Date: 01 May 2014

Global networks and global change-induced tipping points

Abstract

The existence of “tipping points” in human–environmental systems at multiple scales—such as abrupt negative changes in coral reef ecosystems, “runaway” climate change, and interacting nonlinear “planetary boundaries”—is often viewed as a substantial challenge for governance due to their inherent uncertainty, potential for rapid and large system change, and possible cascading effects on human well-being. Despite an increased scholarly and policy interest in the dynamics of these perceived “tipping points,” institutional and governance scholars have yet to make progress on how to analyze in which ways state and non-state actors attempt to anticipate, respond, and prevent the transgression of “tipping points” at large scales. In this article, we use three cases of global network responses to what we denote as global change-induced “tipping points”—ocean acidification, fisheries collapse, and infectious disease outbreaks. Based on the commonalities in several research streams, we develop four working propositions: information processing and early warning, multilevel and multinetwork responses, diversity in response capacity, and the balance between efficiency and legitimacy. We conclude by proposing a simple framework for the analysis of the interplay between perceived global change-induced “tipping points,” global networks, and international institutions.