Climate Tipping Points: Real Threats or Misinformation?

From the Cliff Mass Weather Blog

Cliff Mass

It seems like there is another strident climate “tipping point” headline every other day.  

Threats of irreversible catastrophic climate change just around the corner.

The truth is that such claims by some media outlets and climate activists are contrary to the best science.

An attempt to sow worry and panic, with the motivation to motivate people to “do the right thing.”  And it is both unethical and counterproductive.

What is a climate tipping point?  

According to the  Merriam-Webster dictionary, a tipping point is defined as

the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place

And a climate tipping point can be defined asa critical threshold that, when crossed, leads to large and often irreversible changes in the climate system.

Specifically, the idea is that increasing greenhouse gases (like CO2) will result in warming that will produce large, irreversible changes in the climate system.    

Like driving off a cliff.  And that reducing greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations later will not help.  The changes would be irreversible.  We could not go back.

Sounds scary, doesn’t it?   

Fortunately, the best science suggests that such tipping points do not threaten the global climate system of our planet. 

Yes, global warming from increasing greenhouse gases is expected.  But the resulting changes in the climate during the next century should be slow and reversible.  None of the many climate simulations driven by large increases in CO2 indicate a tipping point.

Consider a collection of 20 CMIP-5 global climate model simulations, run with CO2 emissions ranging from crazy high (RCP8.5) to more probable (RCP4.5).  As shown below, there is some variability in the warming for each of these warming scenarios, but NONE go up suddenly into uncontrolled warming.  No tipping points.  Other climate simulations suggest the same thing.

What about global warming in the Northwest?  

As part of my research, I have run high-resolution climate models driven by the highly aggressive RCP8.5 scenario.  Looking at a dozen regional simulations, each driven by a different international climate model, there are NO TIPPING POINTS for Seattle temperatures over the next century.   Just a steady rise with some variability around the mean.

What about the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change),  the most well-known and respected body on global warming and climate change?   

They are emphatic that there is no evidence of imminent (over the next century) tipping points for the Earth’s climate.   Let me provide some examples.

The loss of Arctic sea ice?   This is what the IPCC (Special Report on implications of 1.5C or more warming, Chapter 3) says:

“there is little evidence for a tipping point in the transition from perennial to seasonal ice cover. No evidence has been found for irreversibility or tipping points, suggesting that year-round sea ice will return given a suitable climate”

Melting of the arctic permafrost releasing warming methane gas?  No tipping point

“the carbon released to the atmosphere from thawing permafrost is projected to be restricted to 0.09–0.19 Gt C yr–1 at 2°C of global warming and to 0.08–0.16 Gt C yr–1 at 1.5°C, which does not indicate a tipping point”

Heatwaves and heatwave deaths?  This is what the IPCC says

Increases in ambient temperature are linearly related to hospitalizations and deaths once specific thresholds are exceeded (so there is not a tipping point per se).

Global warming is a serious issue but there are no impending cliffs for the global climate.  No imminent tipping points for the global climate.

With that being the case, some climate advocates have gotten creative and are now pushing local tipping points.   One recent paper (Lenton et al., 2019) claims nine local tipping points (see below), including changes in fires and pests in Canada.  Many of these claims are poorly supported by the best science.

Even the Seattle Times has joined the tipping point crowd, claiming that climate change threatens a tipping point for the Western Red Cedar (see below).  As I will discuss in a future blog, this Seattle Times article is full of errors.

Climate Deception

Those pushing climate tipping points are doing the devil’s work.   They know that the effects of human-caused climate change are currently relatively modest.   But folks aren’t sufficiently motivated to take the actions the activists want.  So they have decided to scare the population, with an impending, terrifying precipice of climate change.

Not ethical, not based on science.  And they are causing folks psychological harm and pushing governments to make poor decisions.

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Peta of Newark
November 23, 2022 10:19 am

Yes they exist but only really when it comes to making deserts or tripping into ice ages
(same thing causes both)

Bryan A
Reply to  Peta of Newark
November 23, 2022 12:02 pm

They only appear to exist in the Minds of Climate Catastrophists.
Models don’t have them.
Nature doesn’t have them.
CO2 levels have been significantly higher (thousands ppm) in the past and we’re not stuck in a Hothouse Earth.
CO2 levels were down below 180ppm in the past yet we’re not stuck in Snowball Earth either.

Tom Abbott
Reply to  Bryan A
November 24, 2022 12:24 pm

Yeah, what tipping points?

November 23, 2022 10:21 am

Net Zero saved.

“”Jeremy Hunt says help with high household energy bills will END in 2024 and the public must ‘change their behaviour’ and learn how to use less gas and electricity at home instead””

Got that? Less will be more.

Ben Vorlich
Reply to  strativarius
November 23, 2022 12:23 pm

I was hoping for a mild windy winter. Now I’m hoping for a 62-63. Like Lady MacBeth
If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly:
A government run by politicians who have people freezing to death in their homes despite burning their furniture to keep warm have an appointment with a lamppost and rope, or should have.

November 23, 2022 10:21 am

If there were significant positive feedbacks that existed In the climate we would have been Venus millions of years ago

Reply to  ZenoMorphic
November 23, 2022 10:32 am

If earth took 243 ‘earth days’ to rotate once, we would THEN be Venus. One day for Venus is 243 days for us. There would be no life on earth.

November 23, 2022 10:35 am

Earth’s climate oscillates between two relatively stable phases – glacial and interglacial. It is immaterial to define what causes it, but there is certainly no danger of ‘tipping’ into a warmer interglacial – we have already been there, done that. Nuttin happened, except that climate kept on doing what it always does – change.

Reply to  jshotsky
November 23, 2022 1:37 pm

Earth is past the tipping point for the end of the current interglacial. The NH oceans have had increasing solar intensity since 1400. The thermal inertia delayed the warming for a couple of centuries but it is now accelerating. The winter water cycle in the NH is starting to crank up for the first time in 10,000 years. That means record snowfall over the northern land masses will be a feature for the next 9,000 years.

Those living in the NH on land that gets below freezing in winter can look forward to ever increasing snowfall – enjoy it while you can. It will not be in our lifetime but future generations living north of 40N will be overcome by the ice flows..

Ron Long
Reply to  RickWill
November 23, 2022 1:55 pm

Although I am not hoping for a rapid plunge into the next glacial cycle of the Ice Age we live in (for about 5 million years), I agree with jshotsky and Rick that we’re going to. I’m starting out in a Mediterranean climate so won’t suffer too much, but I am not sure how the wine grapes will fare.

Clyde Spencer
November 23, 2022 11:40 am

The recent article on Earth regulating its temperature ( makes the point that silicate weathering precludes the possibility of temperature, or temperature induced, Tipping Points. The system appears to have long term stability regardless of the magnitude of any short-term perturbations. That explains why we don’t have a climate like Venus.

Reply to  Clyde Spencer
November 23, 2022 1:46 pm

Ice accumulation results in a tipping point and that is currently being observed but few have put the picture together.

Ice accumulation requires the winter water cycle in the NH to increase. That process is now clearly evident with northern oceans warming and winter solar intensity over land reducing. The rapidly increasing winter temperature over the northern land masses can only be caused by increased snowfall.

Snowfall is increasing across the NH however Greenland is the only location that shows increasing accumulation in both permanent cover and altitude gain..

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  RickWill
November 23, 2022 9:30 pm

I don’t consider even glaciation to be a “tipping point” because the Earth has always recovered from such extreme perturbations. A “tipping point” is what happens when the Leaning Tower of Pisa gets so tilted that it falls over. One shouldn’t confuse quasi-periodic variation with a singular event like dying. That is the ultimate “tipping point.”

November 23, 2022 1:06 pm

Nine local tipping points in Canada?

I’ve been hard-pressed to find one every time I’ve been there.

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November 23, 2022 1:15 pm

What is the cause of that tipping point that tips an interglacial into an ice age, and an ice age back into an interglacial, repeatedly like clockwork? Milankovitch had something to say about it but the climate catastrophist cabal wilfully avoid his beautiful science and instead read chicken entrails which they call computer models and create goddesses such as Greta Thunberg. Shamans are back in power.

Last edited 7 days ago by Sceptic-Al
November 23, 2022 1:24 pm

Tipping points do exist and humans are currently observing it with very few realising it. Earth is very close to peak melt. The climate is already past the tipping point into the current glaciation.

The northern oceans have had increasing solar intensity since 1400. The solar intensity over land north of 40N for October through January peaked in 2000. Those changes are driving rapidly increasing minimum temperature over land north of 40N. Now increasing at 3.7C per century; indicative of increasing advection.

Heat advection from ocean to land during the winter months is increasing resulting in higher snowfall. At this stage Greenland is the only region where snow is clearly accumulating.
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Over the larger land masses, the snow line will begin advancing southward at 2 degrees latitude per century by the end of this century. Likewise the snowline will descend on elevated land.

Earth is past a major tipping point. Glaciation has begun. Labelling this “Climate Change” and a tipping point is correct. The term “Global Warming” is misapplied. Most warming is occurring in winter on the land mass.north of 40N. That can only happen through increased snowfall.

The next major tipping point will be when the glaciers reach the ocean and calving ice at sufficient quantities to shut down the water cycle. Expect that in 100kyr going by the last four glaciation cycles.

The only location where the North Atlantic is cooling is south of Greenland. This is due to accelerated calving from warmer water eroding the fringes of the ice but Greenland is gaining elevation as a result of increased snowfall as more water is exposed around its shoreline.

The myopic focus on CO2 has blinded climate modellers to the greatest climate change in recorded history.

The last 4 interglacials all ended in the same phase of the precession cycle as the present time. Glaciation is the result of snowfall outpacing snowmelt. Snowfall is an energy intensive process. It takes 2.8E9J to liberate one tonne of water from the ocean and elevate it above freezing altitude. It takes just 3.3E8J to melt a tonne of ice but snow is highly reflective so requires at least 560W/m^2 of solar EMR to actually melt. That high threshold limits the time of day and days of year when snow will actually melt.

Last edited 7 days ago by RickWill
Beta Blocker
Reply to  RickWill
November 24, 2022 1:47 pm

We will not know that a long-term cooling trend has begun unless and until the 30-year running average trend of global mean temperature (GMT) turns down and then stays down for another thirty to fifty years.

This change could be labeled an ‘inflection point’ rather than a ‘tipping point’ — because it might, or might not, be temporary on a millennial time scale.

Back in 2018 over on Climate Etc., I asked Javier when he thought that a warming-to-cooling GMT ‘inflection point’ would occur according to his own cyclic trend analysis. His answer was roughly about the year 2200, some 180 years from now.

Rick Will, you say that earth is very close to peak melt; and that the climate is already past the tipping point into the current glaciation.

If this is the case, would you have a prediction for roughly when GMT will pass a permanent inflection point (a.k.a. a tipping point) and will begin to trend steadily downwards on a millennial time scale?

Last edited 6 days ago by Beta Blocker
Reply to  Beta Blocker
November 24, 2022 2:42 pm

The current warming in the Northern Hemisphere oceans will carry on for 9000 years.

The snow line will advance southward at about 2 degrees latitude per century once it starts. I expect that the process will be observed on land other than Greenland and mountain tops by the end of this century. The snowline will advance to 40N by the year J4000.

Once snow is permanent, the land temperature does not get much warmer than 0C. So, on average the land 40 to 80N should be cooling within 1000 years.

The cooling in the Southern Hemisphere is already starting but has enormous inertia due to the ocean extent.

The GMT should reverse within 9000 years because the falling temperature over the Northern land masses will dominate. By then the sun begins to shift south again as well so the Northern Oceans will begin to cool.

R L Moore
November 23, 2022 1:41 pm

Good article shining the light on scare tactics.
THe interesting one is Arctic sea ice. Quite probably the decline.currently relatively stable over 10 years will now reverse and follow the cyclical pattern.
This should become evident within the next couple of years and would be a defining event in Climate science as it is an easily quantifiable and observable phenomenon. It couldn’ t be swept under the carpet.
A defining “tipping point” in the reverse (correct?) direction.
Something to look forward to.

Edward Katz
November 23, 2022 2:01 pm

The fact that neither governments, consumers, businesses nor industries haven’t been making and don’t intend to make the big operational and lifestyle changes that supposedly will arrest climate change shows no one’s being panicked by the climate alarmists’ assertions.

Reply to  Edward Katz
November 23, 2022 3:26 pm

Governments are making stupid decisions right around the world based on the unproven threat of climate change .
They expect their constituents to change their lifestyles to use less energy while those in charge travel around the world and spend up large .
Politicians are neglecting their basic responsibility which is to look after their countries population and infrastructure .
It is every ones right to be able to access affordable energy .
Governments have failed in their duty when they inflict expensive energy on their populations when the threat of climate change is an unproven myth .
There will never be a tipping point as our climate is self regulating and CO2 and CH4 are now very close to saturation .
Climate change is used by politicians all around the world to justify any flight of fancy that they want to impose .

John Doe
November 23, 2022 3:56 pm

Question is, why Earth should behave so differently from other planets and moons in our solar system. They are all very close to the black body temperature, just like Earth (288 vs. 279K). That excludes albedo btw. There are factors in play making some difference, but the only thing potentially having a large impact, is atmospheric mass. And that is because it allows for a large difference between photospheric surface (where radiation is exchanged), and a physical surface.

Unless you find a way to dramatically change the atmospheric mass of Earth, significant feedbacks are a myth. Now that could happen if the oceans should evaporate. However we see no sign of that happening.

Red line below represents the temperature of Earth, if it was moved relative to the sun with 3x feedback. The blue dots are actual celestial bodies (Mercury to Neptune from left to right).

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Steve Case
November 23, 2022 5:56 pm

Yes, global warming from increasing greenhouse gases is expected. But the resulting changes in the climate during the next century should be slow … reversible. 

And not a problem.

Pat from Kerbob
November 23, 2022 9:01 pm

The only know tipping point is for journalistic integrity, and we went over that one long ago.
Matt Taibbi is on a rant about the NY Times, not on climate but he may as well, eventually all will get there.

Hans Erren
November 23, 2022 10:40 pm

The science fiction scare of WAIS slumping into the ocean is feeding coastal engineers in the Netherlands

Reply to  Hans Erren
November 24, 2022 7:05 am

They should be more worried about the South Flank of Moana Loa sliding into the sea. That would cause a monster tsuanmi in the whole Pacific Basin.

November 24, 2022 6:12 am

It seems to me that the “tipping point” argument only applies to simple systems with a low number of variables, a light switch, for example. But for really complex systems with huge numbers of interconnected variables, like the climate, a modest change to a single variable of median importance cannot cause more than a minor ripple. It’s fundamental. Were tipping points real, then complex systems couldn’t exist because even slight deviations would plunge them into terminal conditions. Life could never have evolved with such an unstable foundation. The planet just ain’t that fragile.

My $.02, anyway.

November 24, 2022 6:18 am

So much of the typical BS from the climate alarmists. The only purpose is to fleece more folks of their cash. To change something which cannot be controlled by humans to any great extent. The planet will always balance itself no matter what the leftist climate change religion may claim.
For them its all about money and power. Nothing else. Always has been. The folks in the various protest groups proposing returning us all back to a pre-industrial lifestyle, are the empty headed mush brains as a front for the folks who will benefit from a feudal society. It it comes to pass.

Beta Blocker
November 24, 2022 10:37 am

Over on the Cliff Mass blog, I post as ‘Betah Blocher’ because the blog spot system won’t allow ‘Beta Blocker’ as a user name.

Blog spot user BAMCIS posted this comment to the Cliff Mass article:

BAMCIS November 23, 2022 at 2:46 PM: “So much fun and games with a subject that spans generations to perhaps be proven wrong or right. Ultimately, no one wants a reduction in quality of life/living standards as a result of climate change mitigation. Standards of Living have to be comprehensively maintained or improved or no deal. We will stay with fossil fuels, thank you very much.Plus, lots of tactics are self defeating, such as banning IC everything but not upgrading the power grid or even waiting for valid solutions before outlawing the current ones. IC engines are still needed to move freight. Aircraft still require heat engines. Plus we are still all in on sprawl and car dependency, which is the most inefficient as well as wasteful manner to build. Just look at any city that is 70% dedicated to car parking or roadway but still commands such a high land premium as to render almost everything built to be high end. NIMBY kills off nuclear plants or even transmission lines to move electricity where it is needed. So basically the solutions are superfluous, unrealistic or just plain untenable. Humanity is not capable of handling climate change on a preventative scale. All we can do is adapt so in reality the science as well as the toxic politics do not matter. All that our country really cares about is money so unless you can frame climate change mitigation in the terms of “What’s in it for me financially”, than forget it. The economy is ALWAYS the top political issue for almost everyone. Only the wealthy have the luxury of caring about anything past that.”

My response to BAMCIS, as posted on the Cliff Mass blog, was this:

The only way to get from here to there in achieving Net Zero for the United States is to impose an aggressive anti-carbon plan of action on the nation’s economy, one which uses a carrot and stick approach for getting the job done.    

Getting the job done on Biden’s schedule means that starting immediately, America must be consuming less energy than we do today, and that the pace of the transition into a Net Zero future must be greatly accelerated.

For purposes of simplification, let’s define what Net Zero should mean here in the United States, using the year 2005 as the carbon emission baseline.

Within the proposed action plan, the 2035 Net Zero target is defined as a 70% reduction in US carbon emissions from the power generation sector plus a 50% reduction from the industrial and transportation sectors. The 2050 Net Zero target is defined as a 90% reduction in US carbon emissions from the power generation sector and an 80% reduction from the industrial and transportation sectors.

The carrot of this Net Zero action plan is to guarantee a 12% annual rate of return on every dollar invested in wind, solar, and battery technology; with utility ratepayers supplying all the needed capital up front and continuously through unconstrained charges to their utility bills.

The stick of this Net Zero action plan is for the Biden administration to declare a climate emergency, to unilaterally impose a scheme of energy rationing on the American economy, and to employ every tool in the federal government’s regulatory toolbox to reduce the supply of fossil energy while also greatly increasing its price.

A carrot and stick action plan like the one described above will precipitate a mad scramble into renewable energy production and deployment. Furthermore, greatly higher prices for all forms of energy, and a corresponding lack of supply, will encourage the massive efforts at energy conservation needed to make any Net Zero action plan work. 

Could we predict a strong political backlash if the Biden administration adopted this kind of Net Zero action plan — a plan which involves greatly higher prices for energy; and over time, a greatly reduced supply of energy?

The answer is no. If the outcome of the 2022 mid-term election is any indication, President Biden has nothing to fear politically from imposing a highly coercive and expensive scheme for reaching Net Zero. If he doesn’t do it, then he has some other agenda in mind than saving the world from climate change.

Tom Abbott
November 24, 2022 12:22 pm

From the article: “Those pushing climate tipping points are doing the devil’s work.  They know that the effects of human-caused climate change are currently relatively modest.”

So modest that changes, if any, are undetectable.

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