The Climate Change, Conflict and Migration Nexus: Through the Lens of the Syrian Civil War

Blog by Tabitha Watson

Over the past few decades, there has been increasing conversation – and significant news coverage – linking climate change, conflict and migration. However, analysis of the topic remains largely qualitative and anecdotal in nature. This lack of quantitative data makes the development of robust, evidence-based policy challenging, leading to the growth of more reactionary approaches (e.g. securitisation of migration). In this context, with growing nationalism and xenophobia, it is vital to gain a more nuanced, data-driven perspective on the situation. This is where the concept of whole-system analysis of the climate change, conflict and migration nexus comes into play.

Although all three aspects of the nexus have been conclusively linked, the majority of quantitative studies have tended to address pairwise interactions. There is vibrant academic debate over the role of climate; its role in both conflict and migration has been disputed. However, regardless of the current perceived significance of the global climate, without drastic mitigatory action we are projected to vastly exceed the 2C threshold set out in the Paris Agreement. This will have severe consequences for large swathes of the population, and there are likely to be knock-on effects that ripple across society. It is, therefore, important to consider the ways in which this could impact both mobility and security.

In some spheres, the ongoing Syrian civil war is considered to be one of the first climate-affiliated conflicts. To unpack this, and the controversy around it, it is important to delve a little into the context. Historically, Syria has been relatively fertile and agriculturally productive. However, since the 1980s, it has experienced three severe droughts. The most recent of these, starting in 2006/7, has been recorded as the worst in 900 years. As an exacerbating factor, this drought came on the heels of a deep and long-term agrarian crisis; this had been brewing for decades as the Syrian regime pursued an agrarian development plan which relied on the super-exploitation of water resources, especially groundwater. Groundwater extraction, in turn, relied on the availability of cheap diesel – kept that way by massive government subsidies.

For a variety of reasons, Assad chose to remove these subsidies in 2008/9. This caused the price of diesel to rocket up by over 300%, rendering vast areas of land unviable and causing the displacement of at least 1.5 million people from rural to urban areas. The infrastructure in cities and towns was already sub-par, and it has been argued that the influx of the rural population caused some degree of tension on top of pre-existing ethnic fractures and tensions within Syrian society.

So, with the scene in Syria set with drought, loss of livelihood, mass displacement,  creaking national infrastructure and a general undercurrent of discontent, the Arab Spring began rippling out from Tunisia across the Middle East. In March 2011, pro-democracy protests in Syria were crushed with deadly force. This sparked further protests and, as we know, spiralled into the ongoing conflict. As various factions became involved and the fighting intensified, people began to flee and seek refuge. This has been framed by Western media as a migration ‘crisis’. Here, we see the contested link between climate and conflict snowball into conflict leading to migration. This can then be seen to lead to a different type of, largely ideological, conflict in the destination countries.

However, the presence of a climate signal in the outbreak of civil war in Syria is disputed. Geopolitical events have muddied the water; this is especially sensitive in this case, as the Assad regime have sought to push the climate-conflict narrative in order to absolve themselves of the blame for fomenting the catastrophic agrarian crisis that preceded the drought. Some commentators have also pointed out that neighbouring countries experienced a similar lack of precipitation but did not topple into civil conflict. Therefore, there must have been some Syria-specific factors. However, neither of these arguments are mutually exclusive of a climate signal.

It is important to note that those who argue that there is a climate signal are not stating that climate change is a primary cause of the conflict, rather, that the presence of the drought exacerbated existing conflict precursors and ‘oiled the wheels’, causing the conflict state to occur faster than it may otherwise have done. The question, for both sides, is: would the agrarian crisis alone have been sufficient to trigger the civil war?

To answer this, modelling the climate change, conflict and migration nexus as a complex system is the next logical step. It will allow for the identification of emergent properties, such as a conflict, from the combination of social, environmental and political variables. A vehicle for complex systems analysis is agent-based modelling. Here, the system is made up by a set of agents, each with bounded free will. By programming these agents with relevant parameters, it should be possible to gain a bottom-up perspective of human behaviour under different conditions and scenarios. Through this, it should be possible to elucidate the significance of each factor within the climate change, conflict and migration nexus in relation to each other.

GSI Seminar Series: Dr Raphaelle D. Haywood – There’s no place like home: Placing Earth in its astronomical and geological contexts

Blog written by Daneen Cowling

A new year and a new set of interesting seminars!

The first of 2022 was from Dr Raphaëlle Haywood, a Senior Lecturer in Physics and Astronomy at the University of Exeter. Dr Haywood gave an immense talk covering the hunt for exoplanets, how we find another Earth-like planet, and shared some important insights into why we should not assume there is a planet B.


On a finite world, a cosmic perspective is not a luxury, it’s a necessity

Caleb A. Scharf, 2014

Dr Haywood began with thought-provoking set of quotes and statistics that brought home the importance of why we need to have this astronomical view and appreciation of our position within it. To realise – like our humble blue planet – the existence of planets orbiting other stars is extremely common.

Particularly important – the occurrence of “Earth-like planets” are also common, potentially between 9-21% of suns have a planet like Earth. But what is a planet like Earth?

An Earth-like planet is similar to us in size – around a 1/2 to 1 radius of Earth. But importantly, it also sits within the habitable zone. This means it is a suitable distance from it’s sun to allow for 30-100% of heat received on Earth to permit liquid water.

Dr Haywood estimated that there could be 63 BILLION temperate Earth size planets in our galaxy.


How to find other Earths

Find Earth-like planets goes far beyond it’s size and sun distance – we have tools that help us find the signatures of Earth – of life.

Earth is a complex self-regulating system composed of interacting systems of the planets rocks, atmosphere, ocean and biosphere. We can use the biosphere and the signatures it produces to help in our exploration. But what does this look like?

Key components of our biosphere can be identified through their signature wavelengths. through the reflectance signatures, we can identify:

  • Water and Water Vapour
  • Oxygen and Methane – this tells us there is a chemical disequilibrium and therefore there is life, as oxygen and methane are the bi-products
  • Near-Infared (NIR) “red-edge” – a sharp rise at around 700nm on the reflectance spectrum tells us there is a prevalence of vegetation

This means, using these signatures and tools we can understand what might be on another planet.

This is an exciting time for planet search and discovery – as from this year (2022) a new TerraHunting project will kick off a 10-year survey of 40 sun-like stars, to explore the planets and their resemblance to Earth. From this project and the huge dataset it will create, NASA plan to use this data to strategically begin a direct-imaging project, able to measure actual temperatures and investigate the prevalence of atmosphere on these potential Earth-like planets, and ultimately contribute great strides to the search for extra-terrestrial life!


No Planet B

As exciting as finding another planet with life on, Dr Haywood set it straight that regardless, there is no planet B. Even if we wanted to set up camp on another planet, the distances involved are way beyond our technological capacities – our nearest Earth-like planet is 300 years away at the speed of light. Even our Mars neighbour is out of our technological capability to transform into a habitable planet for humans.

Dr Haywood then went onto remind us that our planet, through its geological history, has never been the same state – it has consistently shifted into new versions of itself. Even human civilisations have shifted the planet trajectory of Earth – in its appearance and its observable signatures from space. Our current state of Earth has electromagnetic signatures, masses of waste, chemical signatures in our atmosphere – but what would an Earth signature look like it if it was inhabited by only indigenous communities? Communities that are able to live harmoniously with the Earth and the complex systems that regulate it. Maybe, this sustainable way of life isn’t even detectable? What’s to say other occurrences of life won’t be living so sustainable they are undetectable?

Lots of questions and exciting developments taken to get closer to answer them will make the next decades of planetary exploration an exciting one.


To learn more about Dr Haywood’s work, see her profile here.

If you’re a member of staff or student of the University of Exeter, feel free to join a mini-module called “No Place Like Home”: https://vle.exeter.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=13080

It was created by Dr Arwen Nicholson, Federica Rescigno and Dr Haywood as part of last year’s Summer School on Sustainability that was organised by CEMPS.

To view the full seminar, you can watch the recording here.

For more GSI events, stay up to date on the GSI website.

GSI Seminar Series: Dr Chris Boulton – Case Studies of Resilience

Taken from Daneen Cowling’s (GSI Seminar Co-ordinator) blog 

For the final seminar of the 2021 summer term we hosted GSI Associate Research Fellow, Dr Chris Boulton. Chris gave an overview of his applied methods to explore the early warning signals that precede system tipping points. Chris gave examples of resilience sensing in both physical and human systems – ranging from the Amazon resilience to COVID-19 response. The talk given by Chris highlighted exciting opportunity for future research of identifying, monitoring and understanding how systems of resilience give warnings before crossing bifurcation thresholds.

Dr Chris Boulton is a GSI Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter. From a Maths at Exeter Chris moved to the Geography department to pursue his PhD on ‘Early warning signals of environmental tipping points’. During his PhD Chris looked at a number of key ecosystems that could approach disastrous tipping points, and assessed what sort of early warning signals could be observed and modelled.


Dr Boulton started the seminar with an introduction of how ecosystems can tip into new states when pushed by external pressures of self-enhancing feedbacks. Under normal ‘stable’ conditions we can imagine a system as a ball in a trough – swinging slowly between peak and dip. When a system is under pressure and approaching tipping point, the trough begins to shallow which then pushes the ball into a new state – a new trough. Check out the graphic below displaying this.


Diagram demonstrating the system changes with differing resilience

Dr Boulton then talked us through his first case study – exploring the resilience and critical thresholds of the Amazon Rainforest. Dr Boulton explained that due to the ‘committed response’ the mean state does not necessarily tell you if it is stable. Dr Boulton then went into the signals that can be shown with Autocorrelation (AR1), which when increasing shows a loss of short-term memory of a system and thus resilience. It was found AR1 increases in regions with less rainfall as well as regions closer to human land use, indicative of loss of resilience in these regions.

The case study of measuring country resilience to COVID-19 was then introduced. This research explored how a single perturbation to a system triggers resilience responses. The measure of resilience was the decay of cases from peak to the next minimum. Dr Boulton described the range of responses observed – categorised by 2 key country response characteristics:

  • Adaptive Stringency (the strictness of the rules)
  • Public Trust – found that <40% trust was needed for resilient response

Finally, Dr Boulton went through a new project using Twitter data to detect the Arab Spring through early warning signals in public sentiment. The shift from observing physical systems to social systems will be useful to identify, understand and encourage positive social tipping points that will help bring about to positive transformative change needed.


Dr Boulton finished the seminar with an engaging Q&A session as well as some links to presentations of research (link here).

To listen to the discussion and Q&A in full, the recording is available here.

Please keep up to date with GSI events via the websiteTwitterLinkedIn, or join the mailing list by contacting infoGSI@exeter.ac.uk.

GSI Seminar Series: Dr Kirsty Lewis – Science for Adaption and Resilience Action: A development perspective

Taken from Daneen Cowling’s (GSI Seminar Co-Ordinator’s) Blog 

Our seminar on 26th May hosted Dr Kirsty Lewis, who gave a talk on her experience and research and policy priorities of a Science for Adaption and Resilience action with a development perspective. Dr Lewis talked through the needs of evolving climate change research in relation to resilient development, and how central adaption and mitigation will be to not only being climate change resilient but also achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). In Her talk, Dr Lewis laid out how these priorities for research can be important for policy and action, as well as fostering an interdisciplinary approach.


Dr Kirsty Lewis is a Climate Science Advisor and is part of the Research and Evidence Division of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development. Dr Lewis is also Climate Security Science Manager at the Met Office, and will soon be joining the GSI. Dr Lewis is specialised in Climate Security and is informing several UK govt and international development and climate resilience projects.


Dr Lewis began by introducing the current priorities of academic research and government aid. Dr lewis explained how aid budgets are assessed against climate risk assurance to understand how well money was utilised to work for climate adaption and resilience. Dr Lewis exemplified this with current UK spending priorities, and how there is a growing shift in discourse to a realisation of the need for adaption and mitigation.

Dr Lewis then explained these priorities in relation to research and how they translate to current climate change research priorities. It is clear that adaption and mitigation are required to build the more realistic and complete picture of the future, and to not exclude and only assess the physical impacts. Further, tackling climate change this way will be crucial to even address the SDG’s – as it’s influence sweeps across economical, social and cultural systems of society. Hence, it can not be regarded as an isolated driver of change. It is therefore apparent we have reached yet another critical point – policy and action must include mitigation and adaption, or we threaten reversing all SDG achievements.


Dr Lewis then went on to explain examples of successful Science into Action. Science producing direct action in response to emergency not only provides fast data mobilisation and operationalisation, it can also optimise systems for future climate change. So what does all this mean for research? Dr Lewis arrived at a Climate Risk Framing, and the importance of:

  • Exposure
  • Vulnerability
  • Sensitivity
  • Coping capacity (Systems that deepen rather than emphasise sensitivity)

Climate risk can be summarised by: Hazard x Exposure x Vulnerability

However, Hazard is the common focus for climate research (e.g. the different CO2 scenarios). Exposure and Vulnerability inform the Adaption action – which for development should be in the context of the Hazard. This, Dr Lewis argues, should motivate a different priority of why we do climate research, to understand how much we can constrain an operating space for decision making. Dr Lewis does note that a current limitation to achieving this is the type of data available – much of the hazard data is quantitative, while the socioeconomic change that informs exposure and vulnerability is harder to constrain. This demonstrates the need for more interdisciplinary science.


Dr Lewis concluded with introducing some projects and alliances that are working to create research frameworks that have a focus on climate adaption and resilience. Dr Lewis summarises with three main priorities for climate adaption and resilience science action:

  1. Risk informed early action
  2. Developing in a changing climate
  3. Understand climate risk

For information on these projects, the questions posed to Dr Kirsty Lewis and the seminar in full, the recording is available here.

Please keep up to date with GSI events via the websiteTwitterLinkedIn, or join the mailing list by contacting infoGSI@exeter.ac.uk.

GSI Seminar Series: Laurie Laybourn-Langton: Entering the storm; the policy and political challenges of the next stage of environmental crisis

Taken from GSI Seminar coordinator Daneen Cowling’s blog post 

For our seminar 19th May, the GSI hosted Laurie Laybourn-Langton, who gave a talk Entering the storm: the policy and political challenges of the next stage of environmental crisis. Laurie spoke about overall strategy and where we stand in  restoring the natural world and dealing with the adverse consequences of climate change change. Laurie examined the current strategies in in place in relation to mitigation, adaptation, and how we mediate with the suffering. Laurie puts forward his argument that current policies do not constitute the required emergency response and aren’t live to the impacts that will grow with time, hence more explicit work is needed to ensure policies are robust to these consequences.


Laurie is an Associate Fellow, Responding to Environmental Breakdown at the Institute for Public Policy Research, a trustee of the New Economics Foundation, and currently a Visiting Fellow at the GSI. Laurie has worked on political economy and how shifts occur in economic ideas and policies, the role and power of digital platforms, and mobility transitions. Laurie also has an expertise in environmental breakdown, which he is applying as co-authoring a book on how to build a politics capable of responding to environmental breakdown.


Laurie gave his talk through a series of personal experiences, including provocative imagery to communicate the urgency and emotive elements of the crisis. Laurie introduced with the context that through human activities destabilising so many systems, we are now ‘well into the storm’. This also conseqwuence of politics and policy not recognising the pace and depth of the environmental emergency. Through his and colleagues experiences, Laurie noted how there has been a shift in how those that advocate climate change action have shifted from a cautious front of not to be too negative to put off people, to a new, re-energerised movment of recent climate protests. This has had the impact of helping the way discussions within political circles can be had, with the new attention, priority and energy being given.

Laurie then highlighted the transitions of the framings and narratives around the climate change emergency. From around 2018 there was a shift in framing to apply a binary target of ’12 years to save the Earth’ to not exceed with the 1.5 temperature rise, or else risk catastrophic global disaster. But, use of this framing could obscure the truth about being in this climate emergency storm.

Laurie questioned this language in the context of whether we have a credible strategy for repairing and restabilising? Emphasis on the framings of the targets and the threat of surpassing a 1.5 degree warming, misses the key point about the mitigation strategies then needed. Laurie also questions whether we have such a strategy in place to meet much of the Net Zero pledges. Key to reaching goals for Net zero, there is a reliance on technologies. But there is no global strategy in place to support this, and questions still remain whether we can accept the risks and inevitable mortalities to come from our close future. Laurie then demonstrated the current timeline put forward for Net Zero by 2050, highlighting how the status quo of policies are characterised as swapping dirty technologies for clean technologies – without change in behaviours. But this carries with it 3 major problems:

  • Consumption: Do we have enough of the overall environmental budget to swap all current dirty tech for clean, while also maintaining growth
  • Power: Can we follow this Net Zero trend with the current attitude toward debt and deficit? Specifically in the global South, where debt is largely limiting mitigation they can introduce. Hence, is the current power balance enoough?
  • Fairness: Can we achieve levels of cooperation needed in a high in-equality world?

It is then clear, we cannot do what is needed for the tasks at hand, with the current social, political and economical structures.


Laurie then posed the question of how we will continue to fight for these transformative changes, in a world that is to become more de-stabilised? Laurie began by unpicking a quote and critiquing the use of the phrase ‘too late’. Laurie then flagged how the median age of politicians in the UK, is round 50. Younger generations such as millennials and gen-z, will have to live through these ‘too late’ futures, carry the struggles and to not only introduce and win systemic change, but also to implement and maintain it. This creates a vast multi-generational project to re-stabilise and restore the natural world. The binary view of the future does not accurately represent the complexities of feedbacks and impacts, and so no future can be certain or known. This is also because threats and impacts go beyond the local – risk cannot be compartmentalised, impacts ripple outwards and interacts with the social, political and economic contexts. In many systems which are already highly vulnerable, are we operating in a resilient world? This sometimes gets presented as edging us towards a cliff-edge of societal collapse from environmental disaster – but looking at varying degrees of de-stabilisation already happening around the world, it is a far more complex situation than a Hollywood film portrayal. Instead of a cliff -edge, it could be better imaging we are moving off the smooth road we have travelled for many years, onto a bumpier topography.


Laurie concluded with explaining the need to develop more robust political systems, leadership practice and advocacy. Laurie also introduced his new project to help address the problems highlighted in his talk. For information on this project, the questions posed to Laurie and his seminar in full, the recording is available here.

Please keep up to date with GSI events via the websiteTwitterLinkedIn, or join the mailing list by contacting infoGSI@exeter.ac.uk.

GSI Seminar Series – Victor Leshyk: Philosophy of Science Art; a tool for building science literacy

Reposted from Daneen Cowling’s blog

For our second seminar of our summer series (11/05/2021) Victor Leshyk gave an art-filled talk on his philosophies for the creation, use, and power of Science Art. Victor led the audience through an extensive portfolio of his jaw-dropping work, exemplifying it’s importance of getting Science Art right to improve science literacy, but also fight back against the progress-limiting conspiracists.


Victor Leshyk is the Director of Science and Art at the Centre for Ecosystem Science and Society, Northern Arizona University. Victor has over 20 years experience expressing scientific knowledge through fine art. He has used this alliance to help scientists have means to be better communicators, and for the public to have the means to be better learners. Through this experience Victor has developed philosophy to apply to creating, developing and applying Science Art.


Victor explained his found philosophy through his artwork. To see examples of his work, please visit his website (we definitely recommend you check it out!). Victor started to question what Science Art can do and what we are aiming for, starting with the conjured images and meanings of a ‘worldview’. From this exploration, Victor took us how these views and depictions have changed overtime. These depictions have been limited by the edges of knowledge, but as Victor scaled down from the world view, to cells to particles – it is clear the frontiers of knowledge opened by science discoveries, have created new bounds to what we can understand and what we now compromise for a worldview.


Victor then highlighted the quote by Neil Degrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is that it is true whether or not you believe in it”. But using the pandemic and the protests against orders to stay home backed by science, the science is still irrelevant if you can’t communicate the science to the other people. Hence, Victor proposes an alternative of: “A great thing about Art is that is can help determine whether people do believe in Science”.

Victor backed the ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ phrase with the stats – pictures can be understood 60000 times faster than words. Then told the importance of this during the Renaissance period, whereby much of scientific knowledge was stored through art, which has increased in detail. Scientific knowledge, artistic detail and storytelling accuracy have increased in tandem.

Victor then told the story of his own journey with Science Art. But soon discovered that simply making more art does not make the world more scientifically literate. Highlighted by the prevalence of conspiracy theorists and flat-earthers, Victor stated we are living in a crisis of science literacy. SciArt is hope to address this – existing as a spectrum. On one end ‘Found Art’ – the beauty in this existing in nature, or ‘Fine Art’ – free-form abstract art creating experiences. SciArt has capacity to create new worldviews – to communicate the breadth of life, the different behaviours, the diversity of past life and environments, mass extinction events and the biogeochemical changes that caused them. Victor demonstrated how he has used SciArt to ultimately help us learn from the past using these lenses. Learning from the past helps inform the present, which is especially true in the context of anthropogenic climate change and the pressures we are putting on the earth systemm. As Victore displays through his art – this is in parallel to the atmospheric and oceanic chemical changes that have happened before.


But what about data visualisation? Can’t graphs serve the same purpose as art to communicate science and data? Victor proved otherwise, arguing that the data can speak for itself but still not be heard. Reading graphs and understanding attributes is not accessible or as instantaneous as absorbing art. Word-less art can still communicate the same message of a comprehensive graph.

Science Art also lets us see through an experts eyes. Victor used the example of how, through the eyes of an expert, a lump of chert is rich evidence of past environments and life. SciArt can tell the story visible to the expert and reveal it to the world.

Science Art helps us care about things we cannot see, e.g. ecosystems exchanging and cycling matter. Victor also highlighted the power AciArt has to communicate the danger and urgency of a changing landscape. He has used the case of peatlands, which to view the landscape as is, it’s a peaceful, beautiful thing. But through the ‘x-ray’ of SciArt, erupting CO2 from thawing, dynamic movement of the peat, methane bursting through ice – this can all be revealed to show the true dangerous nature of the landscape.

As real as mud is – it’s a personality, this can be conveyed through SciArt. Responsible personification can help bring the process of microbe behaviour change with thawing, we can then easily see these real mechanisms. SciArt can therefore help build responsible drama with accurate passion. Science does not have to be emotionally sterile, the passion behind the work and it’s importance should also be illustrated. Victor shows the impact of this when climate change impacts such as wildfires, unlock legacy carbon that has been buried for geological-scale time. This gives emotion to the irreversibility of these tipping points.

The ‘Trowl Problem’, as Victor describes it, is the case of media communications of science that use a trowl to illustrate the finding. A missed opportunity and failure of imagination; use of SciArt instead would add tenfold to the article to help put the science into peoples understanding. This is evidently a current barrier to the application of SciArt.

Victor also explored the role of SciArt as invoking our intuitive visual reasoning – how we respond best and have done through history, to props and visuals to communicate and understand things. He exemplified this with mapping supply chains, and the additions of simple toy-like graphics can have for the digestibility of the science. Intuitive thinking also helps the use of SciArt to help us see into the future. Either through the pressures that will amount of services with future climate changes, or how iconic landscapes are projected to change. This helps reinforce changes to be very real and comprehendible further than statistics of temperature and precipitation change.

Popularisation of science in TV, movies etc. has also helped give science a face – but as a double-edged sword. It has portrayed scientists in a certain way that creates distrust and sensationalism. Victor argues, science fiction is another avenue for SciArt to create accurate portrayals and repair the trusts.

Victor finished on two services of SciArt: How it allows us to keep updating our ideas, we can continually add and develop past and current understandings through art and developments of it’s various mediums. Finally, Science Art helps us see our place in the world. The world is big, it is old and it is complex. SciArt helps make sense of the parts and processes of the world and the role we play amongst it all.


Victor Leshyk introduced, explained and demonstrated the power, potential, and inspirational beauty of Science Art. As well as demonstrating his portfolio and progression of science art, Victor also shared his courses he’s run with students to help these scientists be better communicators through SciArt. For information on this course, the questions posed to Victor and his seminar in full, the recording is available here.

Please keep up to date with GSI events via the websiteTwitterLinkedIn, or join the mailing list by contacting infoGSI@exeter.ac.uk

GSI Seminar Series Workshop Special – Tim Lenton: Positive Tipping

Taken from Daneen Cowling’s Blog 

On 5th May we kicked off our summer seminar series. This seminar was a special hosted by our GSI Director Professor Tim Lenton. Tim hosted a workshop on Positive Tipping Points; sources of hope within our societal and economic structures, leading on from a brief introduction he gave outlining the progress and research on these tipping points and their potential. Tim’s talk triggered it’s own tipping point of engaged discussions and enthusiasm for the research and projects. These discussions continued in short break-out room sessions which was a great opportunity to share the diversity in ideas and experiences of the topics raised. The event ignited an enthusiasm for Positive Tipping Points, which we hope has wet the apatite for more sessions on these themes.


Professor Tim Lenton has been a leader in researching the Earth System and the feedbacks and tipping points that have influence on climate changes, past and present. Now as Director of the GSI at the University of Exeter, Tim is channeling new visions to invest research energy to systems-thinking solutions. To find out more about Tims leading direction of the GSI, see this blog post.


Tim introduced Positive Tipping Points with a concise but incredibly informative 30 minute talk, covering an array of hot topics of climate change solution transformations. The talk started with an examination of familiar Earth System Tipping Points that have been identified through deep time, and predicted to occur in the future. But, as important as this research is – what good is coming from prioritisation of understanding of the problems without giving equal/more attention to the solutions.

Tim argued that there is a desperate need to now understand how social tipping points can be triggered. It is clear that to get to Net-Zero and out an of ecological emergency, the changes required need to happen as rapid transformations. So to meet this rate and magnitude, tipping points are needed.

Similar to natural tipping points, this would allow our current system state to tip into a new stable state. This will come once we cross thresholds of elements in the system, that will override the resistance of opposing forces and negative feedbacks that work to maintain the current system state. To demonstrate this, Tim showed an animation created by Chris Boulton to show the classic ball tipping out of a dip (business as usual), over a hill into a new dip (stable state). We therefore need to identify what are the self-propelling feedbacks, how strong they are, and how we can make them stronger.


But are positive feedbacks just a theory? Tim proved they are very much real and already have had impact, with several historical examples of social and technological tipping changes. One example, an image comparison of 5th Avenue, New York City, showing a single car immersed in horse-drawn carriages, to 13 years later, a single horse-draw carriage amongst a road full or cars. Image below.

Image source: http://www.icis.com. Picture comparisons of Easter Day parade in NYC and the transition to motor vehicles.

Other examples were also highlighted: Technology Adaption revealing trends from 1860-2019 showing a signature ‘S’ curve, a result of Economies of Scale (the more things being made = the cheaper they are to make), a reinforcing feedback (see Comin and Hobin, 2014). Social Contagion being an intrinsic reinforcing feedback in society, by imitation of each other to spread through society. The threshold of society to adopt new norms is said to be ~20%, this has been evidenced with the example of introduction and neighborhood adoption of roof solar panels.

Also shown was Tims recent work looking at trends, early warnings and tipping points in the car industry – specifically with Electronic Vehicles (EVs). Norway have exemplified a tipping point, now the difference in price of petrol has resulting in EV’s breaching a new share in the market, now at ~50%. Economies of scale have also played a part, with battery prices decreasing over time with the increase in sales, with a trend that suggests a EV’s will be the same price to manufacture than fuel combustion cars in 3 years, globally! Price of batteries has been a key reinforcing feedback to bring about this positive tipping point.


Who needs to come together to help things spread globally? Tim discussed this in the context of his work with Simon Sharpe (2021), and the importance of upward scaling tipping cascades – how reaching one tipping point can create opportunities for further tipping points. Tim used the example of the UK coal industry to highlight some of the triggers and tipping points that create transformative change. A combination of increased renewable power capacity, price of carbon production and policies putting pressure of coal use helped reduce the UK usage. From these changes came investor expectation changes, which then alters distribution of resource leading to irreversible events, such as the demolition of Didcot coal station. The rest of the world are increasingly becoming reliant on renewable sources of power, through interactions of economical, industry, social and political tipping points.


Tim then introduced the work with SystemIQ, to identify and understand positive tipping points in the Food and Land Systems. Again, reinforcing feedbacks are key to push towards a tipping point. Such reinforcing feedbacks can range from:

  • Economies of scale
  • Learning by Doing
  • Social Contagion
  • Positive Experience
  • Information Flow

A transition to positive tipping can exist as: Performance –> Price Convenience –> Cultural Norm –> Tipping Point. Transitions and tipping points can also be explored at smaller spatial scales – with research in collaboration with Pivot Project and City Future to use Exeter as a system to identify tipping points for sustainable futures, with work on the Exeter Living Lab.


Do we have power to predict and influence these tipping points? Using Early Warning Signals such as Ar-1 and Variance in a system could help us understand when we might be approaching a Positive Tipping Point, and what we need to focus on to nudge the system closer to threshold. Hence, change is to be deliberate and nudge the various elements of a system to reinforce feedbacks and create in momentum in the right direction.

Tim highlighted, this may help empower the public to feel part of the hope and power to change the course of climate change, just through actions they make within the complex system they exist in. Awareness that we do live in a complex system that is not and cannot be managed, but instead is a product of a full agency of feedbacks. This will involve a shift from the compartmentalized way of solution thinking and to trust in the things we cannot control. With this, we can move away from incremental change, but to the transformative change that is needed for the scale of problem.


Discussions around all these topics lead to some interesting conversations in the chat and short group sessions. The time to act was yesterday, but learning what is the best action, how we trigger it and when to apply pressure, will allow deliberative positive tipping. Local to global, social to political – all nudges and feedbacks that interact and cascade will allow a faster rate of transition.

To hear Tim’s talk in full, you watch it via YouTube here. Please note, discussions from breakout rooms is not included in the recording.


Given the success of the seminar and workshop, the GSI hopes to continue the conversations and momentum with more events and collaborations. Please keep up to date with GSI events via the websiteTwitterLinkedIn, or join the mailing list by contacting infoGSI@exeter.ac.uk

GSI Policy Network and EEIST Project Lecture – Simon Sharpe: Deciding how to decide, to accelerate low carbon transitions

Taken from Daneen Cowling’s Blog 

March 4th GSI hosted a special joint seminar between the GSI Policy Network and the Economics and Energy Innovation and Systems Transition Group. Simon Sharpe gave an insightful and important talk on context and consequence of how governments make decision around policy, and how this shapes our effectiveness of addressing climate change. Given the speed required to act and the challenges that surround the need to globally decarbonise, a different approach of decision making is required. Simon Sharpe discusses the changes required.


Simon Sharpe is Deputy Director at the UK Government’s Cabinet Office COP26 Unit, where he leads on international campaigns to accelerate low carbon transition. He has had an extensive career collaborating internationally leading on climate change strategy and how governments can assess climate risk. Simon is also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL, a Policy Fellow at the Centre for Science and Policy at Cambridge University, member of the UCL Policy Commission on the Communication of Climate Science, and on the advisory board of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity.


Simon introduced how decisions are shaped in government, laying out that a changing global economy that needs to change 5x faster to satisfy the Paris agreement, relies on the policy decisions. This amounts to 3 questions for decisions making:

  • Whether to act at all?
  • How much effort to make
  • Where to direct effort

These questions have been asked for most policy decisions, but responding to the requirements of climate change action is creating new assumptions and principles around these questions with new evidence contrasting to what was previously practiced.


Whether to act at all

Whether to act was previously asked in terms of whether the economy is changing and/or whether it can be optimised. Simon explained how the industrial strategy was to not act, with the assumption that unless there is market failure the economy is at an optimal state. Evidence opposes this, showing that constraints can actually accelerate innovation. For example; energy efficiency standards pushed prices down from the innovations that addressed new requirements. Simon highlighted that this not only shows the economy is therefore not in a optimum state, but also that tougher standards can achieve higher investment into innovation.

We can also see that economies change through their allocation (how quantities and prices defined) and formation (how economy emerges and grows). Through human history has witnessed an economy transition from stones to spaceships, as well as a secular increase in goods and services diversity. Simon then presented the idea that economy could be viewed as an evolving ecosystem. With a dynamic evolutionary view, constraints can shift resources from ecploitation to exploration – instead of creation distortion and inefficiency as argued in the static view. This creates the following:

New Assumptions

  • Economy has no optimal state
  • Always changing
  • Policy can influence the rate and direction of its evolution

New Principles

  • Act to prepare for change that is likely
  • Act to bring about change that is desirable
  • Act to avoid change that is undesirable

How much effort to make

Simon then explained how traditionally the decision of how much effort to make was devised, on the basis of a ‘machine’ economy that was predictable and made up of parts with one purpose. This was set on the principles to maximise the ratio of cost and benefit, and assess as single dimensions. With assumptions that future costs and benefits were predictable and quantifiable, and that value can be objectively converted. The realities of climate change contrast these ideas, especially as climate change impacts and solutions and technological advancements are uncertain. Further, value is contingent on the user, use and context. As a result, Simon puts forwards new assumptions and principles that adhere to this policy decision:

New Assumptions

  • Important future costs and benefits are uncertain
  • Value is contingent not intrinsic

New Principles

  • Assess risks and opportunities as well as costs and benefits
  • Assess outcomes in multiple dimensions

Where to direct the effort

Simon then discussed the final decision making question. Traditional principles and assumptions assessed options individually with minimal focus in effort application, as environments and relationships were unchanged by policy and economy was in equilibrium. In reality, the economy is a complex system of different component parts that are influenced by interactions and feedbacks. ‘Systems thinking’ helps understand this in a better way, to identify leverage and tipping points. Hence, a targeted carbon price approach is needed to reach tipping points in different industries. This creates new sets of principles and assumptions:

New Assumptions

  • Behaviour systems emerge from interactions between components
  • The economy is in disequilibrium

New Principles

  • Assess policies in combination
  • Assess effect of policy on process of change
  • Act on points of greatest leverage

A subset of where to direct effort is concerned with what technological advancement to choose – which traditionally was done in a way to apply effort to be ‘technology-neutral’, and that the market will discover best available technologies and so policies can be neutral. Once again Simon exposed a different reality, that the economy is path dependent and emerges from it’s technologies, which as a result means no action is neutral. All actions have capacity to influence future pathways and possibilit8ies of the economy, therefore it’s important to choose deliberately, and not unconsciously.


Simon has made clear that the way we approach and undertake decisions concerning the economy require new thought and consideration, especially in the context of climate change. Old assumptions do not stand up to the realities we are having to address. Decision makers must understand the nature of the problems, which may not fit their previous practices. Urgency to do this right is clear, becoming more clear with how impactful policy change can be. There seems to still be hope yet!

To watch the seminar given by Simon as well as the Q&A session followed, you can view it here.

More information about Deciding how to Decide can be found in the working paper.

Keep up to date with the EEIST Project on their website.

GSI Seminar Series – Dr Femke Nijsse and Dr Kirsten Lees: ECR Special

Taken from GSI Seminar coordinator Daneen Cowling’s Blog 

For the final seminar of the term we hosted an Early Career Researcher special event. We were excited to host a pair of impressive researchers within the GSI; Dr Femke Nijsse and Dr Kirsten Lees.


Dr Femke Nijsse: Emergent constraints on climate sensitivity from historical warming and models

Dr Nijsse gave a talk on her the work of her PhD exploring the climate model uncertainties on both transient timescales and long-term projections. Dr Nijsse introduced the difficulty around predicting climate change: bottom-up methods which use climate models and are limited by feedback and aerosol uncertainty. While top-down methods which use accurate historical temperature rise and radiative forcing and ocean heat uptake. Emergent contraints modelling permits the use of both of these methods which can provide climate sensitivity.

Dr Nijsse explored ways to address uncertainty – specifically with aerosols, whereby for periods of lesser aerosol influence can be used. How well models are able to constrain estimates, can be explained by grouping their sensitivity. To then apply an Emergent Constraints Model, Dr Nijsse laid out the following methods:

  1. Use historical warming since 1975 (for relative aerosol stability)
  2. Compute model ECS and TCR
  3. Model historical warming
  4. Determine function form of emergent constraint

Dr Nijsse also exposed how the ratio relationship between ECS and TCR can increase with climate sensitivity, as some models with a moderate TCR values can exhibit a higher range of ECS values. From her research, Dr Nijsse concluded it would be unlikely for an ECS > 4.5 K and TCR > 2.5 K. ECS may also be restricted using ocean heat uptake.

To end her seminar, Dr Nijsse also introduced her current work on her postdoc with the Economics of Energy Innovation and System Transition Project. The project is an international effort to enhance energy-environment-economy models, and integrate non-equilibrium ideas into equilibrium models. Dr Nijsse is modelling the challenges of renewable energy – from variability in wind and sun production to diffusion and learning of cost and storage.


Dr Kirsten Lees: Peatland Resilience

Dr Lees talk was on her Peatland Resilience research. Introduced with what Peatlands are and the suite of ecosystem services they offer – ranging from Carbon storage, flood management and biodiversity. Dr Lees then explained how to assess the resilience of these systems, using indicators from remotely sensed data. To measure resilience, the following steps can be applied to a site:

  1. Choose a resilience metric
  2. Detect a disturbance event
  3. Measure recovery time

Dr Lees has applied these steps to water levels and vegetation burn recovery to understand peatland resilience. From her analysis, Dr Lees suggests a complex interaction of factors influencing peatland resilience. Restoration and wildfire are factors with the most potential to alter peatland resilience, and so will be important to observe in the future.


This seminar was a great opportunity to hear about the impressive work being done by researchers at the start of their career, as well as a fresh insight into the diverse research of the GSI.

To watch these two talks and the questions from the audience, click this link.

If you would like to give a talk at a future seminar, please contact event organisers Daneen Cowling (dc456@exeter.ac.uk) and Guy Lomax (g.lomax@exeter.ac.uk)