Section 2: Tipping point impacts

2: Tipping point impacts

Section lead coordinating authors: Jesse F. Abrams, Steven J. Lade, Jonathan F. Donges, Joshua E. Buxton
Reviewers: Luke Kemp, Richard Mann, Michael Mäs, Coleen Vogel

Key messages

  • Earth system tipping points have the potential for major, severe impacts on people and biodiversity.
  • Negative social tipping points triggered by climate change could have catastrophic impacts on human societies.
  • Negative social tipping points could cascade to create systemic risk.
  • Early warning signals can be used to anticipate impact tipping points.


  • Improved assessments of the impacts of Earth system tipping points and negative social tipping points are urgently needed.
  • Assessment of the interactions of impact tipping points and possible cascades should be improved.
  • Invest in early warning of both Earth system tipping points and negative social tipping points, in order to provide increased opportunity to pre-emptively adapt and reduce vulnerability to their impacts.

Section summary

Earth system destabilisation and tipping points can have far-reaching and catastrophic consequences across various critical sectors. Assessments of climate change often overlook the consequences of climate tipping points, with national evaluations lacking in-depth quantitative analysis and relying on expert opinions. These tipping points, including permafrost thaw and forest dieback, can lead to localised effects through land surface changes and regional climate alterations, as well as global impacts through shifts in atmospheric and oceanic circulations. Such changes carry the potential for severe impacts on people and ecosystems, including major impacts on water, food, energy security, health, communities and economies.

Climate change, especially if compounded by Earth system destabilisation, has the potential to set off negative social tipping points that would lead to catastrophic impacts for human societies. Such tipping points could encompass a breakdown in social cohesion known as anomie, manifesting as a loss of shared values and norms. This, in turn, could foster radicalisation and polarisation, driving societies ideologically further apart. Destabilisation caused by environmental shifts could lead to societies tipping into anomie, radicalisation, widespread displacement of populations, conflict over limited resources, and economic instability.

Negative social tipping points could reinforce each other in domino-like cascades, creating systemic risk, amplifying impacts and potentially accelerating climate change. These social tipping points and cascades mean the future will not adhere to ‘business as usual’; rather, it will be defined by either constructive mitigation and adaptation to climate change or negative social change impeding the realisation of sustainable futures.

Confidence in many impacts is presently low, due to the lack of systematic assessments and the difficulty of forecasting social change. Investments are urgently needed to better understand potential impacts and negative social tipping, anticipate them through early warning systems, and develop actions to mitigate them.

In the section

Bezos Earth Fund University of Exeter logo
Earth Commission Systems Change Lab logo Systemiq logo
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