3.2.1 Prevention as a governance goal

Given the significant risks posed by ESTPs (severe, even catastrophic, consequences for human wellbeing and ecological stability) the irreversibility of these impacts, their cascading potential, and with a view to precaution, prevention of all tipping processes should become the primary objective of governance in this domain. Given the severe threats that crossing ESTPs pose to the achievement of the SDGs (see Section 2), effective prevention is essential to support the delivery of the SDGs at a global level. 

For all ESTPs, a short window for preventive action is open now and will close at different points in time for each element. For some ESTPs that are assessed to become likely beyond 1.5°C this could be as early as the 2030s, or possibly even this decade (IPCC 2018, 2021; Armstrong-McKay et al., 2022; Ditlevsen and Ditlevsen, 2023).


The rationale for prevention

We ground the proposal to make prevention the central objective of tipping point governance in (1) the nature of tipping point impacts (severity and permanence), (2) their cascading potential, (3) the precautionary principle, and (4) the specific intertemporal nature of decision making.

(1) Impacts: ESTPs present a variety of severe risks. They imply that the current climatic or biospheric conditions in large parts of the world will effectively be permanently lost, threatening the lives of people, the survival of species and ecosystems, the livelihoods and cultural identities of communities, the stability of local and national economies, and even the existence and sovereignty of some states (see Section 2). 

(2) Cascades: Many ESTPs have some potential to contribute to tipping-point cascades, i.e., they increase the likelihood of additional tipping processes being triggered (see Chapter 1.5). That implies the potential to create additional, more distributed harms beyond the scale of the tipping system and wider Earth system destabilisation (see Chapter 2.4).

(3) Precaution: Some of the harmful impacts of crossing ESTPs can be predicted with confidence (such as sea level rise from ice-sheet disintegration), but many others (such as the impacts of ocean convection collapse) warrant further research. Estimates of the probabilities of triggering tipping points on any given timescale are uncertain and include an element of irreducible uncertainty. Conventional methods of policymaking and risk management that rely on quantified estimates of impacts and probabilities are therefore inappropriate (Stirling, 2007) in the context of ESTPs. Rather, we require tools for responding in the face of deep uncertainty. These include the widely adopted precautionary principle (Jordan and O’Riordan, 1999), systemic risk governance, and anticipatory governance (Guston, 2013).

(4) Intertemporality and committed change: Importantly, due to their specific causal dynamics (internal self-amplifying feedback mechanisms), for most tipping systems, the change process becomes effectively unstoppable once a tipping point has been reached – i.e. a causal process set in motion in the coming years and decades, such as ice-sheet melting, would continue to unfold over decades, centuries, or millennia even if global temperatures are successfully reduced back to current levels, or if other causal drivers are returned to pre-tipping conditions (see Chapter 1.2 for delayed activation). It is useful to distinguish realised and committed change related to a tipping point at any particular moment in time. At the time the tipping point is crossed and amplifying feedback loops are set in motion, the system will inevitably move to a new state – it is committed to change, although none of those impending changes might be observable yet. The actual change might take a long time – decades, centuries, or even millennia –to become noticeable and disruptive. For example, it is possible that the Greenland tipping point will be crossed later this century, committing the entire ice sheet to disintegration. The melting process, however, could take several thousand years and most impacts would occur beyond the year 2100 (though would still amplify sea level rise to some extent before this). Policymakers have to consider their responsibility for future impacts that only they are able to prevent. Such long-term and intertemporal decision making faces significant practical challenges given dominant decision-making logics and policy practices, such as cost-benefit-analysis, cost-efficiency maximisation, and discounting (leading to the ‘tragedy of the time horizon’) (Morgan, 2021; Granoff, 2023).

Given that most ESTPs share global warming as a key driver, prevention measures that limit global temperature increase always reduce the likelihood of future tipping point transgressions and remain needed and effective even if one or several tipping points have been passed. Emission reductions will always be the primary tool for reducing the risk of passing (further) tipping points.

​​Prevention as a central goal does not imply that other objectives, especially fostering resilience in Earth system tipping elements and human societies, and impact governance (see Chapter 3.3) should be deprioritised. No matter how quickly we progress with mitigation, a significant risk of tipping already exists and will increase substantially within the Paris Agreement’s temperature range. If prevention efforts are insufficient, impacts may accumulate too rapidly for adaptation and resilience building to cope (see Chapter 3.3). Governance actors will have to consider how to best balance their attention and efforts across these different action domains, but should seek synergies between actions that build social resilience and accelerate mitigation through sustainability transformations.

Prevention efforts can have a variety of outcomes in addition to success (permanent aversion) and failure (tipping dynamics unfold). Prevention can delay the timing of a tipping process – i.e. moving the time when the critical threshold is reached further into the future. This could be beneficial, for example for anticipatory adaptation planning, ensuring that societies are better prepared for the expected impacts of the tipping process (see Chapter 3.3). It can also slow the rate at which the impacts of crossing a tipping point unfold (for example, the rate of ice-sheet melt), somewhat easing the corresponding adaptation challenges. Another form of partial success concerns tipping systems with more than two stable states, and corresponding multiple tipping points. The GrIS might be an example for a multi-stable tipping element (Höning et al., 2023), although disagreements remain about this. If a tipping system has multiple stable states, prevention efforts might fail to avoid the first tipping point, leading to significant changes until the system settles in its first alternative stable state, but might succeed in averting further tipping to the next state. In the case of an ice sheet, prevention efforts could maintain the ice sheet in the partially melted state, avoiding full disintegration.

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