Symposium 06: Framing Tipping Points


06. Framing Tipping Points

Coordinator: Mark Abbott, Dean, College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University

Moderator: Eli Kintisch, Science Magazine


  1. Allan W. Shearer, Assistant Professor, School of Architecture, University of Texas at Austin
  2. Carolyn Kousky, Resources for the Future


Over the past several years, there have been many scenarios proposed regarding “catastrophic climate change” and “tipping points” that may lead to irreversible and profound change in the functioning of the Earth system. There are many definitions but an easy one is that a tipping point (or event) represents a significant restructuring of the system, with new components and new processes. Examples could be local (oxygen, heat, and fuel combine to create a fire) or large-scale (removal of large predators shifts an ocean ecosystem to one dominated by jellies). The challenge is understanding the scale, intensity and persistence of these events. These attributes will greatly affect the ability of a society and its economy to adapt to this new environmental state.

A recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2009) discusses several large-scale tipping event (TE) scenarios. But all are fraught with uncertainty. We don’t know the risk or really the impact. All systems naturally have TE; it is a fundamental characteristic of nonlinear coupled systems. This makes TEs especially difficult to communicate to the public and to policy makers. The “precautionary principle” doesn’t help; its logical outcome would be to do nothing.

So what can we do? Our panel will explore how people make decisions now. And can we develop better scenarios to help develop better informed strategies? The panel will engage several scientists who study decision making on a range of regional and global issues. For example, one approach might be to consider the resilience of the various ecosystems, societies and economies by assessing their vulnerability to TE scenarios. Focusing on strategies to increase this resilience might make this an effective strategy, but other approaches are possible.