Cooperation tipping points?

Bike wheel in snow

All regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the idea that there are physical tipping points in the climate system: places where one additional unit of warming produces much more harm to people and natural ecosystems than the previous units did. Politically, it is worth considering the possibility that another kind of tipping point exists, namely one beyond which the willingness of various actors to cooperate on climate change alters dramatically on the basis of some critical increment of climate change effects.

It’s possible that the effect could be one of rallying – the world suddenly realizing the seriousness of the issue and thus taking immediate action. States previously obsessed with exactly who should pay how much and exactly what timeline should be followed might just buckle down and do what needs to be done. A fair number of people seem to think that only a pretty substantial disaster will make the threat of climate change sufficiently concrete for enough people for the hard work of stabilization to begin.

The other possibility (mentioned here) is that the world will pass from hesitation and avoidance of the issue directly into conflict, accusation, and counter-productive action. Severe climatic impacts could drive states and individuals to focus on their own short term internal and external security, rather than making serious efforts to address the root of the problem. This is a classical prisoner’s dilemma scenario and, unless it flips to a state of desperate cooperation once things got really bad, it could push the world across the physical thresholds that are so worrisome.

In any case, it is as necessary to be aware of the existence of hidden feedbacks within public sentiment and government planning as within ecosystems or patterns in air and water currents. Of course, that just adds additional uncertainty to a very threatening brew.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

34 thoughts on “Cooperation tipping points?”

  1. I was recently told by a geographer studying glaciers that one of these ‘tipping points’ concerns glacier movement (and hence melt) because there are 2 processes for glaciers – either they have liquid water underneath and move quickly, or its ice all the way down & they move slowly. The acceleration & presence of water underneath Greenland and Antarctic ice evidences that the temperature has risen enough for them to move from one state (ice all the way down) to the other. In many parts of the world all the glaciers are wet (water underneath) anyway, but rising temperatures still mean greatly accelerated melting.
    On the upside, the Greenland ice sheet will take a very, very long time to melt (ie. way more than our lifespan) because it is astonishingly vast; on the downside, the resultant sea rise would eventually drown most of our major cities.

  2. This is a superb blog. Thank you for hosting this.

    Of all groups, Politicians need to be the most educated about global warming. To be otherwise is to race to the bottom and hasten doom.

  3. Of course, climate change is nothing but trouble for politicians. If they understand it and start behaving responsibly, they anger powerful interests (coal, oil and gas, etc) while receiving only weak support from the industries of the future (renewables, etc).

    They also empower their populist opponents to accuse them of raising energy prices when families cannot afford it, forcing grandma to shiver in the cold, etc.

    I think it’s fair to say that you need to be an especially brave and moral politician to show a real dedication to climate change, at least in North America. By a real dedication, I mean something more than saying nice things about ‘green jobs’ while completely failing to mention that we need to move away from fossil fuels long before they are all burned.

  4. Using violence to stop climate change

    I remember the Oxford philosopher and ethicist Henry Shue once suggesting in passing that the level of risk associated with allowing climate change to proceed unchecked could potentially justify the use of force against those who refuse to curb their emissions.

    Of course, there is a massive gulf between something being potentially justified and it being a good idea. In particular, I think it is absolutely foolish for people to consider using violence to try and encourage climate change mitigation or political change. Doing so would further brand the environmental movement as a bunch of dangerous radicals – rather than the only group within society that is taking the right of future generations to live in a stable and hospitable climate seriously.

  5. I do not expect politicians to be on the tipping point raising awareness and pushing for action on climate change. Awareness and fighting climate change requires long-term foresight. Politicians within our democracies are obsessed with the short-term interests of the voters. Hence the lack of long term foresight.

    An exception may be politicians where there is not a democracy. There the leader can assert long term vision, including the potential to combat climate change.

    The main candidate for that would be China. However, the leaders in China are able to maintain power in part by allowing the wealthy in China to pursue their interest in conspicuous consumption, or actually consumption along the lines we take for C=granted for ourselves in Canada.

    Where do you think we will find both the leadership and the mass support to combat climate change?

  6. On further reflection, there is another type of politician who could lead the charge on raising awareness and fighting climate change – a former high level politician and in particular a former POTUS (US President) – perhaps Carter, perhaps Clinton. Gore as a former VP has already done his part. The former politician can do this because they have stature , especially a POTUS, but they are not seeking re-election which requires pandering to the voters’ short-term interest. Obama could be such an ex-POTUS.

  7. Climate science (I)

    Seasons of discontent

    El Niño, a worldwide fluctuation in the climate, may provoke civil war as well as inclement weather

    BELIEVERS extol the infant Christ, after whom the global climate oscillation El Niño is named, as the Prince of Peace. Not so, according to a new analysis by Solomon Hsiang of Columbia University and his colleagues. Looking at data on weather and warfare from around the world over the past six decades, Dr Hsiang finds that in those countries where El Niño exerts its effects it brings with it a significant extra risk of civil conflict. The results, published in Nature, cannot be translated into a prognosis for the effects that global warming may have on ancient grudges and new mutinies. But they provide a striking insight into the ways that geography can shape human affairs.

    The work starts with two well-established sets of data, one on violence and the other on the weather. From the first the team calculated an “annual conflict risk” for violence within countries (as opposed to cross-border wars). From the second it produced a map of the world divided into 82 countries where the weather pays little heed to the presence or absence of Niños and 93 where the weather does pay such heed—a group that covers almost all of the tropics. Niños are sloshings of warm water across the equatorial Pacific that take place once or twice a decade. They mostly make themselves felt by increasing tropical temperatures and lowering rainfall around the tropical world, though the effects are not the same everywhere. Such semi-regular instability is not experienced in temperate climes, and it has deep repercussions.

  8. In what could herald a significant shift in policy for a region that has been in the forefront of advocating action to combat climate change, the European Union is for the first time clearly questioning whether it should press ahead with plans to cut greenhouse-gas emissions if other countries don’t follow suit.

    In a document seen by The Wall Street Journal, the European Commission’s energy department says the EU should consider whether the region should seek to switch its domestic energy base away from carbon-emitting sources in the absence of a global climate-change deal.

  9. TOKYO — Japan is reconsidering plans to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 25% by 2020 due to a rethinking of its energy future, and the country is worried that it is spending too much on carbon-credit programs, a senior government official said on Wednesday.

    Japan’s doubts, prompted in part by its nuclear disaster in March, come at a time the European Union is questioning whether it should press ahead with plans to cut greenhouse-gas emissions if others don’t follow suit.

  10. Pingback: COP 17 – Durban
  11. With Britain seemingly headed back into recession, the prime minister finds himself at a turning point. Close allies, Conservative MPs and sympathetic think-tanks advise him that the quest for economic growth must trump all other considerations. Wish lists are pouring in from all sides, with a bias towards supply-side reforms aimed at making Britain a lightly-taxed, flexibly-regulated and competitive place to do business. All point to the same conclusion: that Mr Cameron might have to retoxify the Tory brand to save the economy.

    Suggestions include abolishing the 50% top rate of income tax and speeding up cuts to corporation tax. Keeping wealth-creators in Britain matters more than accusations of being the party of the rich, many on the right tell Mr Cameron and his chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne. Ditch those huskies, others argue, and with them British pledges to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions faster than European neighbours. There are calls to postpone dreams of “rebalancing” the economy away from the finance-oriented City of London and the south-east of England: this is a moment for helping the strongest first. Defend City institutions from hostile European Union regulations, it is argued. Slash back employment laws and other red tape, say many MPs: if that involves a dust-up with Brussels, good.

  12. After that huge climate march, I asked Jamie Henn, a cofounder of and communications director for, how he viewed this moment and he replied, “Everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart,” a perfect summary of the way heartening news about alternative energy and the growth of climate activism exists in the shadow of those terrible scientific reports. This brings us to our third group of heroes, who fall into the one climate category that doesn’t require special qualifications: activists.

  13. Climatologists are very careful when talking about Syria. They want you to know that while climate change did produce a drought that contributed to civil war, it is not exactly fair to saythat the conflict is the result of warming; next door, for instance, Lebanon suffered the same crop failures. But researchers like Marshall Burke and Solomon Hsiang have managed to quantify some of the non-obvious relationships between temperature and violence: For every half-degree of warming, they say, societies will see between a 10 and 20 percent increase in the likelihood of armed conflict. In climate science, nothing is simple, but the arithmetic is harrowing: A planet five degrees warmer would have at least half again as many wars as we do today. Overall, social conflict could more than double this century.

    This is one reason that, as nearly every climate scientist I spoke to pointed out, the U.S. military is obsessed with climate change: The drowning of all American Navy bases by sea-level rise is trouble enough, but being the world’s policeman is quite a bit harder when the crime rate doubles. Of course, it’s not just Syria where climate has contributed to conflict. Some speculate that the elevated level of strife across the Middle East over the past generation reflects the pressures of global warming — a hypothesis all the more cruel considering that warming began accelerating when the industrialized world extracted and then burned the region’s oil.

    What accounts for the relationship between climate and conflict? Some of it comes down to agriculture and economics; a lot has to do with forced migration, already at a record high, with at least 65 million displaced people wandering the planet right now. But there is also the simple fact of individual irritability. Heat increases municipal crime rates, and swearing on social media, and the likelihood that a major-league pitcher, coming to the mound after his teammate has been hit by a pitch, will hit an opposing batter in retaliation. And the arrival of air-conditioning in the developed world, in the middle of the past century, did little to solve the problem of the summer crime wave.

  14. Two visions of the eu competed during the migration crisis of 2015 and 2016, when more than 2m people flooded into the bloc. On one side stood the humanitarians, who viewed the eu as a normative power, a shining light on a hill. For them, the response was a moral question with a simple answer: Willkommenskultur. On the other side were the hardliners. Their argument for stiff, brutal measures at the border was based on practicality (a state can only feed and house so many refugees at once) and politics (voters will kick out anyone who allows too large and sudden an influx, sharpish). After five years of wrestling, the humanitarians have been routed. Now the hardliners reign supreme.

    Brutality at the border is now a central feature of European migration policy. The misery is no coincidence. Anyone who makes it to Greece faces dreadful conditions. On the Greek island of Lesbos 20,000 people are stuck in a camp designed for a seventh of that number. The Greek government is building new facilities, but these will come with strict rules on when asylum-seekers may come and go. Anyone who makes it out of Greece is liable to be beaten up by police at the Croatian border, who have been accused of pummelling and robbing migrants before dumping them back into neighbouring Bosnia. Deterrence trumps principle or, in some cases, the law. (Greece has suspended asylum applications for a month, arguing with some justification that the recent influx of people is being orchestrated by the Turkish government, which wants the eu to give it more money.) Officials are eager to focus on what has become the eu’s guiding philosophy on migration: pour décourager les autres.

    Tactics that were once the demands of a nationalist fringe have been adopted by mainstream governments.

    Consequently, governments seem happy to do nearly anything to keep asylum-seekers at bay, even if that means aping the parties they are determined to keep out of power.

  15. As great powers competed for economic spheres, global governance would erode. Geopolitical conflict would paralyze the UN, as was the case during the Cold War. NATO might dissolve as the United States cherry-picked partners. And the unraveling of the U.S. security blanket over Europe could mean the end of the European Union, too, which already suffers from deep divisions. The few arms control treaties that remain in force today might fall by the wayside as countries militarized to defend themselves. Efforts to combat transnational problems—such as climate change, financial crises, or pandemics—would mimic the world’s shambolic response to COVID-19, when countries hoarded supplies, the World Health Organization parroted Chinese misinformation, and the United States withdrew into itself.

  16. “Defence industry infrastructure is also likely to be exposed to climate-related events that could disrupt parts of or whole supply chains, affecting the supply of essential equipment and battle-winning capabilities,” the report warns. The UK might lose “access to supply chain inputs such as minerals used for manufacturing defence equipment, platforms and components,” or if “violent conflict takes place in mineral-mining regions as a result of resource shortages.” That could undermine the UK’s “force readiness.” In other words, armed forces may consider going to war to ensure their ability to go to war, by securing access to key resources. Already, you may note a problem. If the military of one country is analysing the implications of collapse, then it’s likely that many will be. Therefore, many armed forces will be war gaming how to control foreign countries merely to sustain their capacity for war. Where does such thinking lead for humanity heading into a highly turbulent period where we must become more efficient with resources and fairer in how we distribute them, in order not to make matters worse?

  17. Climate Change Is Making Big Problems Bigger

    New data compiled by the E.P.A. shows how global warming is making life harder for Americans in myriad ways that threaten their health, safety and homes. From a report:

    “Wildfires are bigger, and starting earlier in the year. Heat waves are more frequent. Seas are warmer, and flooding is more common. The air is getting hotter. Even ragweed pollen season is beginning sooner. Climate change is already happening around the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency said on Wednesday. And in many cases, that change is speeding up. The freshly compiled data, the federal government’s most comprehensive and up-to-date information yet, shows that a warming world is making life harder for Americans, in ways that threaten their health and safety, homes and communities. And it comes as the Biden administration is trying to propel aggressive action at home and abroad to cut the pollution that is raising global temperatures. “There is no small town, big city or rural community that is unaffected by the climate crisis,” Michael S. Regan, the E.P.A. administrator, said on Wednesday. “Americans are seeing and feeling the impacts up close, with increasing regularity.”

    The data released Wednesday came after a four-year gap. Until 2016, the E.P.A. regularly updated its climate indicators. But under President Donald J. Trump, who repeatedly questioned whether the planet was warming, the data was frozen in time. It was available on the agency’s website but was not kept current. The Biden administration revived the effort this year and added some new measures, pulling information from government agencies, universities and other sources. The E.P.A. used 54 separate indicators which, taken together, paint a grim picture.”

  18. Upward-scaling tipping cascades to meet climate goals: plausible grounds for hope

    Limiting global warming to well below 2°C requires a dramatic acceleration of decarbonization to reduce net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to zero around mid-century. In complex systems – including human societies – tipping points can occur, in which a small perturbation transforms a system. Crucially, activating one tipping point can increase the likelihood of triggering another at a larger scale, and so on. Here, we show how such upward-scaling tipping cascades could accelerate progress in tackling climate change. We focus on two sectors – light road transport and power – where tipping points have already been triggered by policy interventions at individual nation scales. We show how positive-sum cooperation, between small coalitions of jurisdictions and their policymakers, could lead to global changes in the economy and emissions. The aim of activating tipping points and tipping cascades is a particular application of systems thinking. It represents a different starting point for policy to the theory of welfare economics, one that can be useful when the priority is to achieve dynamic rather than allocative efficiency.

  19. The pandemic might have become a moment for global co-operation. It did not. Instead, borders were closed and states rushed to develop their own vaccines. Little was done to protect the poorest countries from the economic damage of lockdowns or to distribute vaccines equitably. Conflicts in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere raged on; pleas for ceasefires from the un went largely unheeded.

  20. Why energy insecurity is here to stay

    The war will speed the shift from petrostates to new electrostates

    The immediate reaction of governments everywhere has been to scramble to find more fossil fuels, however polluting to the environment or painful to their pride. With Western encouragement, Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil firm, is raising investment to $40bn-50bn a year. At one point, the Biden administration buttered up Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s dictator, perhaps to get more oil from a state which in 2005 supplied 4% of the world’s crude.

  21. The average ongoing conflict in the mid-1980s had been blazing for about 13 years; by 2021 that figure had risen to 20.

    The most worrying factor, however, is climate change. It does not directly cause war, but it makes it more likely. When farmers are displaced by droughts or floods, they often move onto lands that traditionally belong to other ethnic groups. In just one region of Mali, an ngo counted 70 conflicts, mostly over land and grazing rights. In the Sahel, an arid vastness below the Sahara desert, climate change has disrupted livelihoods so badly that jihadist groups find it easy to recruit. They promise divine justice—and stress that this means getting your pasture or farmland back. Civil wars are already concentrated in hot, poor countries; as the climate grows harsher, the belt of bloodshed around the equator will surely grow wider.

  22. Climate change is aggravating the mayhem. It does not directly cause conflict, but when pastures dry up, herders drive their hungry cattle farther afield, often encroaching on land claimed by rival ethnic groups. A review of 55 studies by Marshall Burke of Stanford University and others found that a one-standard-deviation increase in local temperature raises the chance of intergroup conflict by 11% compared with what it would have been at a more normal temperature.

    Globally, some 24m people were displaced by extreme weather in 2021, and the un expects that figure to soar. In Sudan, some 3m people were displaced by conflict and natural disasters even before the current round of fighting began.

  23. The UN chief summons world leaders to action. But, he says, they seem ‘incapable of coming together’

    UNITED NATIONS – Insisting that international cooperation is critical, the United Nations chief delivered a dire warning to leaders from across the world Tuesday, declaring that the planet is becoming unhinged with mounting global challenges and geopolitical tensions — and warning that “we seem incapable of coming together to respond.”

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