There are socioeconomic and socioecological systems that are changing quickly. Human-caused environmental changes can materialize very rapidly, or abruptly, typically at rates much faster than sustained natural changes of the past. In the Anthropocene biosphere, systems of people and nature are not just linked but intertwined and intertwined across temporal and spatial scales. Local events can escalate into global challenges, and local places are shaped by global dynamics. The tightly coupled human interactions of globalization that allow for the continued flow of information, capital, goods, services, and people, also create global systemic risk. However, this interplay is not only global between people and societies but co-evolving also with biosphere dynamics shaping the preconditions for human wellbeing and civilizations.
The Earth System is defined as the interacting physical, chemical and biological processes that operate across, and link, the atmosphere, cryosphere (ice), land, ocean and lithosphere. These processes create ‘emergent properties’ – that is, properties and features of the Earth System as a whole which arise from the interaction amongst these spheres.
Pressure can build beneath the surface over time, creating hairline fractures, until a precipitating incident triggers cascading changes that lead, often irreversibly, to a new steady state. It is less a matter of simple cause and effect than of emergent network effects that are unpredictable and somewhat mysterious even in retrospect. To qualify, the systems share a singular characteristic: a small change or intervention in the subsystem can lead to large changes at the macroscopic level and drive the system into a new basin of attraction, making the transition difficult to reverse.
The threshold behavior is often based on self-reinforcing processes which, once tipped, can continue without further forcing. It is thus possible that a component of the Earth system remains ‘tipped’, even if the background climate falls back below the threshold. The transition resulting from the exceedance of a system-specific tipping point can be either abrupt or gradual. Crossing single tipping points has severe impacts on the environment and threatens the livelihood of many people.
There is a risk that additional tipping points in the Earth system might be triggered through self-reinforcing feedbacks and unleash a domino-like chain reaction.
Evidence that irreversible changes in Earth’s climate systems, the overturning circulation of the Atlantic, the disturbance of the oceans regulatory mechanism, or biodiversity loss, to name just a few, are underway means we are in a state of planetary emergency. A cascade of tipping points could amount to a global tipping point, where multiple earth systems march past the point of no return.
A cascade of tipping points could amount to a global tipping point, where multiple earth systems march past the point of no return. That possibility is an existential threat to civilization.
This is a time when science is needed more than ever.
Science provides informed consensus on the facts and trade-offs in times of misinformation and polemics. The planetary challenges that confront humanity need governance that mobilizes the best that science has to offer with shared visions for sustainable futures and political will and competence to implement choices that will sustain humanity and the rest of the living world for the next millennium and beyond.
There is scope for changing the course of history into sustainable pathways. There is urgent need for people, economies, societies and cultures to actively start governing nature’s contributions to wellbeing and building a resilient biosphere for future generations. It is high time to reconnect development to the Earth system foundation through active stewardship of human actions into prosperous futures within planetary boundaries.
I don’t think people realize how little time we have left.