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Towards a Tipping Point in Responding to Change: Rising Costs, Fewer Options for Arctic and Global Societies


Climate change incurs costs, but government adaptation budgets are limited. Beyond a certain point, individuals must bear the costs or adapt to new circumstances, creating political-economic tipping points that we explore in three examples. First, many Alaska Native villages are threatened by erosion, but relocation is expensive. To date, critically threatened villages have not yet been relocated, suggesting that we may already have reached a political-economic tipping point. Second, forest fires shape landscape and ecological characteristics in interior Alaska. Climate-driven changes in fire regime require increased fire-fighting resources to maintain current patterns of vegetation and land use, but these resources appear to be less and less available, indicating an approaching tipping point. Third, rapid sea level rise, for example from accelerated melting of the Greenland ice sheet, will create a choice between protection and abandonment for coastal regions throughout the world, a potential global tipping point comparable to those now faced by Arctic communities. The examples illustrate the basic idea that if costs of response increase more quickly than available resources, then society has fewer and fewer options as time passes.

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We thank the Pew Environment Group/Oceans North for funding the initial research that led to this paper, and Arctic Frontiers and Paul Wassmann in particular for encouraging us to explore the topics discussed herein. We are also grateful for the constructive comments of two anonymous reviewers.

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Correspondence to Henry P. Huntington.

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Huntington, H.P., Goodstein, E. & Euskirchen, E. Towards a Tipping Point in Responding to Change: Rising Costs, Fewer Options for Arctic and Global Societies. AMBIO 41, 66–74 (2012).

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  • Climate change costs
  • Prevention
  • Response
  • Politics
  • Economics
  • Village relocation
  • Forest fires
  • Sea level rise
  • Arctic