New research into the relationship between climate change and social and economic tipping points

Published: May 25, 2022

Climate change can cause sudden social and economic tipping points, such as widespread bankruptcies of low-lying ski resorts, a collapse in home prices due to sea level rise, or widespread disruption of the road network due to flooding. Kees van Ginkel (Deltares) spent four years researching these kinds of “tipping points”. This week he will present the results that have been published in different journals at a scientific conference in Vienna (EGU).

sea ​​level rise

Case says faster sea-level rise is a “game-changer” that can lead to social and economic tipping points under certain conditions. “There are more and more perspectives on how sea-level rise can deteriorate, for example, the Dutch investment climate or the housing market. For example, the Dutch central bank recently published a study that showed coastal flooding can lead to instability. financial”. The IPCC indicates that sea levels could rise by 0.3 to 1.0 meters in the year 2100, depending on global warming. However, a rise of 2 m in 2100 and 5 m 2200 cannot be ruled out due to uncertain processes in the ice sheets.

Without adaptation, this would have dire consequences for coastal areas, but the adaptation actions themselves would fundamentally change coastal areas. Case stresses that the storylines about the consequences of this need to be investigated systematically: “Could it really happen, or is it speculation?”

Deltares and VU have developed a method for systematically investigating these types of storylines. The method was applied to a fictional coastal city, which is a model for many cities around the world. It was investigated how the price of the house had evolved up to the year 2200. Several uncertainties had to be taken into account. How much sea level rise can we expect up to the year 2200? What are the storms that can hit the city during that period? Will Home Buyers Consider Flood Risk When Buying Their Home? Can sea level rise be predicted in time by proactively raising levees, or will this wait until something goes wrong or until there is an actual flood? And is there still time to lift the dam before the next storm hits the city?

model experiences

Researchers conducted 396,000 model experiments to discover the conditions under which a housing market crash could occur. These tipping points appear to occur particularly under extreme sea-level rise scenarios, as a result of the accelerated melting of the Antarctic ice sheets. Only through proactive flood management can the rate of sea level rise be kept up to date, and with a reactive policy there is a real opportunity for tipping points.

A collapse in the housing market could also occur under less severe and more likely scenarios of sea level rise. Interestingly enough, this only happens when panic erupts in the housing market. This can happen if, after a long period with few storms, a flood or near-flood suddenly occurs, causing the original underestimation of risk that suddenly turns into an overestimation of risk. If the housing market were to act economically rationally, this effect would not occur. In practice, the housing market often does not behave rationally.

Ski resorts and transport networks

The method was also applied to check tipping points in winter sports areas. This research, led by the University of Zurich, shows that low-lying ski resorts (below 2,000m) in the Swiss Alps are already at risk of bankruptcy before 2050. Making artificial snow is not enough as an adaptation measure to avoid this tipping point. Case explains: “In reality, these areas face a difficult dilemma. If they keep doing the same business, sooner or later they will face a tipping point. The alternative is to deliberately create a tipping point themselves, by switching to a radically different form of business management, where they are less reliant. on income from winter tourism. Many winter sports areas are already using their infrastructure to bring in summertime hikers and mountain bikers. The problem with this is that there is currently less money to be made from this.”

In a third application, we looked at how a large-scale road network is disrupted by river flooding. For 30 European countries, it was investigated whether this could lead to a tipping point, as important economic regions are no longer well connected. There seem to be significant differences between European countries. For example, Belgium, Estonia, Lithuania and Portugal appear to be relatively strong, while in small mountainous countries such as Slovenia, Macedonia and Albania, floods on a small scale can disrupt up to 40% of important transport links. Such an event is an example of a tipping point, where a relatively small flood causes a large and disproportionate disruption to the road network. Determining these is highly policy-relevant for national road authorities, as they provide a first impression of where a relatively small intervention could mean a significant improvement in network strength.


The red line through these applications is that climate change can lead to various social and economic tipping points. At the same time, many problems can be prevented through targeted adaptation measures. Sometimes these adjustment actions are so rigorous that you can speak of a deliberately positive turning point towards a better situation. Case concludes: “The interesting insight is that in some cases it is better to deliberately force a desirable tipping point than wait for an unwanted tipping point to occur for you. Ultimately, even after a major climate catastrophe, a new economic equilibrium will emerge, but We can prevent a lot of misery by acting proactively and focusing on adapting now.”


Turning Points in Coastal Cities:

van Ginkel, KCH, Haasnoot, M., Botzen, WJW, 2021, under review. A framework for identifying social and economic tipping points caused by climate change. [preprint]†

Ski resorts:

Ashraf Vajifi, S. Moccione, P., Van Ginkel, KCH, Hasnott, M., 2021. Using a decision-making under deep uncertainty (DMDU) approach to support climate change adaptation in Swiss ski resorts. environment. fantasy. Politics 126, 65-78.

European road network:

van Ginkel, KCH, Koks, E.E., de Groen, F., Nguyen, VD, Alfieri, L., 2022, in press. Are river floods a ‘hint’ to European road networks? Durability rating. transp. Precision. Part D Transp. environment.

An overview of the turning points:

Van Ginkel, KCH, Poetzen, WGW, Hasnott, M, Bachner, J, Stinger, KW, Henkel, J, Watkes, B, Boer, E, Geoken, A, De Morita, S, Posillo, F ., 2020. Socio-economic tipping points caused by climate change: review and consultation with stakeholders on policy-relevant research. environment. Precision. Lett. 15, 023001.

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