Queen’s death ‘stole major climate warning’s thunder’, expert claims

The death of Queen Elizabeth II last year “stole a climate warning’s thunder”. This is the provocative suggestion of an Australian climatologist aiming to draw attention to a study published back in September concerning so-called climate tipping points.

These are thresholds beyond which certain changes to the Earth — for example, the collapse of the Greenland Ice Sheet — become self-sustaining, such that they will continue even if global warming is halted. The researchers behind the paper have warned that we are already at risk of crossing five of these thresholds, with current international targets potentially not enough to hold back “dangerous climate change”.

Writing in the Conversation, palaeoclimatologist Darren Ray of the University of Adelaide, Australia said: “Think back to September last year. What happened early that month?

“What news shook the world and reverberated for weeks, if not months? That’s a question I’ve been asking friends and colleagues lately.

“On September 8, 2022, at 6.30pm in Britain, Buckingham Palace announced the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

“The news broke just 30 minutes before the press embargo lifted on a major review of climate change tipping points in the journal Science.

“The paper in Science was truly earth-shattering, as it heralded changes that could threaten the future of civil society on this planet.

“But it was the other news that captured the world’s attention.”

The study in question was undertaken by earth scientist Dr David Armstrong McKay of the University of Exeter and his colleagues.

It warned that — should the average global temperature rise more than 2.7F (1.5C) above pre-industrial levels, we could pass multiple climate “tipping points”.

These are the thresholds seen in certain major biophysical systems beyond which change — once triggered — becomes self-sustaining, and will carry on even if global warming is subsequently halted.

For example, scientists fear that the point at which the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet becomes irreversible may already have been crossed — and is “very likely” at 3.6F (2C) of warming — a tipping point which will see global sea levels rise by around 16 feet.

In fact, the team said that, “even at current levels of global heating”, the world is already at risk of passing five dangerous climate tipping points, with the risks only increasing with “each tenth of a degree [of] further warming”.

The researchers came to this conclusion after synthesising evidence from more than 200 previous studies on tipping points and their thresholds, timescales and impacts.

Based on their meta-analysis, the team have expanded the total number of climate tipping points from the previous nine up to 16.

The five that we are already at risk of setting off are the loss of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, the widespread thawing of permafrost, the collapse of convection in the Labrador Sea, and the massive die-off of tropical coral reefs.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the risk of triggering climate tipping points becomes “high” at around 3.6F (2C) warming and “very high” by 4.5–7.2F (2.5–4C). We are already more than 1.98F (1.1C) above the pre-industrial average.

According to Dr McKay and his colleagues, however, Earth left a ‘safe’ climate state when emissions pushed global temperatures to 1.8F (1C) above pre-industrial levels — meaning that the goal of the United Nations’ Paris Agreement to limit warming to below 3.6F (2C) may not be sufficient to avoid dangerous climatic shifts

Back in September, Dr McKay said: “We can see signs of destabilisation already in parts of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, in permafrost regions, the Amazon rainforest, and potentially the Atlantic overturning circulation as well.

“The world is already at risk of some tipping points. As global temperatures rise further, more tipping points become possible.

“The chance of crossing tipping points can be reduced by rapidly cutting greenhouse gas emissions, starting immediately.”

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Paper co-author and earth system scientist Professor Johan Rockström of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research said: “The world is heading towards 2–3C [3.6–5.4F] of global warming.

“This sets Earth on course to cross multiple dangerous tipping points that will be disastrous for people across the world.

“To maintain liveable conditions on Earth, protect people from rising extremes, and enable stable societies, we must do everything possible to prevent crossing tipping points. Every tenth of a degree counts.

His colleague the climatologist Professor Ricarda Winkelmann agreed, adding: “Importantly, many tipping elements in the Earth system are interlinked, making cascading tipping points a serious additional concern.

“In fact, interactions can lower the critical temperature thresholds beyond which individual tipping elements begin destabilising in the long-run.”

On the findings, Mr Ray commented: “The focus on net zero by 2050’ has in fact done us a disservice.

“If we let emissions remain anywhere near current levels for much longer, by 2030 we will have used up the carbon emissions budget that would allow us to stay near 1.5C [2.7F]

“We need to act quickly and at least halve current emissions by 2030 on the way to net zero before 2050.

“This research shows that failing to do so will trigger 10 metres [33 feet] or more of sea level rise.

“That will gradually display hundreds of millions of people and many of the world’s major cities.”

Mr Ray concluded: “Arriving at this juncture in human history feels like a massive failure.

“A failure of leadership, of decision making, of information dissemination through media, and perhaps our priorities, has left us in this extremely challenging position.

“In response, I have had to draw on tools such as meditation and mindfulness to deal with the awareness the science presents including the likely future suffering of so many.

“It is challenging to see where we are heading and – with what is at stake – to see life going on as if everything is fine.”

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Science.

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