UN Interconnected Disaster Risks report 2023
Introduction 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.
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