster if we follow that path.”
 
“We don’t know exactly where these tipping points are and where we risk that the entire planet starts drifting away in the wrong direction. However, I would argue that we have enough evidence to act on the science we have now, immediately,” he said.
 
Lowering the risk requires drastic actions at the U.N.’s 27th Conference of the Parties climate talks in Egypt later this year, he said.
 
“You’d have to meet at COP 27 and ratchet up every [individual nation’s] plan, and legally lock into place plans to phase out fossil fuels, to end the use of internal combustion engines, stop all investments in coal,” he said. “We need to move faster on all the paths we know so well, but we’re moving too slowly. We’re not even bending the global curve of emissions.”
 
That’s left the planet on track to surpass the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally, to hold it below 1.5 degrees Celsius, which pushes the planet into the danger zone for climate tipping points, he said.
 
“Go beyond 1.5, you go from moderate to high risk, go beyond 2, we go from high risk to catastrophic risk.”
 
* Author, Bob Berwyn for Inside Climate News.
 
http://www.pik-potsdam.de/en/news/latest-news/considering-catastrophe-high-impact-low-probability-climate-scenarios-2018dangerously-underexplored2019 http://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/climateendgame http://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.2108146119 http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13280-021-01544-8 http://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.1810141115 http://insideclimatenews.org/news/01082022/scientists-study-catastrophic-climate-outcomes/ http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/aug/01/climate-endgame-risk-human-extinction-scientists-global-heating-catastrophe http://www.pik-potsdam.de/en/topics/planetary-boundaries-tipping-elements-global-commons http://www.pik-potsdam.de/en/news/latest-news/planetary-boundaries-update-freshwater-boundary-exceeds-safe-limits http://www.pik-potsdam.de/en/news/latest-news/amazon-rainforest-is-losing-resilience-new-evidence-from-satellite-data-analysis http://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.1c04158 http://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries/the-nine-planetary-boundaries.html http://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries.html


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8 million children under 5 in 15 crisis-hit countries are at risk of death from severe wasting
by UNICEF
 
22 June 2022
 
Global hunger crisis pushing one child into severe malnutrition every minute in 15 crisis-hit countries.
 
Almost 8 million children under 5 in 15 crisis-hit countries are at risk of death from severe wasting unless they receive immediate therapeutic food and care – with the number rising by the minute, UNICEF warned today.
 
Since the start of the year, the escalating global food crisis has forced an additional 260,000 children – or one child every 60 seconds – to suffer from severe wasting in 15 countries bearing the brunt of the crisis, including in the Horn of Africa and the Central Sahel. This rise in severe wasting is in addition to existing levels of child undernutrition that UNICEF warned amounted to a ‘virtual tinderbox’ last month.
 
“We are now seeing the tinderbox of conditions for extreme levels of child wasting begin to catch fire,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “Food aid is critical, but we cannot save starving children with bags of wheat. We need to reach these children now with therapeutic treatment before it is too late.”
 
Soaring food prices driven by the war in Ukraine, persistent drought due to climate change in some countries, at times combined with conflict, and the ongoing economic impact of COVID-19 continue to drive up children’s food and nutrition insecurity worldwide, resulting in catastrophic levels of severe malnutrition in children under 5.
 
In response, UNICEF is scaling up its efforts in 15 most affected countries. Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen will be included in an acceleration plan to help avert an explosion of child deaths and mitigate the long-term damage of severe wasting.
 
Severe wasting – where children are too thin for their height – is the most visible and lethal form of undernutrition. Weakened immune systems increase the risk of death among children under 5 by up to 11 times compared to well-nourished children.
 
Within the 15 countries, UNICEF estimates that at least 40 million children are severely nutrition insecure, meaning they are not receiving the bare minimum diverse diet they need to grow and develop in early childhood.
 
Further, 21 million children are severely food insecure, meaning they lack access to enough food to meet minimum food needs, leaving them at high risk of severe wasting.
 
Meanwhile, the price of ready-to-use therapeutic food to treat severe wasting has soared by 16 per cent in recent weeks due to a sharp rise in the cost of raw ingredients, leaving up to 600,000 additional children without access to life-saving treatment and at risk of death.
 
As leaders meet at the G7 summit, UNICEF is calling for US$ 1.2 billion to:
 
Deliver an essential package of nutrition services and care to avert what could be millions of child deaths in 15 highest burden countries, including prevention programmes to protect maternal and child nutrition among pregnant women and young children, early detection and treatment programmes for children with severe wasting, and the procurement, and distribution of ready-to-use therapeutic food.
 
Prioritize the prevention and treatment of severe wasting in all global food crisis response plans by ensuring budget allocations include preventive nutrition interventions as well as therapeutic food to address the immediate needs of children suffering from severe wasting.
 
“It is hard to describe what it means for a child to be ‘severely wasted,’ but when you meet a child who is suffering from this most lethal form of malnutrition, you understand – and you never forget,” said Russell.
 
“World leaders have a small window of opportunity to act to save these children’s lives. There is no time to waste. Waiting for famine to be declared is waiting for children to die.”
 
http://www.unicef.org/press-releases/global-hunger-crisis-pushing-one-child-severe-malnutrition-every-minute-15-crisis


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