“Risk tipping points”

“Risk tipping points”

The UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security has come up with a new characterisation of future uncertainties – “risk tipping points” (RTP). An RTP is defined as

“the moment at which a given socioecological system is no longer able to buffer risks and provide its expected functions, after which the risk of catastrophic impacts to these systems increases substantially.”

We have become familiar with the concept of tipping points in climate change, where positive feedback loops emerge and global heating races away. The distinction here is that UNU are looking at the system as a whole, with complex interactions between climate, ecology, society and technology. In their analyses instability slowly builds until suddenly a tipping point is reached and the system changes fundamentally or even collapses, with potentially catastrophic impacts. Once an RTP is crossed it can be difficult if not impossible to get back the original state.

The Interconnected Disaster Risks  report 2023 identifies 6 risk tipping points, 5 of which relate to climate change in some way, which is perhaps not surprising given the EHS’s area of interest.

  • Accelerating extinctions: The extinction of a strongly connected species in a given ecosystem can trigger cascading extinctions of dependent species, which can eventually lead to ecosystem collapse.”
  • Groundwater depletion: “When the water table in a given aquifer drops consistently below the well depth, access to groundwater will become problematic, increasing the risk for farmers to be unable to irrigate their crops.”
  • Mountain glaciers melting: “When glaciers retreat, long-term ice storage melts and is gradually released as meltwater. Initially, the volume of water released increases until a maximum is reached, known as peak water. After this tipping point, glacier meltwater volume decreases as the glacier continues to shrink with effects on freshwater availability for humans and other species.” 
  • Unbearable heat: “Being exposed to above 35°C wet-bulb temperature for longer than six hours will result in a healthy, young, resting adult in the shade and wind suffering extreme health consequences. This threshold becomes far lower as other factors are considered, such as age, medical conditions or activity level.”
  • Uninsurable future: “Increasingly severe hazards drive up the costs of insurance until it is no longer accessible or affordable. Once this point is passed, people are left without an economic safety net when disasters strike, opening the door to cascading socioeconomic impacts in high-risk areas.” 

The outlier RTP is one of my favourites, Space debris: “ When there is a critical density of objects in orbit around Earth, such that one collision between two objects can set off a chain reaction, it will cause our orbit to become so dense with shrapnel that it becomes unusable. This would threaten our ability to monitor, for example, the weather and environmental changes, and to receive early disaster warnings.”

The report also identifies common root causes and impacts.

Human induced greenhouse gas emissions Livelihood loss
Insufficient risk management Ecosystem damage & biodiversity loss
Undervaluing environmental costs Health impacts
Insufficient cooperation Loss of life
Prioritizing profits Infrastructure damage
Global demand pressures Migration/displacement
Inequality of development and livelihood opportunities Water insecurity
Colonialism Food insecurity
Loss of safety
Loss of opportunities
Cultural heritage loss

Although EHS focussed on climate change drivers, one can see applications of the concept in other fields – the Hamas attack on 7th October could perhaps be characterised in this way, as it is hard to see the political situation reverting to its previous state.  An AI singularity certainly qualifies.

They also try to identify some common solutions, proposing a framework to classify and discuss their effectiveness, across two dimensions:

The solutions this leads them to are:

  • Being a good ancestor
  • Being one with nature
  • Creating a world without waste
  • Cultivating a global neighbourhood
  • Designing an economy of well-being

These are all very laudable of course, but they are more akin to aspirations rather than solutions. They are also  dissociated from the analytical framework, which does actually look like it could be a helpful way to structure thinking.

For example, the descriptions of “Being a good ancestor” is:

“Future generations are at the mercy of the choices we make. This can start with designing our systems with the recognition of potential future risks, considering future generations as stakeholders in our plans today, and acting out of precaution for negative impacts down the line rather than maximizing short-term gains over long-term losses.”

There is no suggestion of HOW to make any of this happen – it’s just a wish. Challenging the root causes of “prioritizing profits” and “Insufficient co-operation” requires major political upheaval and a radical movement of its own.

The main lesson from this work is that the future is indeed complex with many inter-relationships between uncertainties, and that the socio-economic system is inherently unstable and liable to state shifts.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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Featured image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

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