Acting quickly to curb global warming could help avert the devastating consequences of climate change and avoid going past the point of no return, research has suggested.
It is thought that climate change has several “tipping points” – thresholds for change which, when reached, result in a process that is difficult to reverse.
Consequences would include abrupt changes such as the dieback of the Amazon rainforest or melting of major ice sheets.
However, in a new study published in the journal Nature, UK scientists say these thresholds could be “temporarily exceeded” without causing irreversible damage, provided swift action is taken.
They add the time available to act would depend on the level of global warming and the timescale involved in each tipping point.
Dr Paul Ritchie, of the University of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute and the Department of Mathematics, said: “The more extreme the warming, the less time we would have to prevent tipping points.
“This is especially true for fast-onset tipping points like Amazon forest dieback and disruption to monsoons, where irreversible change could take place in a matter of decades.
“Slow-onset tipping points take place over a timescale of many centuries and – depending on the level of warming – this would give us more time to act.”
In 2015, global leaders formed the Paris Agreement, with an aim to keep global warming below 1.5C (2.7F) above pre-industrial levels but researchers say current rates of warming make it almost inevitable that this level will be exceeded.
Dr Chris Huntingford, of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH), said: “Ideally, we will not cross tipping point thresholds, but this gives hope we may be able to pull back from danger if needed.”
Commenting on the findings, Professor Hannah Cloke, a natural hazards researcher at the University of Reading, said: “Taking action to slow and reverse global warming can only be a good thing.
“Although this study is encouraging in suggesting we can avoid irreversible damage to the planet, we should not look at climate tipping points like a see saw.
“By definition, once a tipping point is surpassed there is no coming back.
“What this research does confirm is that by acting quickly to curb global warming we can give ourselves more time to change course and avoid surpassing the point of no return.”
Valerio Lucarini, professor of statistical mechanics at the University of Reading, added: “This study provides an interesting new take on the theory of tipping points in the natural world.
“It clearly shows another important aspect of the agency by humans in the context of the ongoing climate crisis by emphasising the role of competing timescales of the climate system and of our actions in terms of climate change mitigation.
“A rapid realignment of climate policies towards more sustainable levels can avoid irreversible changes in the climate system.
“The natural world is a delicate balance of systems and dramatically altering one can cause others to fall like a house of cards.
“Research to estimate where these tipping points lie is improving all the time, but it remains difficult to pinpoint them.”
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