Sudden changes in Europe’s society and economy by climate change: study of tipping points

Published: 4 February 2020

European scientists recently completed a study of sudden changes in Europe's economy and social fabric caused by climate change. They looked at 'tipping points'. At the local level, socio-economic tipping points can be very painful but a new economic balance emerges on a broader scale. The results of the study were published this month in Environmental Research Letters.

Impact on socio-economic system

Climate change has been extensively studied in recent years and we now know that sometimes the climate can change suddenly. This is called a ‘tipping-point’. Until now, there has been no research looking at whether climate change could also cause major, sudden changes in the socio-economic system.┬áThese ‘tipping points’ are also seen in, for example, ecosystems: a gradual increase in water temperature or nutrients can result in a sudden explosion in algae growth.

Research

Working with universities and research institutes from throughout Europe, Deltares has identified a number of socio-economic tipping points caused by climate change. There have been meetings with representatives of various sectors, including insurers, tourism ministries, municipal authorities and road management agencies. The article in Environmental Research Letters looks at three tipping points:

Winter tourism

The gradual rise of the snowline has already led to the bankruptcy of many winter sports areas in the Alps. There are no longer enough days with natural snow or days on which it makes sense to produce artificial snow. So far, the lower-lying areas are the ones mainly affected but climate predictions sketch a sombre outlook for the Alps: the temperature is rising faster here than in the rest of Europe. That is having a major impact on the local and regional economy, particularly where it is heavily dependent on income from winter sports.

Agriculture

In large parts of southern Europe, small-scale agriculture has virtually disappeared. This has led to high levels of migration out of rural areas, with major social consequences. In Northwest and Central Spain, the term ‘Spanish Lapland’ has been introduced: the population density is now as low as in Northern Finland. The loss of agricultural land has all kinds of side-effects: villages become less appealing to live in, shops and schools disappear, the infrastructure remains underdeveloped, and just a handful of elderly people are left behind. The concern is that more frequent periods with drought and heat will cause irreversible change in more and more areas.

Strategic retreat

Finally, sea level rise is a threat for the densely populated coastal areas of the world. Some vulnerable regions, such as New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, have never been recovered in full after a disaster. But even if there are no disasters, predictions indicate that extreme sea level rise can drastically transform countries. It is striking that, in the discussion about the future of the Dutch Delta, for example, the option of a ‘strategic retreat’ is no longer a taboo. But other drastic plans such as the construction of a large dike along the entire Dutch coast are also repeatedly cropping up during discussions. This could be seen as a tipping point in the way we think about our delta.

Winners and losers

Looking at these three examples and others (such as the transformation of insurance markets, the energy transition and sudden migration flows), lead author Kees van Ginkel (Deltares / VU University of Amsterdam) sees a number of striking issues: “There aren’t just losers; there are also winners who benefit from the new situation. But generally speaking, the benefits don’t compensate for the drawbacks, and socio-economic tipping points are a cause for concern, particularly in places where the socio-economic system is already very fragile. At the local level, socio-economic tipping points can be very painful but on a broader scale a new economic balance emerges”.