Social tipping points and climate chaos

Social consciousness can overtake rational calculation and lead to tipping points that overwhelm all planning.

These tipping points, which may not look very different from mass panic or mania, can be useful or destructive. Consider:

  • How anti-vaxxers were able to convince many people to avoid Covid jabs.
  • How people have rushed in, then out, then into (and out) of crypto.
  • How Instagram has replaced Facebook (sadly, also the owner of IG) for young people wanting to hang out with friends and for advertisers chasing them (network effects)
  • How “nobody” wants to buy a house in Flint (lead poisoning) or Groningen (fracking-related earthquakes)
  • The rise of K-pop
  • How Americans facing higher gasoline prices didn’t just pay $100 extra per week or month for gasoline, but paid $10-20k to buy a smaller car. (This was in 2009 and maybe also today…)
  • Etc., forever.

Now these trends can be helpful (more fuel efficient cars) or harmful (anti-vaxxers), but they share one common element: those people are not making calculated guesses based on data, risk and modeling (Thinking Slow). They are reacting emotionally and following the mob (Thinking Fast).

All of this means that government and scientific models of “climate change” (which have their own flaws) are likely to be ignored or overwhelmed in a way that leads to “climate chaos,” i.e.,

  • People will abandon an area due to a single weather event.
  • People will suddenly become vegan.
  • Politicians will block food markets, “for safety”
  • People will follow a (cult) leader promising protection or redemption.
  • Etc.

This post is inspired by an event I attended in Amsterdam that focused on land management in response to climate change. At the event, there were discussions that focussed on millimetres of sea level rise or percentage changes in risk. Those discussions were NOT looking at long-term CC impacts (e.g., depopulating coastal areas — the Randstad being most notable in the Netherlands — as they flood), but how to “manage” that inevitability.

IMO, that sort of mierenneuken (focussing on tiny details) was ignoring the potential for tipping points that would screw up all plans. Imagine everyone in Amsterdam trying to drive or bike out of the city. The roads would be too crowded to work. (We saw this in Ukraine’s western borders with people trying to flee the Russians.)

In short: one big storm surge, and the Randstad depopulates 100x faster than predicted.


Aside: What was ironic, or perhaps calculated, in the Dutch discussion is how much energy politicians and banks are putting into the story (or myth) of protecting people’s homes real estate values. What we know is that those values will drop like a rock as soon as owners realize that nobody wants to buy. Such a drop will have a very big impact on bank finances and the government’s ability to raise taxes and pay for all the nice people who work for it. We saw this in Flint and Groningen recently but also in Detroit over the past decades.

That’s one irony. The other is that the Dutch government is now doing “everything it can” to make housing more affordable. The easiest way to do that is announce how fast (currently expensive) areas could be underwater. That would drop prices to affordable in a hurry. Problem solved, eh?


My one-handed conclusion is that most of our work on climate chaos may be worthless in the face of tipping points.

Thanks to PB and TR for chatting about these topics with me

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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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