Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics reached a major milestone by publishing our 1000th article! For more information visit our News page.

Dismiss
Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, POLITICS (oxfordre.com/politics). (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2020. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 08 August 2020

Climate and Environmental Crises

Summary and Keywords

Climate change is increasingly being framed as a “climate crisis.” Such a crisis could be viewed both to unfold in the climate system, as well as to be induced by it in diverse areas of society. Following from current understandings of modern crises, it is clear that climate change indeed can be defined as a “crisis.” As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 1.5oC special report elaborates, the repercussions of a warming planet include increased food insecurity, increased frequency and intensity of severe droughts, extreme heat waves, the loss of coral reef ecosystems and associated marine species, and more. It is also important to note that a range of possible climate-induced crises (through, e.g., possible increased food insecurity and weather extremes) will not be distributed evenly, but will instead disproportionally affect already vulnerable social groups, communities, and countries in detrimental ways.

The multifaceted dimensions of climate change allow for multiple interpretations and framings of “climate crisis,” thereby forcing us to acknowledge the deeply contextual nature of what is understood as a “crisis.” Climate change and its associated crises display a number of challenging properties that stem from its connections to basically all sectors in society, its propensity to induce and in itself embed nonlinear changes such as “tipping points” and cascading shocks, and its unique and challenging long-term temporal dimensions. The latter pose particularly difficult decision-making and institutional challenges because initial conditions (in this case, carbon dioxide emissions) do not result in immediate or proportional responses (say, global temperature anomalies), but instead play out through feedbacks among the climate system, oceans, the cryosphere, and changes in forest biomes, with some considerable delays in time. Additional challenges emerge from the fact that early warnings of pending so-called “catastrophic shifts” face numerous obstacles, and that early responses are undermined by a lack of knowledge, complex causality, and severe coordination challenges.

Keywords: climate change, environmental crises, global risks, systemic risks, complex systems, tipping points, climate security, complexity, resilience, crisis analysis

From “Climate Change” to “Climate Crisis”

The years 2018 and 2019 are likely to be viewed as the years when climate change once again became a reality in the mind of the general public. Massive forest fires in California, Greece, and Sweden; increased food insecurity in conflict ridden countries; repeated heat records followed by drought and flash floods in Australia; repeated tropical cyclones such as Idai in south-eastern Africa; and a steady flow of worrying climate reports (such as the special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] about the implications of a 1.5°C warming) seem to have set the stage for an increased sense of urgency and crisis. In Europe, a slight but important change in language can even be noted. The issue in the public discourse is not “climate change” anymore, but “climate crisis” or “climate emergency.”

Understanding the features of this growing sense of a “climate crisis” is therefore becoming increasingly important. This begs the following question, however: In what ways is the climate crisis—that is a crisis both in the climate system, as well as induced by it in diverse areas of society—different from other known and well-studied crises, such as terror attacks, cyber-warfare, earthquakes, or sudden disruptions in critical infrastructure?

The answer has, as is elaborated in more detail in this article, both theoretical and practical implications. In the first case, the “climate crisis” displays challenging properties that stem from its connections to basically all sectors in society, its proneness to induce and in itself embed nonlinear changes, and its unique and challenging long-term temporal dimensions. In the second case, these features pose a different set of decision-making and institutional challenges compared to other types of crises.

This article is structured as follows: The first part, “ Is Climate Change Really a ‘Climate Crisis’?,” summarizes some of the commonalities of the climate crisis compared to standard definitions and studies of societal crises. The second part, “Climate Crises as Complex Adaptive Systems,” elaborates key properties related to the climate crisis that make it particularly challenging from a crisis management perspective. The third part, “Responding to Climate Change as a Crisis,” explores a few critical challenges for the research community. As stated in “Concluding Reflections,” tackling these challenges will require deep collaboration between crisis management scholars and sustainability scholars, including researchers from the Earth system science, social-ecological systems analysis, and others.

Is Climate Change Really a “Climate Crisis”?

Can one really speak of, and study, climate change as a “climate crisis”? Although this might sound like a simple question, the answer depends very much on the definition and framing of such a “crisis.” This article points out a few issues that challenge overly simplistic notions of a “climate crisis.”

First of all, environmental degradation and climate change have been framed as “crises” before. One historically prominent example is Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798 and its influential and debated claim that continuous population growth inevitably would lead to escalating food insecurity, famine, and disease. Ardent discussions followed from the publication of “Limits to Growth” by the Club of Rome in 1972 (Turner, 2008); Rachel Carson’s impactful book Silent Spring in 1962; and international negotiations in Stockholm (1972) under the motto “Only One Earth” (Ivanova, 2013). All are examples of how climate change and environmental degradation have been perceived as crises historically.

Second, although some of the repercussions of climate change and environmental degradation certainly will be shared across regions, it is also well established that these possible climate-induced crises (through, e.g., possible increased food insecurity and weather extremes) will not be distributed evenly across social groups and countries (Ahmed et al., 2009; Dow, 1992). As others have noted, climate change can be understood and framed in different ways, each framing emphasizing different types of knowledge, policy responses, and sense of urgency (Leach et al., 2010; Nisbet, 2014; O’Brien, Eriksen, Nygaard, & Schjolden, 2013). For example, climate change is understood and acted on as a “crisis” in very different ways by a municipal decision-maker in a food-insecure region in the Philippines, Extinction Rebellion climate activists in the United Kingdom, humanitarian agencies in the Sahel region, an international beverage company facing water stress in the near future, or a U.S. asset manager realizing that its investments in coal companies are about to become “stranded” because of escalating demands for clean energy. The unequal impacts and alternative framings of the climate “crisis” therefore force one to ask: Climate crisis in what ways and for whom?

The academic literature exploring the different human-environmental sources, anatomy and impacts of climate change, and environmental degradation is highly diverse and impossible to summarize briefly. The 2013 World Social Science Report “Changing Global Environments,” by the International Social Science Council with its 108 individual chapters, is a case in point. This begs the question: How can climate and environmental crises be understood?

Understanding Modern Climate and Environmental Crises

The features of a “crisis” have been discussed at length by many others (e.g., Boin, ‘t Hart, Stern, & Sundelius, 2005; Gibbons, 2007; Gundel, 2005). This article uses what could be viewed as a narrow definition of “crisis,” building on the tradition of studies of crisis management and decision-making. Thus, while there certainly are many ways to formulate and analyze climate and environmental risks, vulnerabilities, and crisis, the focus here is on climate and environmentally induced threats to the basic structures or the fundamental values and norms of a system, which, under time pressure and highly uncertain circumstances, necessitates making critical decisions (reformulated from Rosenthal, Charles, & ‘t Hart, 1989, p. 10).

As many crisis scholars have noted, such modern threats are not easily delineated in either time or space. On the contrary, they can play out in multiple geographies at the same time, slow down and disappear, only to resurface and accelerate later. The financial crisis of 2008–2009, the “food crisis” in the same years, and repeated avian influenza (H5N1) outbreaks later followed by the swine flu (H1N1) in the early 2000s are a few examples of this complex dynamic (Galaz, Moberg, Olsson, Paglia, & Parker, 2011). As Boin and ‘t Hart (2003) put it, “The modern crisis is the product of several modernization processes—globalization, deregulation, information and communication technology, developments and technological advances, to name but a few” (p. 545).

Following from this definition and understanding of modern crises, it is clear that climate change indeed can be defined as a “crisis.” As the mentioned IPCC 1.5oC special report elaborates, the repercussions of a warming planet include increased food insecurity, increased frequency and intensity of severe droughts, extreme heat waves, the loss of coral reef ecosystems and associated marine species, and more (IPCC, 2018). Such impacts will, as already mentioned, lead to negative repercussions that are unequally distributed, both between regions (e.g., low-lying islands, sub-Saharan Africa, coastal zones, the Arctic) and social groups (e.g., underprivileged, women, children, the disabled). As the IPCC notes, “Socially and economically disadvantaged and marginalized people are disproportionally affected by climate change” (IPCC, 2014, p. 796) by being both more susceptible to damages caused by climate hazards such as weather extremes and by having more limited abilities to cope with and recover from the damages they suffer. Such regional and social differences span from climate impacts such as human health (Watts et al., 2018), forced migration (Abel, Brottrager, Cuaresma, & Muttarak, 2019), and water scarcity (Sultana, 2018). Hence, whether a climate shock results in a “crisis” is bound to be highly contextual.

These projected changes in a suite of natural systems induced by climate change all contain some degree of uncertainty of course, but there is an additional type of ambiguity related to possible policies and strategic uncertainties. For example, which policy alternatives will not only prove most effective but also appeal to voters and key interest groups in society: economic subsidies to electric cars and solar panels, or a redistributive national carbon tax? And can a European national government really trust that China, Brazil, or Australia will follow suit with their own ambitious national climate policies? Thus it is indeed fair to speak of a climate “crisis” because it forces decision-makers to act swiftly to avoid the dangerous long- and short-term repercussions of a warming planet, despite large social, economic, and bio-geophysical uncertainties.

It should be noted that climate change has similar properties to other modern crises through its complex connections to other societal sectors and issues, such as human health, food and water security, and financial stability. These “nested vulnerabilities” or “globally networked risks” (Galaz et al., 2017; Helbing, 2013) are well known in both the scientific and policy community but create difficult challenges for policy-makers. For example, the resulting complex causality emerging from these connections makes it difficult to agree on the most effective leverage points or institutional reforms and makes climate-triggered shocks prone to political blame games (Galaz et al., 2011). The massive forest fires in California in 2018, as one concrete example, not only spurred discussions about whether these really could be attributed to climate change but also led to politically motivated debates about the role of the existing forest management regime in California triggered by President Donald Trump’s accusations of poor forest management and subsequent threats to withhold Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds (Holpuch & Anguiano, 2018; Liptak & Reston, 2019; Pierre-Louis, 2018).

Hence insights from crisis management studies are applicable to various dimensions of the climate crisis and its complex repercussions in society at large. Decision-makers are facing, and will continuously face, early warning and sense-making challenges, tragic choices, politicized blame games, crisis communication challenges, and many more of the issues identified in the crisis management literature (Boin et al., 2005; Rosenthal et al., 1989). However, the climate crisis has a number of intriguing properties that span beyond current understandings of crisis dynamics and challenges.

Climate Crises as Complex Adaptive Systems

Modern crises are, as many scholars have noted, cross-sectoral, dynamic, and transboundary (Boin et al., 2005; Gibbons, 2007; Rosenthal et al., 1989). One particularly challenging feature of the climate system, however, is its deep connection to basically all aspects of human civilization. This might sound like a drastic statement but is becoming increasingly clear in both the literature about climate history (Costanza, Graumlich, & Steffen, 2007) and in more sector-based studies. To be more precise, changes in the climate system are closely related to the prospects for global food security, energy provision, financial stability, human health, and “natural” disasters such as cyclones and floods, just to mention a few. Another layer of connections is the one between the climate system and other environmental issues such as biodiversity loss, water scarcity, salinization, eutrophication, invasive species, and land degradation (Steffen et al., 2015). Human influence on the climate system and the operation of the Earth system as a whole (such as the world’s oceans, the cryosphere, landmasses, and visible and invisible water flows) are so pervasive that it has led to intense discussions about the emergence of a possibly new geological epoch—the Anthropocene (Galaz, 2014; Steffen, Grinevald, Crutzen, & McNeill, 2011).

These connections are not merely transboundary and cross-sectoral. They also display intriguing nonlinear properties that make them particularly challenging to manage. One common way to summarize these properties stems from applications of complex adaptive systems sciences. Complex systems are more than complicated or messy. They have particular structures and behaviors, including phenomena like critical thresholds, hysteresis, strange attractors, feedback loops, surprise, and bifurcation points (Duit & Galaz, 2008; Levin, 1999). Although the complexity sciences are dense with theoretical analyses and explorations, they have contributed to considerable breakthroughs in ecology and the Earth system sciences (Galaz, 2014). That is, many of the natural systems that surround us, including the climate system, display properties that stem from, and at least are akin to, complex adaptive systems. These are highly relevant as discussions arise about the challenges for crisis management and decision-making posed by climate change and its connections to other environmental issues and sectors.

Nonlinear Change and Tipping Points

One of the most important properties is related to the tendency of complex adaptive systems to embed nonlinear changes, or “tipping points,” sometimes also denoted as “threshold behavior,” “regime shifts,” “catastrophic shifts,” or “abrupt change.”1 The common theme is that small events might trigger abrupt system changes that are difficult or even impossible to reverse. In some cases, the transition is sharp and dramatic. In others, the transition itself may be slow but definite. Hence, seemingly stable systems (say, a clear shallow lake, a productive agricultural landscape, a glacier providing freshwater, or a biodiversity-rich rainforest) can adapt to stresses under a certain time period but at some point suddenly undergo comprehensive transformations into a new state. Shifts such as these can have major repercussions on communities and economic activities, thus explaining why Scheffer and colleagues denote some of these as “catastrophic shifts” (Scheffer, Carpenter, Foley, Folke, & Walker, 2001).

It is important to note that catastrophic shifts tend to result from both longer-term incremental stresses and shock events that act as triggers. For example, a possible shift of the Amazon rainforest to a savannah is projected to have its roots in both long-term degradation of the rainforest, which slowly makes it dryer over time, and suddenly erupting forest fires. A similar dynamic plays out for coral reef ecosystems where incremental degradation (e.g., nutrient run-off, ocean acidification), in combination with sudden pulse heat stress events such as El Niño, can lead to large-scale collapse of the system.

Tipping Point Cascades

One additional property of complex climate-related crises is the fact that environmental and ecological systems such as these seem to be strongly connected. The mechanisms for these complex cross-sectoral and cross-regional connections have gained increased interest in the literature under the heading “telecoupling” (Liu et al., 2015). This terminology has its roots in the term “teleconnection,” from the climate sciences, and the observation that climate and environmental change in one region of the world can drive weather and environmental changes in another. One such well-studied phenomena is the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) in the eastern Pacific Ocean, which affects precipitation patterns as far away as the Sahel region, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. It has become clear, however, that similar cross-continental connections have strong social components through, for example, decision-making, trade connections, transportation networks, financial economic linkages, and information flows. Just to provide a few examples of this phenomena: policy-induced land use changes in one region influence precipitation patterns in other countries (Keys et al., 2012); deforestation policies in one country lead to additional extraction in others (Meyfroidt, Rudel, & Lambin, 2010); and food import by a set of countries contributes to groundwater depletion in other commodity-producing countries (Dalin, Wada, Kastner, & Puma, 2017).

The observation that environmental changes are connected across countries and regions is not new. Nor is the observation that these may result in globally environmental networked risks, such as food riots resulting from price volatilities, or new systemic risks in the financial sector (Galaz et al., 2017). The difference between connected risks and connected nonlinear risks is the fact that the latter entail abrupt catastrophic shifts in one region, biome, or sector that trigger similar irreversible shifts in other biomes, sectors, and/or regions. This important observation was made by Rocha, Peterson, Bodin, and Levin (2018) based on 300 case studies and a review of more than a thousand academic papers.

One special case of such tipping point cascades is related to the behavior of the Earth system, which forces people to view climate change as a very long-term crisis.

Climate Crisis as Long-Term Nonlinear Changes in the Earth System

The climate sciences have made impressive advances in the last few decades. Increasingly sophisticated climate models and improved observations and measurements allow for detailed projections of how a suite of natural systems is likely to change in the coming decades, including the existence of “tipping points” in the climate system (Lenton & Williams, 2013). As Steffen et al. (2018) suggest, the Earth system as a whole seems to have a limited number of stable pathways. These pathways are defined by feedbacks (such as slow changes in Earth’s orbit) that, over very long time periods in the history of planet Earth, have led to shifts between ice ages and warmer periods, with the last 11,000 years showing an unusual stability in the climate system.

However, as human activities continue to modify several aspects of the Earth system in profound ways, for example, through climate change, Steffen and colleagues suggest that “self-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could […] cause continued warming on a “Hothouse Earth” pathway even as human emissions are reduced” (Steffen et al., 2018, p. 8252; emphasis added). Part of this can be explained by the existence of “tipping elements” (TEs) in the climate system (Lenton et al., 2008). TEs are analogous to “tipping points,” but with a specific and formalized definition that “describe[s] subsystems of the Earth system that are at least subcontinental in scale and can be switched—under certain circumstances—into a qualitatively different state by small perturbations” (Lenton et al., 2008, p. 1786). TEs include melting sea ice and Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, changes in ocean and atmospheric circulation, and loss or alteration of critical biomes such as the large forests in the Amazon region and boreal forests in Russia and Canada. Many of these regions and processes are changing rapidly because of human pressures, such as through deforestation induced by expanding soy plantations (Amazon) or paper production (boreal forests).

Past evidence, observations, and climate models indicate that human activities are rapidly changing the internal dynamics and driving feedbacks of TEs (Lenton et al., 2008), subsequently affecting the stability of the climate system as a whole (Steffen et al., 2018). This is not a trivial observation, as it means that policy responses to the climate crisis (say, international climate negotiations) would become almost obsolete once the Earth system has moved into a “Hothouse Earth” pathway as self-reinforcing feedbacks (or “tipping cascades”) start to unfold.

Climate Crisis and Time

The temporal dimensions of this aspect of the climate crisis are worth further elaboration.2 The Earth system (including the climate system) displays temporal dynamics that play out over hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. As climate models indicate, many temperature anomaly trajectories (ranging from 0–6ºC) are possible in the next thousands of years depending on the carbon dioxide emission pathway the world enters in the next few decades (Clark et al., 2016). Put bluntly, the ability to address the climate crisis in the next decade will have disproportionally large temporal impacts on the Earth system as a whole. The main reason for this is the behavior of the climate system as a complex system. Initial conditions (in this case, carbon dioxide emissions) do not result in immediate nor proportional responses (say, global temperature anomalies), but instead create so-called “committed changes” that play out through feedbacks among the climate system, oceans, the cryosphere, and changes in forest biomes, with some considerable delays in time. Such complex temporal dynamics also play out in natural systems like global fisheries, at times with important distributional consequences. As Sumaila, Cheung, Lam, Pauly, and Herrick (2011) show, climate change will not only lead to increased global mean temperatures but also has profound impacts on marine species of detrimental importance for food security around the world. By combining climate change, ecological, and economic models, Sumaila et al. (2011) show that potential catches of marine fisheries are likely to shift drastically across regions in the world. As oceans become warmer and more acidic, countries in South East Asia and West Africa can expect considerable reductions in future maximum potential catch. The opposite holds for fisheries in wealthier regions like Northern Europe. This redistribution created by a warming planet displays the same temporal dynamics between responses to the climate crisis, and its delayed effects in the climate system, associated ecosystems on land and in the oceans, and those who depend on these resources for their livelihoods.

Responding to Climate Change as a “Crisis”

This article concludes by summarizing what the author believes are the most important crisis management challenges posed by climate change across all its dimensions. The following discussion differs from previous (and partly incorrect) framings of climate change as a crisis. For example, Boin and colleagues have earlier categorized global warming, overpopulation, deforestation and water stress as “unmanageable, at least from a national short-term perspective” (Boin et al., 2005, p. 95). Gundel (2005) classified global environmental change as difficult to influence but easy to predict in advance. As this article has shown, these suggestions are inconsistent with insights provided by the Earth system and sustainability science community. Hence there is a need to focus on both shorter-term early warning and response challenges, and longer-term dimensions. Grappling with both these temporal dimensions at the same time will prove key as the climate crisis gains prominence in the public discourse, and its effects on extreme weather events, food production, and water security become more visible over time.

Early Warning

The need for “early warning,” and the challenges associated it have been a prominent issue in the crisis management literature (Boin et al., 2005; Rosenthal et al., 1989). Such systems are common in the environmental and climate domain, including warning systems for extreme weather events such as droughts and floods, and for natural hazards such as tsunamis and earthquakes. Machine learning approaches and the rapid growth of available data also seem to allow for increasingly advanced mapping and early warning systems (U.S. Agency for International Development, 2018).

In one sense, the challenges of early warnings to the effects of climate change, like droughts, floods, heat waves, and cyclones, are similar as for other non-environmental crises. The nonlinear dynamics of change (i.e., tipping points or tipping elements, surprise, cascading change) pose additional challenges, however. The main reason for this is that abrupt catastrophic shifts in ecosystems (say, the irreversible shift of an agricultural landscape) seldom are the result of only one discrete and easily monitored event. Even though, increasingly, more about the factors that undermine the resilience of ecological systems is known, tangible early warning signals of approaching catastrophic shifts are still altogether absent for most ecosystems (Galaz et al., 2011).

The field has done some impressive advances the last decade, however. An important subfield in this line of research has emerged with the ambition to extract early warning signals from large sets of data, using advanced statistical methods and experiments (Galaz, 2014, p. 43). For example, studies show that key parameters in systems (e.g., the concentration of algae in shallow lakes) are prone to “stutter” before crossing a “tipping point,” sometimes 10‒13 years before the transgression. Another early warning signal of a pending catastrophic shift is the disposition of complex systems, as they lose resilience, to recover unusually slowly after small disturbances.

The main challenge here from a crisis management approach is related to reliability and timeliness. Complex real-world ecosystems are open systems that make patterns such as “stuttering” difficult (if not impossible) to differentiate from noise. In addition, even in cases where it indeed is possible to extract reliable “early warnings,” these are only notable when the system of interest has already entered a pathway of irreversible change. In this case, an early warning only allows for adaptation rather than for actions that would help avoid a catastrophic shift (see summary in Galaz, 2014, p. 43).

An additional challenge is posed by the fact that even international policy actors with expertise on climate change issues have a poor understanding of the risks entailed with nonlinear changes in the climate system. As Manjana Milkoreit (2019) has shown, even international climate negotiators are unable to assess and explain the dynamics of “tipping elements” in the climate system. For example, only 2% out of 181 delegates and non-state representatives participating in two United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiation sessions in Bonn (2012 and 2017) were able to explain the role of boreal forests, and only 7% could explain the role of the Amazon rainforest for climate stability. This despite the fact that the science (i.e., “early warnings”) about these “tipping elements” has been known at least since the groundbreaking work by Lenton et al. (2008).

Early Response

In a similar way as for early warnings, many of the challenges related to early response could be viewed as much the same for climate shocks as for other crises. It would be an easy task to connect response failures to the climate crisis to three major known potential sources of response failures: psychological factors, bureau-organizational factors, and political factors (Boin et al., 2005; Galaz et al., 2011, pp. 371–373). The fact that the climate crisis plays out over very long time spans (both in its buildup and in its effects) and has impacts that span sectors and spatial scales (global–local) creates well-known coordination challenges. The observation that some of the effects of climate change, for example, on issues like food security, are associated with complex causality makes such coordination challenges even more difficult (Galaz et al., 2011, p. 372).

The climate governance literature is rich in terms of approaches to understand the most effective ways to respond to the threats posed by climate change. For example, one such discussion evolves around whether polycentric and/or bottom-up approaches will be able to create international collaboration that is strong enough to really drive global emissions down rapidly (Jordan et al., 2015; Widerberg & Stripple, 2016). Another stream of work focuses on the role of international norms and law in general to address the repercussions of a rapidly changing planet (Kotzé & Kim, 2019). These are, of course, just a few of the existing approaches to understand the way that international norms, institutions, and governance in general can respond to the climate crisis (Galaz et al., 2017).

However, the fact that the climate crisis entails nonlinear dynamics, as discussed previously, adds another layer of cooperation challenges. Efforts to avoid the transgression of “tipping points” might seem like a rather straightforward task for decision-makers, but in reality such predefined points of no return tend to induce intense controversies. These include notions about whether “safe” climate change should be defined as 1.5oC or 2oC warming, or as CO2 concentrations at 350 ppm (as of 2019, CO2 concentrations are at > 400 ppm), or whether additional “planetary boundaries” should be considered too, some of which also are quantifiable (Steffen et al., 2015). As Mike Hulme notes, however, “thresholds” such as these are more than scientifically defined numerical estimates. They also contribute to existing narratives about environmental urgency and the need for swift action. Critical reflections about the 2°C climate policy target argue that a simple numerical target not only hides critical scientific uncertainties but also endangers pushing other critical global goals, such as the alleviation of poverty, to the background. Similar discussions about “planetary boundaries” can be found in the literature, some of which have diffused into policy discussions (Galaz, 2014, p. 23).

However, policy actors do respond to such “tipping points” in various ways. One way to understand the micro-foundational mechanisms of these responses can be found in the economic literature. As has been shown through both experimental and theoretical work, the existence of threshold behavior in a system (say, the climate system or a natural resource such as a water body), if known, has important impacts on the behavior of rational economic actors and could induce higher levels of cooperation (Barrett & Dannenberg, 2012) or more precautionary behavior (Barfuss, Donges, Lade, & Kurths, 2018). The known existence of the detrimental impacts of “tipping points” may also help state and non-state actors mobilize across institutional levels of social organization, and build up a capacity over time to detect and respond to events that could push systems across critical thresholds (Galaz, Österblom, Bodin, & Crona, 2016).

Crisis Governance for the Long Horizon

The Earth system, including the climate system, has proven to embed not only complex systems behavior but also temporal dynamics that are unique from a crisis management perspective. Although surprises, shocks, and disruptions to society (e.g., a terror attack, critical infrastructure failures) tend to evolve, erupt, and phase out within temporal scales of days, years, or decades, the Earth system’s behavior spans from decades up to hundreds of thousands of years. This would normally not be an issue for social scientists. The study of international environmental institutions, as an example, is explicitly a study of institutional emergence and change over decades (e.g., Young, 2018).

Such implicit temporal assumption in research communities should be rethought in light of the increased understanding of the behavior of the Earth system (Galaz, 2019). As discussed earlier in this contribution, the collective inability to act on climate change over the last decades has put humanity in a position where decision-making in the next few decades has disproportionally large temporal impacts due to “committed changes” in the Earth system, including the climate system, oceans, the cryosphere, and changes in biomes such as tropical and boreal forests.

The importance of this time inconsistency (as defined by Underdal, 2010) becomes very clear for the case of “solar geoengineering,” sometimes also denoted “solar radiation management,” one controversial solution mentioned explicitly as a crisis response to climate change (Barrett et al., 2014). “Solar geo-engineering” refers to the idea that the most extreme outcomes of climate change can be avoided by intentionally injecting small reflective particles (such as sulfate aerosols) into the upper atmosphere. These particles would help reflect incoming solar radiation before it reaches the surface of the earth, thereby lowering global temperatures swiftly.

The ethical, technical, and political challenges associated with the deployment of a technology such as this are tremendous of course (Galaz, 2014). The interesting issue in this case, is how a growing sense of urgency created by the climate crisis, the vast human and natural values at stake in a runaway climate change scenario, and the already overwhelming pressure of human activities on the Earth system, lead to proposals of crisis interventions that would impact the climate system in a very long time frame. This raises new political and institutional challenges (see Galaz, 2014, 2019).

The main reason is that solar geo-engineering, unless complemented with drastic emission reductions, needs to be kept in place for perpetuity to avoid a rapid “rebound” warming effect. If methods to deploy solar radiation management are terminated for social, ecological, or geopolitical reasons, for example, without addressing the underlying issue (i.e., high concentrations of CO2), the climate system would rapidly rebound toward high-end climate warming. In a worst-case scenario, such a rebound would be so quick to overwhelm both human and bio-geophysical adaptive capacities (Jones et al., 2013).

This might seem like an extreme example, yet it raises questions about what is to be perceived as an appropriate response to the climate crisis considering its unique temporal dynamics. This raises new questions (from Galaz, 2019): Can political action be mobilized within known earth system “windows of opportunity” (decades) with implications in “deep time” for the earth system? Can ambitious international collective action be maintained over long enough time scales (say, more than 100 years) despite the fact that many of the benefits to these actions (say, a reduction of CO2 concentrations) will be substantially delayed because of “committed changes” in the earth system? And if climate crisis responses such as solar geo-engineering are ever deployed, which governance mechanisms would be able to not only steer away from the possible devastating “termination effects” but also reduce political incentives to defect over time?

Concluding Reflections

The climate “crisis” can in many ways be understood as any other crisis with cross-spatial and cross-sectoral ramifications. Its effects, such as droughts and water scarcity, require that policy-makers design and respond to early warnings; overcome difficult coordination challenges; avoid “blame games” to the largest extent possible; learn from likely failures; and reform ill-suited institutions and ways of operating in preparation for the next climate-induced crisis. Studying climate change as a crisis from this perspective, there is much to be gained from the existing large body of work in the crisis management and decision-making literature.

However, climate change is in many ways a quite different type of crisis. It connects to basically all sectors of human society, implying that climate shocks are likely to create stresses that move rapidly, and sometimes unexpectedly, through systems affecting food security, financial stability, and human health, just to mention a few. These connections are created by not only bio-geophysical phenomena (e.g., causal links between deforestation and changes in precipitation) but also by human activities such as trade, institution building, financial pursuits, and information flows. More importantly, however, these connections embed feedbacks with nonlinear properties, meaning that they are prone to surprise, cascades, and “tipping point” behavior. As such, they create a series of difficult challenges for early warning and response, especially because these “points of no return” tend to be not only uncertain but also contested.

Lastly, the climate crisis entails unique and challenging temporal dimensions. It seems like there is a temporal asymmetry where the actions of the next decades will shape the very long-term evolution of the climate system. The mere fact that the Earth system (including the climate system) behaves as a complex system forces policy-makers to at least consider the prospects for collective action and institution building over very long temporal scales spanning hundreds to thousands of years.

Further Reading

Ahmed, S. A., Diffenbaugh, N. S., & Hertel, T. W. (2009). Climate volatility deepens poverty vulnerability in developing countries. Environmental research letters, 4(3), 034004.Find this resource:

Centeno, M. A., Nag, M., Patterson, T. S., Shaver, A., & Windawi, A. J. (2015). The emergence of global systemic risk. Annual Review of Sociology, 41(1), 65–85.Find this resource:

Clark, P. U., Shakun, J. D., Marcott, S. A., Mix, A. C., Eby, M., Kulp, S., … Plattner, G.‑K. (2016). Consequences of twenty-first-century policy for multi-millennial climate and sea-level change. Nature Climate Change, 6(4), 360–369.Find this resource:

Dow, K. (1992). Exploring differences in our common future(s): The meaning of vulnerability to global environmental change. Geoforum, 23(3), 417–436.Find this resource:

Frank, A. B., Collins, M. G., Levin, S. A., Lo, A. W., Ramo, J., Dieckmann, U., … von Winterfeldt, D. (2014). Dealing with femtorisks in international relations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(49), 17356–17362.Find this resource:

Galaz, V. (2014). Global environmental governance, technology and politics: The Anthropocene gap. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.Find this resource:

Galaz, V., Moberg, F., Olsson, E.‑K., Paglia, E., & Parker, C. (2011). Institutional and political leadership dimensions of cascading ecological crises. Public Administration, 89(2), 361–380.Find this resource:

Galaz, V., Österblom, H., Bodin, Ö., & Crona, B. (2016). Global networks and global change-induced tipping points. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, 16(2), 189–221.Find this resource:

Galaz, V., Tallberg, J., Boin, A., Ituarte-Lima, C., Hey, E., Olsson, P., & Westley, F. (2017). Global governance dimensions of globally networked risks: The state of the art in social science research. Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy, 8(1), 4–27.Find this resource:

Helbing, D. (2013). Globally networked risks and how to respond. Nature, 497(7447), 51–59.Find this resource:

Leach, M., Stirling, A. C., & Scoones, I. (2010). Dynamic sustainabilities: Technology, environment, social justice. London, UK: Earthscan.Find this resource:

Liu, J., Mooney, H., Hull, V., Davis, S. J., Gaskell, J., Hertel, T., … Li, S. (2015). Systems integration for global sustainability. Science, 347(6225), 1258832.Find this resource:

Rocha, J. C., Peterson, G., Bodin, Ö., & Levin, S. (2018). Cascading regime shifts within and across scales. Science, 362(6421), 1379–1383.Find this resource:

Steffen, W., Rockström, J., Richardson, K., Lenton, T. M., Folke, C., Liverman, D., … Schellnhuber, H. J. (2018). Trajectories of the Earth system in the Anthropocene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(33), 8252–8259.Find this resource:

References

Abel, G. J., Brottrager, M., Cuaresma, J. C., & Muttarak, R. (2019). Climate, conflict and forced migration. Global Environmental Change, 54, 239–249.Find this resource:

Barfuss, W., Donges, J. F., Lade, S. J., & Kurths, J. (2018). When optimization for governing human-environment tipping elements is neither sustainable nor safe. Nature Communications, 9(2354).Find this resource:

Barrett, S., & Dannenberg, A. (2012). Climate negotiations under scientific uncertainty. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(43), 17372–17376.Find this resource:

Barrett, S., Lenton, T. M., Millner, A., Tavoni, A., Carpenter, S., Anderies, J. M., … de Zeeuw, A. (2014). Climate engineering reconsidered. Nature Climate Change, 4(7), 527–529.Find this resource:

Boin, A., & ‘t Hart, P. (2003). Public leadership in times of crisis: Mission impossible? Public Administration Review, 63(5), 544–553.Find this resource:

Boin, A., ‘t Hart, P., Stern, E., & Sundelius, B. (2005). The politics of crisis management—Public leadership under pressure. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Clark, P. U., Shakun, J. D., Marcott, S. A., Mix, A. C., Eby, M., Kulp, S., … Plattner, G.‑K. (2016). Consequences of twenty-first-century policy for multi-millennial climate and sea-level change. Nature Climate Change, 6(4), 360–369.Find this resource:

Costanza, R., Graumlich, L. J., & Steffen, W. (Eds.). (2007). Sustainability or collapse? An integrated history and future of people on Earth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:

Dalin, C., Wada, Y., Kastner, T., & Puma, M. J. (2017). Groundwater depletion embedded in international food trade. Nature, 543(7647), 700–704.Find this resource:

Duit, A., & Galaz, V. (2008). Governance and complexity-emerging issues for governance theory. Governance: An International Journal of Policy, 21(3), 311–335.Find this resource:

Galaz, V. (2014). Global environmental governance, technology and politics: The Anthropocene gap. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.Find this resource:

Galaz, V. (2019). Time and politics in the Anthropocene: Too fast, too slow? In F. Biermann & E. Lövbrand (Eds.), Anthropocene encounters—new directions in green political thinking (pp. 109–127). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Galaz, V., Moberg, F., Olsson, E.‑K., Paglia, E., & Parker, C. (2011). Institutional and political leadership dimensions of cascading ecological crises. Public Administration, 89(2), 361–380.Find this resource:

Galaz, V., Österblom, H., Bodin, Ö., & Crona, B. (2016). Global networks and global change-induced tipping points. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, 16(2), 189–221.Find this resource:

Galaz, V., Tallberg, J., Boin, A., Ituarte-Lima, C., Hey, E., Olsson, P., & Westley, F. (2017). Global governance dimensions of globally networked risks: The state of the art in social science research. Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy, 8(1), 4–27.Find this resource:

Gibbons, D. E. (Ed.). (2007). Communicable crises—prevention, response and recovery in the global arena. Charlotte, NC: Information Age.Find this resource:

Gundel, S. (2005). Towards a new typology of crises. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 13(3), 106–115.Find this resource:

Helbing, D. (2013). Globally networked risks and how to respond. Nature, 497(7447), 51–59.Find this resource:

Holpuch, A., & Anguiano, D. (2018, November 18). Trump blames forest management again on California fires visit. The Guardian.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2014). Climate change 2014: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2018). Global Warming of 1.5oC. Geneva.Find this resource:

Ivanova, M. (2013). The contested legacy of Rio+ 20. Global Environmental Politics, 13(4), 1–11.Find this resource:

Jones, A., Haywood, J. M., Alterskjaer, K., Boucher, O., Cole, J. N. S., Curry, C. L., … Yoon, J.‑H. (2013). The impact of abrupt suspension of solar radiation management (termination effect) in experiment G2 of the Geoengineering Model Intercomparison Project (GeoMIP). Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 118(17), 9743–9752.Find this resource:

Jordan, A. J., Huitema, D., Hildén, M., Asselt, H. van, Rayner, T. J., Schoenefeld, J. J., … Boasson, E. L. (2015). Emergence of polycentric climate governance and its future prospects. Nature Climate Change, 5(11), 977–982.Find this resource:

Keys, P. W., van der Ent, R. J., Gordon, L. J., Hoff, H., Nikoli, R., & Savenije, H. H. G. (2012). Analyzing precipitation sheds to understand the vulnerability of rainfall dependent regions. Biogeosciences, 9(2), 733–746.Find this resource:

Kotzé, L. J., & Kim, R. E. (2019). Earth system law: The juridical dimensions of earth system governance. Earth System Governance, 1, 100003.Find this resource:

Leach, M., Scoones, I., & Stirling, A. (2010). Dynamic sustainabilities: Technology, environment, social justice. Routledge.Find this resource:

Lenton, T. M., Held, H., Kriegler, E., Hall, J. W., Lucht, W., Rahmstorf, S., & Schellnhuber, H. J. (2008). Tipping elements in the Earth’s climate system. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105(6), 1786–1793.Find this resource:

Lenton, T. M., & Williams, H. T. P. (2013). On the origin of planetary-scale tipping points. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 28(7), 380–382.Find this resource:

Levin, S. A. (1999). Fragile dominion: Complexity and the commons. New York, NY: Perseus Books.Find this resource:

Liptak, K., & Reston, M. (2019). Trump revives threats to withhold FEMA funds from California fire recovery. CNN Politics.Find this resource:

Liu, J., Mooney, H., Hull, V., Davis, S.J., Gaskell, J., Hertel, T., … Li, S. (2015). Sustainability: Systems integration for global sustainability. Science, 347(6225), 1258832.Find this resource:

Meyfroidt, P., Rudel, T. K., & Lambin, E. F. (2010). Forest transitions, trade, and the global displacement of land use. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(49), 20917–20922.Find this resource:

Milkoreit, M. (2019). Cognitive capacities for global governance in the face of complexity: the case of climate tipping points. In V. Galaz (Ed.), Global challenges, governance and complexity (pp. 275–303). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.Find this resource:

Nisbet, M. C. (2014). Disruptive ideas: Public intellectuals and their arguments for action on climate change. Climate Change, 5(6), 809–823.Find this resource:

O’Brien, K., Eriksen, S., Nygaard, L. P., & Schjolden, A. (2013). Why different interpretations of vulnerability matter in climate change discourses. Climate Policy, 7(1), 73–88.Find this resource:

Pierre-Louis, K. (2018). Trump’s misleading claims about California’s fire “mismanagement.” The New York Times.Find this resource:

Rocha, J. C., Peterson, G., Bodin, Ö., & Levin, S. (2018). Cascading regime shifts within and across scales. Science, 362(6421), 1379–1383.Find this resource:

Rosenthal, U., Charles, M. T., & ‘t Hart, P. (Eds.). (1989). Coping with crises: The management of disasters, riots, and terrorism. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.Find this resource:

Scheffer, M., Carpenter, S., Foley, J. A., Folke, C., & Walker, B. (2001). Catastrophic shifts in ecosystems. Nature, 413(6856), 591–596.Find this resource:

Steffen, W., Grinevald, J., Crutzen, P., & McNeill, J. (2011). The Anthropocene: Conceptual and historical perspectives. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 369(1938), 842–867.Find this resource:

Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S. E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E. M., … Sörlin, S. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347(6223), 1259855.Find this resource:

Steffen, W., Rockström, J., Richardson, K., Lenton, T. M., Folke, C., Liverman, D., … Schellnhuber, H. J. (2018). Trajectories of the Earth system in the Anthropocene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(33), 8252–8259.Find this resource:

Sumaila, U. R., Cheung, W. W. L., Lam, V. W. Y., Pauly, D., & Herrick, S. (2011). Climate change impacts on the biophysics and economics of world fisheries. Nature Climate Change, 1(9), 449–456.Find this resource:

Sultana, F. (2018). Gender and water in a changing climate: Challenges and opportunities. In C. Fröhlich, G. Gioli, R. Cremades, & H. Myrttinen (Eds.), Water security across the gender divide (pp. 17–33). New York, NY: Springer, Cham.Find this resource:

Turner, G. M. (2008). A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality. Global Environmental Change, 18(3), 397–411.Find this resource:

Underdal, A. (2010). Complexity and challenges of long-term environmental governance. Global Environmental Change, 20(3), 386–393.Find this resource:

United States Agency for International Development. (2018). Reflecting the past, shaping the future: Making AI work for international development. Washington, DC: US Agency for International Development.Find this resource:

Watts, N., Amann, M., Ayeb-Karlsson, S., Belesova, K., Bouley, T., Boykoff, M., … Cox, P. M. (2018). The Lancet countdown on health and climate change: From 25 years of inaction to a global transformation for public health. The Lancet, 391(10120), 581–630.Find this resource:

Widerberg, O., & Stripple, J. (2016). The expanding field of cooperative initiatives for decarbonization: A review of five databases. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 7(4), 486–500.Find this resource:

Young, O. R. (2018). Research strategies to assess the effectiveness of international environmental regimes. Nature Sustainability, 1(9), 461–465.Find this resource:

Notes:

(1.) This discussion builds partly on Chapter 2 in Galaz (2014).

(2.) The following discussion builds on Galaz (2019).