The Six “Risk Tipping Points” That Could Spell Disaster for Humanity
Sunday, November 5th, 2023
This week’s core story is about: Risk tipping points.
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KNEAD TO KNOW
A new report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the infant mortality rate rose last year for the first time in two decades (from 2001 to 2002), recording 5.6 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 2022 (up 3% from 5.44 per 1,000 in 2021). The report found the increase was most pronounced in Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, and Texas, a phenomenon experts say is linked to legislators in those four states banning abortion not long after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022. The CDC report is based on preliminary data submitted to the agency, which will most likely issue a final report next year.
A new study by researchers at Princeton University found stricter gun laws passed by 40 states between 1991 and 2016 reduced gun deaths by 4,300 in 2016, or around 10% of the national total that year. The researchers found “strong, consistent evidence supporting the hypothesis that restrictive state gun policies reduce overall gun deaths, homicides committed with a gun, and suicides committed with a gun.” In all, the study suggests each additional restrictive gun measure was associated with -0.21 gun deaths per 100,000 residents.
A new study led by famed ex-NASA climate scientist James Hansen found the Earth’s pace of warming is accelerating at a greater rate than currently believed, suggesting the 1.5°C benchmark will be passed in the 2020s and 2°C of warming will be passed before 2050. The study also includes several policy recommendations and calls on climate scientists to embrace similar ethical responsibilities as those of medical practitioners to their patients. Other experts have critiqued the study, finding the work to be “unconvincing” and on the high side of previous estimates.
A new study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found books that get banned from schools and public libraries receive on average a 12% boost in circulation compared to books that don’t get banned. The study also found banning a book in one state led to an 11% boost in circulation in states that didn’t ban the book. “This increase often featured books by lesser-known authors, suggesting that new and relatively unknown authors gained from a rise in consumer support,” according to the authors.
The Six “Risk Tipping Points” That Could Spell Disaster for Humanity
A new report by the United Nations University in Germany describes six interconnected “risk tipping points” the world is fast approaching that could lead to the irreversible change or complete collapse of global life-sustaining ecological and societal systems.
The report defines a risk tipping point as “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.”
Think of a tower built of bricks. Removing one brick may leave the tower standing strong, but remove too many, and the instability builds until the tower falls.
The tipping points analyzed in the report also extend beyond their single domains of climate, ecosystems, society, or technology, and are instead highly interconnected, including being closely linked to human activities and livelihoods.
The six risk tipping points are:
1. Accelerating extinctions that trigger chain reactions leading to ecosystem collapse: Humans have drastically accelerated the rate of extinction through activities like land use change, overexploitation, pollution, and the introduction of invasive species. The current rate of species extinction is at least tens to hundreds of times higher than historic norms due to human influence.
2. Groundwater depletion draining water and risking food supply: Underground aquifers provide drinking water to more than 2 billion people and supply around 70% of water for agricultural use. However, 21 of 37 of the world’s major aquifers are being drained faster than they can be replenished. Aquifers take thousands of years to recharge, making them essentially a non-renewable resource.
3. Mountain glacier melting: Mountain glaciers act as “water towers” by storing fresh water and supplying water downstream for drinking, irrigation, hydropower, and ecosystems. Global warming is melting the world’s glaciers at twice the speed they had in the past two decades (glaciers lost 267 billion tons of ice per day from 2000 to 2019), and, even if global warming is limited to 1.5°C, the world could lose 50% of all glaciers (excluding Greenland and Antarctica) by 2100.
4. Space debris causing the loss of multiple satellites: Thousands of satellites orbit the Earth and distribute vital information, and recent advancements have made it easier for countries, companies, and individuals to put satellites in space. However, as the number of satellites grows, so does the risk of cascading collisions of space debris, threatening the critical infrastructure enabling societies to function.
5. Unbearable heat making some parts of the world unlivable: Human-induced climate change is causing global temperatures to rise, leading to more intense and frequent heat waves with deadly consequences (extreme heat was responsible for 500,000 excess deaths annually from 2000 to 2019). Around 30% of the global population today is exposed to deadly heat for at least 20 days per year, and that figure could rise to over 70% by 2100.
6. Uninsurable future as rising risks make insurance unreachable: Damage from weather-related disasters has increased sevenfold since the 1970s, with 2022 alone seeing $313 billion in global losses. Insurance costs will rise as more frequent and severe extreme weather disasters (projected to double globally by 2040) causes risk to rise over the coming decades.
Why it matters:
The report found the world is moving “perilously close to the brink of multiple risk tipping points,” the impacts of which would be catastrophic.
The threats are also far from theoretical.
Take Saudi Arabia, which once sat atop one of the world’s largest aquifers. The country used that groundwater throughout the 1970s to build the desert oasis we know today, and at one point in the 1990s became the world’s sixth-largest wheat producer.
However, the vast overextraction ended up depleting an estimated 80% of the underground aquifer, and in 2016, the government announced that year’s wheat harvest would be its last. Saudi Arabia now relies on imported crops to feed its 30 million residents.
The report also lays out a new framework for evaluating mitigation strategies based on two categories: Avoid (prevent the risk) or Adapt (deal with the risk). Each category has two actions: Delay (slow the risk progression) and Transform (system overhaul).
For example, regarding the “Unbearable Heat” tipping point, an Avoid-Transform approach may seek to reduce emissions and encourage personal changes toward low-carbon lifestyles, while an Adapt-Delay approach could be installing air conditioners or building shade infrastructure in hotter climates.
The report found most climate solutions today focus on Delay rather than Transform actions, but transformative change is now becoming the focus. Such transformative solutions will require buy-in from society and individuals, and unprecedented action across sectors to address the complex causes and drivers of risk.
“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,” the authors wrote. “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.”
Humans Are Making the Earth Saltier
A new study by researchers at the University of Maryland found human activity is rapidly accelerating the Earth’s natural “salt cycle,” making our air, soil, and freshwater saltier, with potentially devastating consequences for water supplies, agriculture, and ecosystems.
The study found human activities like mining and land development are accelerating the geologic and hydrologic processes that typically bring salt to the Earth’s surface, which harms biodiversity and makes freshwater undrinkable in extreme cases.
One of the main contributors is road salts, which can cause a “substantial” concentration of salt in watersheds as the solids dissolve on roads, and can even contaminate the air when aerosolized.
Americans’ Confidence in Vaccines Is Falling as Health Misinformation Rises
A new survey by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found the number of Americans who believe vaccines approved in the U.S. are safe to use fell from 77% in April 2021 to 71% today, while the share that believes they aren’t safe grew from 9% to 16% over the same period.
The survey also uncovered an alarming increase in belief in health misinformation. Today, 63% of U.S. adults believe it’s safer to get the COVID vaccine than the COVID disease, down from 75% in April 2021, and 26% incorrectly believe ivermectin is an effective treatment for COVID, up dramatically from 10% in September 2021.
“There are warning signs in these data that we ignore at our peril,” said survey director Kathleen Jamieson. “Growing numbers now distrust health-protecting, life-saving vaccines.”
Large-Scale Warfare May Have Occurred in Europe 1,000 Years Earlier than Previously Thought
A new study by researchers at the University of Valladolid in Spain suggests large-scale conflict occurred in Spain around 5,000 years ago in the Neolithic period, about 1,000 years before the previous earliest known instance of warfare in the region (during the Bronze Age).
The researchers re-analyzed the 5,000-year-old skeletons of 338 individuals excavated from a mass burial site in Spain (part of the site is pictured above), finding damaged bones, areas of trauma, and unhealed wounds that suggest many of the individuals were the casualties of a potentially months-long period of conflict.
The team also found a disproportionately high percentage of the skeletons belonged to males and that the vast majority of injuries occurred in adolescent or adult males, a difference not observed in other Neolithic mass burial sites and one that indicates conflict since warriorship during the period was mainly restricted to males.
OUTSIDE THE LOX
Outside the Lox is a new weekly feature highlighting a fun new research finding.
Where Do You Put a Hat on a Starfish?
A new study by researchers at Stanford University has settled a scientific mystery: where is the head on a starfish located? It may sound simple, but it’s a serious biological question that has confused scientists for centuries.
The researchers used genetic and molecular tools to map out the body regions of starfish, finding the “head” of the creature isn’t in any one place. Rather, the “headlike regions” are distributed, with some located in the center of the starfish and others in the center of each limb of the body.
In other words, the body is essentially the head.
“The answer is much more complicated than we expected,” said lead author Laurent Formery. “It is just weird, and most likely the evolution of the group was even more complicated than this.”
6 years - The amount of time until the world’s current carbon budget will be exhausted if emissions remain at 2022 levels (around 40 gigatonnes a year), effectively committing the world to 1.5°C of warming, according to a new study by researchers at Imperial College London in the U.K. The researchers say the figure suggests the world’s carbon budget is less than previously calculated and has been halved since 2020.
$250 billion - How much a 2% wealth tax on the world’s 2,700 billionaires could generate each year, according to a new report from the E.U. Tax Observatory. The 2024 Global Tax Evasion Report found billionaires’ effective personal tax rate is often far lower than that of other taxpayers because they can hold their wealth in offshore shell companies that shelter the funds from income taxes.
162% - The projected increase in U.S. heat-related cardiovascular deaths by mid-century (between 2036 and 2065) under a hypothetical scenario where currently proposed policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are successfully implemented, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. The study also examined a “more dire scenario” where emissions aren’t reduced and continue to increase at the same rate they have over the past two decades, finding cardiovascular deaths from extreme heat could rise 233%.
100+ years - The lifespan of three freshwater fish species from the Ictiobus genus (commonly known as “buffalofish”), according to a new study by researchers at the University of Minnesota. The researchers say Ictiobus is the second genus of animal ever for which three or more species have observed lifespans greater than 100 years. The team hopes their work leads to scientific insights into aging and longevity across disciplines.
Long Video. Here’s how to make learning as addictive as social media. (13 min)
Short Video. How is Aldi so cheap and successful? (6 min)
Fun Video. Learn about rotoscoping, the invention that changed animation forever. (5 min)
Good Read. Read about modern medicine’s Dark Age roots and how the logic of bloodletting lives on today. (1,298 words; 6 min)
Neat List. Learn about 22 pioneering women in science history.
In general, do you like shorter bits of information (like in Knead to Know, Quick Bites, and Oven-Fresh Stats) or longer, more detailed explanations (like in the Core Story)?
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Written by Ryan Wittler