Cooperation tipping points?


in Economics, Politics, Science, The environment

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.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan March 18, 2008 at 12:11 am
Sarah March 18, 2008 at 1:26 pm

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.

. March 18, 2008 at 3:37 pm
richard pauli February 1, 2010 at 5:35 pm

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.

Milan February 1, 2010 at 5:41 pm

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.

. November 9, 2010 at 11:53 am

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.

Milan April 7, 2011 at 9:45 pm

This could be destabilizing…

oleh April 8, 2011 at 2:25 am

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?

oleh April 8, 2011 at 3:33 am

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.

. September 18, 2011 at 9:12 pm

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.

. October 18, 2011 at 12:23 pm

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.

. October 20, 2011 at 12:40 pm

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.

. December 10, 2011 at 6:27 pm

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.

. December 24, 2014 at 12:58 am

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.

. July 11, 2017 at 2:07 pm

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.

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