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Risk of multiple interacting tipping points should encourage rapid CO2 emission reduction

Abstract

Evidence suggests that several elements of the climate system could be tipped into a different state by global warming, causing irreversible economic damages. To address their policy implications, we incorporated five interacting climate tipping points into a stochastic-dynamic integrated assessment model, calibrating their likelihoods and interactions on results from an existing expert elicitation. Here we show that combining realistic assumptions about policymakers’ preferences under uncertainty, with the prospect of multiple future interacting climate tipping points, increases the present social cost of carbon in the model nearly eightfold from US$15 per tCO2 to US$116 per tCO2. Furthermore, passing some tipping points increases the likelihood of other tipping points occurring to such an extent that it abruptly increases the social cost of carbon. The corresponding optimal policy involves an immediate, massive effort to control CO2 emissions, which are stopped by mid-century, leading to climate stabilization at <1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.

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Figure 1: Map of the five climate tipping events considered here and the causal interactions between them previously identified in an expert elicitation8.
Figure 2: Effect of multiple interacting tipping points and altered preferences on optimal policy.
Figure 3: Effect of causal interactions between tipping events on the social cost of carbon.

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Acknowledgements

We thank K. L. Judd and participants of the 2015 Annual Conference of the European Association of Environmental and Resource Economics for comments. Y.C. was supported by NSF (SES-0951576 and SES-146364). T.S.L. was supported by the Züricher Universitätsverein, the University of Zurich, and the Ecosciencia Foundation. T.M.L. was supported by a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award and the European Commission HELIX project (ENV.2013.6.1-3). Supercomputer support was provided by Blue Waters (NSF awards OCI-0725070 and ACI-1238993, and the state of Illinois).

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Y.C., T.M.L. and T.S.L. designed research, performed research and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Timothy M. Lenton or Thomas S. Lontzek.

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Cai, Y., Lenton, T. & Lontzek, T. Risk of multiple interacting tipping points should encourage rapid CO2 emission reduction. Nature Clim Change 6, 520–525 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2964

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