Global warming potentials (GWPs) have become an essential element of climate policy and are built into legal structures that regulate greenhouse gas emissions. This is in spite of a well-known shortcoming: GWP hides trade-offs between short- and long-term policy objectives inside a single time scale of 100 or 20 years (1). The most common form, GWP100, focuses on the climate impact of a pulse emission over 100 years, diluting near-term effects and misleadingly implying that short-lived climate pollutants exert forcings in the long-term, long after they are removed from the atmosphere (2). Meanwhile, GWP20 ignores climate effects after 20 years. We propose that these time scales be ubiquitously reported as an inseparable pair, much like systolic-diastolic blood pressure and city-highway vehicle fuel economy, to make the climate effect of using one or the other time scale explicit. Policy-makers often treat a GWP as a value-neutral measure, but the time-scale choice is central to achieving specific objectives (2–4).
The literature on the costs of climate change often draws a link between climatic ‘tipping points’ and large economic shocks, frequently called ‘catastrophes’. The phrase ‘tipping points’ in this context can be misleading. In popular and social scientific discourse, ‘tipping points’ involve abrupt state changes. For some climatic ‘tipping points,’ the commitment to a state change may occur abruptly, but the change itself may be rate-limited and take centuries or longer to realize. Additionally, the connection between climatic ‘tipping points’ and economic losses is tenuous, though emerging empirical and process-model-based tools provide pathways for investigating it. We propose terminology to clarify the distinction between ‘tipping points’ in the popular sense, the critical thresholds exhibited by climatic and social ‘tipping elements,’ and ‘economic shocks’. The last may be associated with tipping elements, gradual climate change, or non-climatic triggers. We illustrate our proposed distinctions by surveying the literature on climatic tipping elements, climatically sensitive social tipping elements, and climate-economic shocks, and we propose a research agenda to advance the integrated assessment of all three.