6 looming climate tipping points that imperil our planet

A UN report details the thresholds we may be close to crossing

Melting glacier.
The rate at which glaciers are melting is rapidly approaching a tipping point
(Image credit: Stephane Godin / Getty Images)

The world is rapidly approaching the "brink of multiple risk tipping points," the United Nations warned in its 2023 Interconnected Disaster Risks report. Risk tipping points, the U.N. explained, are "when the systems that we rely on for our lives and societies cannot buffer risks and stop functioning." Throw in accelerating climate change, and "the very practical consequence will be that much more people will live under very precarious conditions — so loss of life, loss of livelihood and loss of opportunities," Zita Sebesvari, one of the lead authors of the report, told the Los Angeles Times. "It does have cascading impacts." 

The U.N. specifically pointed to six tipping points we are rapidly approaching — as well as some ways we can still "take decisive actions to avert the worst of these impacts, and perhaps even forge a new path toward a bright, sustainable and equitable future."

Accelerating extinctions

Human influence has greatly increased the rate of extinctions across the world, helping push the planet into its sixth mass extinction event, with almost a million plant and animal species currently at risk. Given "human activities such as land use change, overexploitation, climate change, pollution and introduction of invasive species, we have put our foot on the extinction accelerator," the report said, and the resulting threat to "our critical life-support systems is vastly underestimated." These extinctions have the potential to cause ecosystem collapses, because species are largely interconnected. "We are increasing the risk of co-extinction," Sebesvari told DW.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Groundwater depletion

Much of the world's drinking water comes from underground reservoirs called aquifers. The bad news is that these aquifers are rapidly emptying, with 21 of the 37 largest aquifers losing water faster than they can be replenished. The water in the aquifers "has accumulated over thousands of years, and would equally take thousands of years to fully recharge," the report said, so these crucial reservoirs are "essentially a non-renewable resource." Approximately 2 billion people worldwide rely on groundwater as a primary source of drinking water, but most groundwater is used in agriculture. "We can no longer consider groundwater as a boundless source of easily accessible freshwater," the report said. And its increasing inaccessibility has "worrying implications."

Mountain glaciers melting

As aquifers empty, the world's glaciers are "melting at double the speed they had in the past two decades," the report said. That increases the amount of freshwater in the short term — sometimes too much, causing flooding — but "many of those glaciers in the Rocky Mountains, the Himalayas and the Andes feed into these rivers and groundwater systems," Caitlyn Eberle, one of the lead authors, told Reuters. "So as those glaciers disappear there is less water available." Many glacier-fed areas are rapidly approaching or have already reached "peak water," the point of maximum meltwater a glacier produces before its freshwater output steadily declines. Meltwater is crucial to sustaining certain regions during dry seasons with low rainfall.

Space debris

The tipping points also extend to space, where floating detritus threatens both current satellites and our ability to put new ones into orbit. Satellites are crucial to our daily lives, from weather reporting and tracking natural disasters to navigating and communicating. "Each piece of debris becomes an obstacle in the orbital 'highway,' making it increasingly difficult for functional satellites to avoid collisions," the report warned. "If we continue on the current trajectory, we risk sacrificing Earth's orbits and the opportunities they offer to society now and in the future."

Unbearable heat

This year, the planet has broken numerous heat records. The warmer temperatures have caused intense heat waves and led to "an average of 500,000 excess deaths annually in the last two decades," the U.N. said. The heat also disproportionately affects more vulnerable populations. Along with its toll on humans, heat exacerbates a number of other ecological problems, including melting glaciers, extreme storms and extinctions. "The reality is that we are quickly approaching a tipping point past which people will not survive," the report stated. As temperatures rise even higher, the heat's impact will get more extreme and harder to reverse.

Uninsurable future

The combination of the aforementioned tipping points means more and more places on Earth are becoming uninhabitable — and uninsurable. There has been a seven-fold increase in the amount of damage from natural disasters since the 1970s. Homes and businesses in disaster-prone areas are starting to see either extremely high insurance premiums or in some cases, little or no coverage as insurance companies pull out. Once home insurance becomes too expensive or unavailable, "people are left without an economic safety net when disasters strike," the report said. As the world gets closer to tipping past these points of no return, "we also lose some of our tools and options to deal with future disaster risk," Sebesvari told Forbes.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.