The Tipping Point: Humanity at a Crossroads

According to a recent report published by scientists around the world in the journal, Nature, continuing along a “business as usual” path with our greenhouse gas emissions, population growth, and lack of resource management is going to force us to confront a series of tipping points in the next century that could easily dismantle our current quality of life. A tipping point is when ecosystems are pushed to a certain threshold then experience a sudden and irreversible change.

Though no one knows the exact number that will lead to these tipping points, scientists suggest that over 450 parts per million (ppm) atmospheric concentrations of CO2 will signal a chain of events–one tipping point giving rise to another system tipping. We’re near 400ppm, increasing 2ppm a year, a rate that’s expected to rise as these cascading tipping points begin to unravel.

Without adequate preparation, mitigation, and adaptation strategies, these irreversible tipping point will have destructive effects on things like agriculture, fresh water, and other fragile systems we depend on to sustain our quality of life.

The scientists behind the report describe urgent needs for better predictive models based on how past plants and animals responded to extreme shifts in climate so that policy makers can take the necessary steps to initiate policies that will help in mitigating and adapting to changes initiated once the tipping point…tips.

The authors of the report note that in studies of small scale ecosystems, once 50-90% of the area has been changed, the entire system tips into a completely different and irreversible state. Species extinctions and biodiversity loss typically accompany a tip like this.

About 43% of our planet has been altered to maintain its 7 billion person population, and the population is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2045. At the current rate of growth, more land will need to be converted for agriculture or urban uses, more roads will need to cut through the remainder to connect people and places, resulting in half of Earth’s land surface disturbed by 2025. Ideally, we’d like to steer clear of that 50% mark.

“Better predictive models will lead to better decisions,” reads the Nature paper. If we can try to predict what direction we’re heading that would diminish out quality of life, we can avoid those paths and go down a less destructive road. But better models alone won’t solve the tipping point conundrum.

We need global cooperation to wrangle in and reduce world population growth and per-capita resource use, switch from fossil fuels that are contributing to atmospheric CO2 to sustainable sources, initiate more efficient ways to produce and distribute food without altering any more of Earth’s surface, and create better land and water management practices to preserve ecosystems and biodiversity.

Humanity is at a crossroads. We can acknowledge the potential that our Earth will be altered drastically and try to mitigate the consequences, or we can continue business as usual and let havoc be wreaked on the planet. Better predictive models won’t do us any good if people and policy makers don’t take the necessary steps to protect ourselves.


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