(Please Note: These pages are greatly expanded, including extensive footnotes, in the new book: Climageddon.)
The simple definition of a global warming tipping point is:
the point where some process or new stimulus causes a sudden and significant change in the status of the ongoing process or system, causing it to jump from one state to a new, significantly different state. This sudden change is not only significant; it is often extreme!
As an example of a sudden and significant change, imagine a wine glass tipping over and going from the state of being full to empty. After the wine glass tipping point has been passed, a transition to a new state quickly occurs.
Like the falling of the wine glass, tipping points can often lead to the sudden collapse of a process. If you think about a tipping point on a graph causing a steep slope change, you will understand why knowing when tipping points will occur is so important. (See the Tipping Points Have Points of No Return graph below for what a tipping point does to the slope of a graph line.)
Tipping points are often also irreversible, comparable to wine spilling from the glass. No matter how hard you try, standing up the wine glass will not put the wine back into it. Similarly, many global warming tipping points are also irreversible or almost irreversible in any time frame relative to a human lifespan!
For example, the West Antarctic ice shelfappears to have passed its tipping point and is now in an irreversible melting process. Once escalating global warming is finally ended, it may take tens of thousands of years to restore that ice shelf—if it ever could even happen.
Points of no return
Before a tipping point is reached, there is another key milestone in the process. It is the point of irreversible process momentum toward that tipping point, or what is commonly known as the point of no return. In simple mechanical systems like in the wine glass example, the point of no return can occur very close to the actual tipping point. Even though the point of no return may be close to its tipping point, the two are separate parts of the tipping point process.
In complex climate, human, biological or geological systems, the point of no return can occur long before the actual tipping point. This is because global warming and our climate are complex adaptive systems. The developmental processes that eventually trigger a tipping point usually involve many factors and many processes beyond a single mechanical balance point or a simple mechanical falling process as in the wine glass spilling example. (If you're curious, at the end of this chapter you will find a section that provides more information about the complex qualities and nature of complex adaptive systems.)
In the wine glass example, the point of no return is the moment of directional motion and momentum where the forward-falling glass is no longer able to teeter backwards and maintain or return to itsoriginal upright position and stability. In the wine glass tipping scenario, the point of no return is quite visible. Once it falls past this last balancing point of stillreversible direction and momentum and crosses its point of no return, it can no longer stop itself from falling further and crossing the wine glass’s last balancing point, thus irreversibly tipping and spilling the wine out of the glass.
By contrast, global warming points of no return tend to be largely invisible—i.e., irreversible fates are set in motion before we know they are happening. However, if you can determine the point of no return for any global warming tipping point, you can “buy” yourself critical forecasting capabilities that can give you some warning for approximately when that tipping point will be crossed. Being aware of global warming process points of no return will be extremely useful in preparing for and predicting global warming tipping points and catastrophes.
"Tipping points are so dangerous because if you pass them, the climate is out of humanity's control: if an ice sheet disintegrates and starts to slide into the ocean there's nothing we can do about that." —James Hansen
Contrary to what many people believe, tipping points are not just rare high-impact events. Knowing global warming, climate, human and biological tipping points as well as how and when they will occur will be the key to creating all future planning as global warming escalates, and our global climate continues to destabilize.
The global warming tipping points within the climate, human, and biological systems
There are many global warming system and subsystem tipping points within the climate, human, and biological systems. The key process that directly or indirectly causes the global warming tipping points to be crossed is increasing heat, as is implied in the term global warming.
When global warming tipping points are crossed, one or more of them can trigger processes leading to:
sudden large scale catastrophesin climate, human, and biological systems,
irreversible global warming,
irreversible climate destabilization, and/or
extinction-level climate destabilization.
Global warming tipping points within interacting climate, human, and biological systems are:
More from the new Climageddon book: