2023 Executive Summary

Keith Arnold / WWF-US
Medium WW1197497 edit}
Icon for MASHUP AL Lresized

Humans often think of processes as being simple and predictable. When we need water, we turn on the tap and water comes out. However, we do not give much thought to where the water came from in the first place, and we are often unaware of the many underlying processes that occur before it reaches us. This leaves us with little understanding of the effect of our usage on others in the system, or the risk that one day the source of our water could be gone.

Systems are all around us and closely connected to us. Water systems, food systems, transport systems, information systems, ecosystems and others: our world is made up of systems where the individual parts interact with one another. Over time, human activities have made these systems increasingly complex, be it through global supply chains, communication networks, international trade and more. As these interconnections get stronger, they offer opportunities for global cooperation and support, but also expose us to greater risks and unpleasant surprises, particularly when our own actions threaten to damage a system.

When our life-sustaining systems, such as those for our water or food, deteriorate, it is typically not a simple and predictable process. A tower made of building blocks might remain standing at first if you remove one piece at a time, but instability slowly builds in until you remove one block too many and it topples over. Like the stack of blocks, when a certain threshold of instability is reached in a system, it might collapse or fundamentally change. We open the tap, and suddenly nothing comes out. This is called a tipping point, and tipping points can have irreversible, catastrophic impacts for people and the planet.

Risk tipping points

There are different kinds of tipping points. Climate change has so-called “climate tipping points”, specific thresholds after which unstoppable changes occur, influencing the global climate. When the increasing temperatures push vast systems around the world, like the Amazon rainforest or the Greenland Ice Sheet, past certain thresholds, they will enter a path towards collapse.

But tipping points are not always physical, and climate change is just one of the many drivers of risk. Many new risks emerge when and where our physical and natural worlds interconnect with human society. Some tipping points trigger abrupt changes in our life-sustaining systems that can shake the foundations of our societies. This is why the 2023 edition of the Interconnected Disaster Risks report proposes a new category of tipping points: risk tipping points. A risk tipping point is 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.

Pushed towards a cliff edge

Today, we are moving perilously close to the brink of multiple risk tipping points. Human actions are behind this rapid and fundamental change to the planet. We are introducing new risks and amplifying existing ones by indiscriminately extracting our water resources, damaging nature and biodiversity, polluting both Earth and space, and destroying our tools and options to deal with disaster risk.

One example of such a risk tipping point is the depletion of groundwater needed for agriculture (Groundwater depletion). Groundwater is an essential freshwater resource stored in underground reservoirs called “aquifers”. These aquifers supply drinking water to over 2 billion people, and around 70 per cent of withdrawals are used for agriculture. However, more than half of the world’s major aquifers are being depleted faster than they can be naturally replenished. As groundwater accumulates over thousands of years, it is essentially a non-renewable resource. The tipping point in this case is reached when the water table falls below a level that existing wells can access. Once crossed, farmers will no longer have access to groundwater to irrigate their crops. This not only puts farmers at risk of losing their livelihoods, but can also lead to food insecurity and put entire food production systems at risk of failure.

This is not a theoretical threat. Some regions, like Saudi Arabia, have already surpassed this groundwater risk tipping point. In the mid-1990s, Saudi Arabia was the world’s sixth- largest wheat exporter, based on the large-scale extraction of groundwater for irrigation. But once the wells ran dry, Saudi Arabian wheat production dropped and they had to rely on wheat imported from elsewhere. Other countries, like India, are not far from approaching this risk tipping point, too.

In an interconnected world the impacts of risk tipping points such as this are felt globally, as they cause ripple effects through food systems, the economy and the environment. They affect the very structure of our society and the well-being of future generations, and they also affect our ability to manage future risks. Groundwater, for instance, is relied upon to mitigate half of the agricultural losses caused by drought, a scenario we can expect to occur more often at many places in the future, due to climate change. If the groundwater has been depleted, this is an option we will no longer have.

Human Story: Groundwater depletion

Six Tipping Points

Icon 1dodo

Accelerating extinctions

A chain reaction to ecosystem collapse
Read more
Icon 2pump

Groundwater depletion

Draining our water, risking our food supply
Read more
Icon 3mountain

Mountain glacier melting

Running on thin ice
Read more
Icon 4satellite

Space debris

Losing our eyes in the sky
Read more
Icon 5house

Unbearable heat

Living in the unliveable
Read more
Icon 6umbrella

Uninsurable future

With rising risks, insurance becomes unreachable
Read more
Icon for UNU Front Cover Transparentresized

For Mountain glaciers, the risk tipping point is called “peak water” — it is when a glacier produces the maximum volume of water run-off due to melting. After this point, freshwater availability will steadily decline. Peak water has already passed or is expected to occur within the next 10 years for many of the small glaciers in Central Europe, western Canada or South America. In the Andes, where peak water has already passed for many glaciers, communities are now grappling with the impacts of unreliable water sources for drinking water and irrigation.

For Uninsurable future, the risk tipping point is reached when increasingly severe hazards such as storms, floods or fires drive up the costs of insurance until it is no longer accessible or affordable. Once insurance is no longer offered against certain risks, in certain areas or at a reasonable price, these areas are considered “uninsurable”. In Australia, for example, approximately 520,940 homes are predicted to be uninsurable by 2030, primarily due to increasing flood risk. 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.

These diverse examples illustrate that risk tipping points extend beyond the single domains of climate, ecosystems, society or technology, but rather are inherently interconnected across them. They share similar root causes and drivers which are embedded in our behaviours and actions that increasingly put pressure on our systems until they change and stop supporting human lives and livelihoods. The impacts of these risk tipping points are not isolated to the places where tipping points are crossed but, through their interconnections with other systems, cascade through to other places around the world, influencing those to tip as well. For example, Unbearable heat threatens not only human lives and health, but also wildlife, which is increasing the risk of Accelerating extinctions, putting the ecosystems we depend on in peril.

More and more risk tipping points on the horizon

The six risk tipping points analysed in this report offer some key examples of the numerous risk tipping points we are approaching. If we look at the world as a whole, there are many more systems at risk that require our attention. Each system acts as a string in a safety net, keeping us from harm and supporting our societies. As the next system tips, another string is cut, increasing the overall pressure on the remaining systems to hold us up. Therefore, any attempt to reduce risk in these systems needs to acknowledge and understand these underlying interconnectivities. Actions that affect one system will likely have consequences on another, so we must avoid working in silos and instead look at the world as one connected system.

Creating the future we want

Nikki Sandino Victoriano/ Transformative Urban Coalitions / UNU-EHS
435 Victoriano}

Luckily, we have a unique advantage of being able to see the danger ahead of us by recognizing the risk tipping points we are approaching. This provides us with the opportunity to make informed decisions and take decisive actions to avert the worst of these impacts, and perhaps even forge a new path towards a bright, sustainable and equitable future. By anticipating risk tipping points where the system will cease to function as expected, we can adjust the way the system functions accordingly or modify our expectations of what the system can deliver. In each case, however, avoiding the risk tipping point will require more than a single solution. We will need to integrate actions across sectors in unprecedented ways in order to address the complex set of root causes and drivers of risk and promote changes in established mindsets.

A new framework for solutions

The 2023 Interconnected Disaster Risks report proposes a new framework to classify and discuss the effectiveness of solutions that can help us address risk tipping points. Broadly, solutions fall into two main categories: Avoid solutions are those that target root causes and drivers of risk to avoid crossing risk tipping points altogether. Meanwhile, Adapt solutions are those that help us to prepare or to better address the negative impacts of risk tipping points in case they cannot be avoided, and seek to adapt to the resulting changes in an attempt to live with them. Within each category, there are two options for actions: Delay actions work within the existing “business as usual” system and seek to slow down the progression towards risk tipping points or possible worst impacts. Transform actions involve a fundamental reimagining of the system itself.

The resulting framework has four categories:

  1. 1.Avoid-Delay
  2. 2.Avoid Transform
  3. 3.Adapt-Delay
  4. 4.Adapt-Transform

Understanding which of the four categories a solution falls into helps to assess what kind of outcomes it can produce and which trade-offs it may have. For example, in the case of Unbearable heat, there are weather stations that have already recorded temperatures beyond the tipping point for what a human body can survive in. If this threshold is crossed for more than six hours, a person’s body will be unable to cool itself down, and may experience organ failure and brain damage. It is human-induced climate change that is causing a global rise in temperatures, leading to more frequent and intense heatwaves with severe impacts, so an Avoid-Transform solution would be one that transforms our society in such a way that we achieve strong and sustained reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases to halt climate change. This involves a societal change towards low-carbon ways of living, so that these tipping points can be avoided. Meanwhile, an Adapt-Delay solution would be one where we install air conditioners in all buildings in hot climates. The air conditioners will delay when the risk tipping point is reached for the people in these environments, but they will not prevent us from reaching the risk tipping point eventually, particularly if the air conditioners are powered with fossil fuels, which would contribute to further global warming.

Because risks are interconnected, so are most potential solutions. Therefore, the report highlights overall changes we can make to our behaviours and values that would transform the way we use our systems and reduce overall risk.

Need for transformation

Most solutions being implemented at present focus on Delay rather than Transform, although increasing focus is being put on transformative change to achieve global goals on transitioning to a more sustainable future. Out of the different categories, it is transformative solutions that have the potential to move us away from a future of multiplying risk tipping points, but they also require the most societal and personal change. If we deploy solutions in collaborative, integrated packages, and are innovative with our current solutions to develop them with long-term, transformational change in mind, we can start to move from Delay to Transform.

Because risks are interconnected, so are most potential solutions. Therefore, the report highlights overall changes we can make to our behaviours and values that would transform the way we use our systems and reduce overall risk. These include a shift towards zero waste, a closer connection to nature, global cooperation and trust, consideration for future generations and shifting to an economic model that is less focused on growth and more on human well-being within planetary boundaries.

Avoiding or adapting to risk tipping points requires us to fundamentally change how we perceive and value the world around us in a way that gives us the responsibility to care for it. We must design our systems to work in a way that recognizes how much we need the world and all its systems working together for our survival; otherwise we will find ourselves in a future where risks continue to multiply. The choice is ours. We have the power to act now to create the future we want.

Explore the tipping points from the 2023 report