, Volume 41, Issue 1, pp 66–74 | Cite as

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

  • Henry P. Huntington
  • Eban Goodstein
  • Eugénie Euskirchen


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.


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



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.


  1. Balshi, M.S., A.D. McGuire, P. Duffy, M. Flannigan, D.W. Kickligher, and J. Melillo. 2009. Vulnerability of carbon storage in North American boreal forests to wildfire during the 21st century. Global Change Biology 15: 1491–1510.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Case, D.S. 1984. Alaska Natives and American laws. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.Google Scholar
  3. Chapin III, F.S., T.S. Rupp, A.M. Starfield, L. DeWilde, E.S. Zavaleta, N. Fresco, and A.D. McGuire. 2003. Planning for resilience: modeling change in human-fire interactions in the Alaskan boreal forest. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 1: 255–261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Chapin III, F.S., S.F. Trainor, O. Huntington, A.L. Lovecraft, E. Zavaleta, D.C. Natcher, A.D. McGuire, J.L. Nelson, et al. 2008. Increasing wildfire in Alaska’s boreal forest: Pathways to potential solutions of a wicked problem. Bioscience 58: 531–540.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Climate Progress. 2011. Australia to cut, delay $500 million of clean-energy funding. Seriously! Climate Progress, 27 January 2011. Retrieved 23 August 2011, from
  6. Diamond, J. 2005. Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  7. Flannigan, M., B. Stocks, M. Turetsky, and M. Wotton. 2009. Impacts of climate change on fire activity and fire management in the circumboreal forest. Global Change Biology 5: 549–560.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Freudenburg, W., R. Gramling, S. Laska, and K. Erikson. 2009. Catastrophe in the making: the engineering of Katrina and the disasters of tomorrow. Washington, DC: Island Press.Google Scholar
  9. GAO. 2003. Alaska Native villages: most are affected by flooding and erosion, but few qualify for federal assistance. Report to Congressional Committees GAO-04-142. Washington, DC: United States General Accounting Office. Retrieved 23 August 2011, from
  10. Goldsmith, S., and E. Larson. 2003. Federal spending and revenues in Alaska. Anchorage, Alaska: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska Anchorage. Retrieved 23 August 2011, from
  11. Goodstein, E., H.P. Huntington, and E. Euskirchen. 2010. An initial estimate of the cost of lost climate regulation services due to changes in the Arctic cryosphere. Washington, D.C.: Pew Environment Group. Retrieved 23 August 2011, from
  12. Gray, S. 2011. Vanishing city: the story behind Detroit’s shocking population decline. Time NewsFeed, 24 March 2011. Retrieved 23 August 2011, from
  13. Greene, D.F., S.E. Macdonald, S. Haeussler, S. Domenicano, J. Noel, K. Jayen, I. Charron, S. Gauthier, et al. 2007. The reduction of organic-layer depth by wildfire in the North American boreal forest and its effect on tree recruitment by seed. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 37: 1012–1023.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hamilton, L.C., B.C. Brown, and R.O. Rasmussen. 2003. West Greenland’s cod-to-shrimp transition: local dimensions of climatic change. Arctic 56: 271–282.Google Scholar
  15. Hastings, A., and D.B. Wysham. 2010. Regime shifts in ecological systems can occur with no warning. Ecology Letters 13: 464–472. doi: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2010.01439.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Huntington, H.P., and S. Fox. 2005. The changing Arctic: Indigenous perspectives. In Arctic climate impact assessment, ACIA. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 61–98.Google Scholar
  17. Johnstone, J.F., T.N. Hollingsworth, F.S. Chapin III, and M.C. Mack. 2010. Changes in fire regime break the legacy lock on successional trajectories in Alaskan boreal forest. Global Change Biology 16: 1281–1295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Kasischke, E.S., D.L. Verbyla, S. Rupp, A.D. McGuire, K.A. Murphy, R. Jandt, J.L. Barnes, E.E. Hoy, et al. 2010. Alaska’s changing fire regime–implications for the vulnerability of its boreal forests. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 40: 1313–1324.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kavanagh, J. 2011. 2011: Year of billion-dollar disasters. CNN Online, 20 August 2011. Retrieved 23 August 2011, from
  20. Nicholls, R.J., S. Hanson, C. Herweijer, N. Patmore, S. Hallegatte, J. Corfee-Morlot, J. Château, and R. Muir-Wood. 2008. Ranking port cities with high exposure and vulnerability to climate extremes: Exposure estimates. OECD Environment Working Paper 1. Paris: OECD.Google Scholar
  21. Nicholls, R.J., N. Marinova, J.A. Lowe, S. Brown, P. Vellinga, D. de Gusmão, J. Hinkel, and R.S. Tol. 2011. Sea-level rise and its possible impacts given a ‘beyond 4°C world’ in the twenty-first century. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369(1934): 161–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. New York Times. 2011. Population decline in New Orleans. New York Times, 3 Feb 2011. Retrieved 23 Aug 2011, from
  23. Randerson, J.T., H. Liu, M.G. Flanner, S.D. Chambers, Y. Jin, P.G. Hess, G. Pfister, M.C. Mack, et al. 2006. The impact of boreal forest fire on climate warming. Science 314: 1130–1132. doi: 10.1126/science.1132075.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Scheffer, M., J. Bascompte, W.A. Brock, V. Brovkin, S.R. Carpenter, V. Dakos, H. Held, E.G. van Nes, et al. 2009. Early-warning signals for critical transitions. Nature 461: 53–59. doi: 10.1038/nature08227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Stern, N. 2007. The economics of climate change: the Stern review. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Tripati, A.K., C.D. Roberts, and R.A. Eagle. 2009. Coupling of CO2 and ice sheet stability over major climate transitions of the last 20 million years. Science 326: 1394–1397. doi: 10.1126/science.1178296.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Henry P. Huntington
    • 1
  • Eban Goodstein
    • 2
  • Eugénie Euskirchen
    • 3
  1. 1.Pew Environment Group Eagle RiverUSA
  2. 2.Bard Center for Environmental PolicyBard CollegeAnnandale-on-HudsonUSA
  3. 3.Institute of Arctic Biology University of Alaska FairbanksFairbanksUSA

Personalised recommendations