Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development

World Already Teetering on Tipping Points for Abrupt Climate Change

Report Calls for Early Warning Systems to Anticipate Changes

Cutting short-lived climate pollutants is most effective way to slow warming in near term

Washington, DC, 4 December 2013 – The world is already beginning to pass tipping points for abrupt, catastrophic, and irreversible changes to the global climate according to a new 200-page report released yesterday by the US National Academy of Sciences. Abrupt climate change, unlike gradual changes such as steadily increasing global temperatures, can cause rapid changes to physical, biological, and human systems in a matter of years or decades, far too fast for humans to properly adapt.

The report, which assesses the current state of scientific knowledge regarding possible thresholds for abrupt climate change, found that some projected tipping points such as the melting of arctic permafrost, are unlikely to occur in this century, others such as the collapse of Arctic summer sea-ice are already underway and accelerating. Other tipping points like the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could occur in this century, but are not yet well understood enough to predict. The report concludes that while large uncertainties still remain, the world is not doing enough to prepare and anticipate for these types of threats, and calls for more research and the development of an early warning system that could give humanity a few critical years to prepare for the worst impacts of abrupt climate change.

Study co-author Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University compared the threat of abrupt climate change effects to the random danger of drunk drivers. “You can’t see it coming, so you can’t prepare for it. The faster it is, the less you see it coming, the more it costs,” Alley told The Associated Press. “If you see the drunk driver coming, you can get out of the way.”

“This should be a wakeup call for the world,” stated Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development. “No amount of continued warming can be considered safe when we have no idea when we’ll pass these thresholds for irreversible and abrupt climate change.”

“The best way to slow down warming, particularly in the critically vulnerable Arctic is to cut black carbon soot and other short-lived climate pollutants, including methane, tropospheric ozone, and HFCs” added Zaelke. “Cutting black carbon and other short-lived climate pollutants can cut the rate of warming in the Arctic by two thirds. It also will save millions of lives every year that are now lost to these climate pollutants.”

“We have the technologies and the existing laws in most cases to cut the short-lived pollutants today,” concluded Zaelke. “This includes phasing down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol and using other complementary initiatives such as the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants, the only global effort focusing on these pollutants.”

The NAS report summary is here

IGSD’s Primer on SLCPs is here

IGSD’s Primer on HFCs is here