The literature on the costs of climate change often draws a link between climatic ‘tipping points’ and large economic shocks, frequently called ‘catastrophes’. The phrase ‘tipping points’ in this context can be misleading. In popular and social scientific discourse, ‘tipping points’ involve abrupt state changes. For some climatic ‘tipping points,’ the commitment to a state change may occur abruptly, but the change itself may be rate-limited and take centuries or longer to realize. Additionally, the connection between climatic ‘tipping points’ and economic losses is tenuous, though emerging empirical and process-model-based tools provide pathways for investigating it. We propose terminology to clarify the distinction between ‘tipping points’ in the popular sense, the critical thresholds exhibited by climatic and social ‘tipping elements,’ and ‘economic shocks’. The last may be associated with tipping elements, gradual climate change, or non-climatic triggers. We illustrate our proposed distinctions by surveying the literature on climatic tipping elements, climatically sensitive social tipping elements, and climate-economic shocks, and we propose a research agenda to advance the integrated assessment of all three.
Proposed large-scale intentional interventions in natural systems in order to counter climate change, typically called “climate engineering” or “geoengineering,” stand to dramatically alter the international politics of climate change and potentially much more. There is currently a significant and growing literature on the international politics of climate engineering. However, it has been produced primarily by scholars from outside the discipline of International Relations (IR). We are concerned that IR scholars are missing a critical opportunity to offer insights into, and perhaps help shape, the emerging international politics of climate engineering. To that end, the primary goal of this paper is to call the attention of the IR community to these developments. Thus, we offer here an overview of the existing literature on the international politics of climate engineering and a preliminary assessment of its strengths and lacunae. We trace several key themes in this corpus, including problem structure, the concern that climate engineering could undermine emissions cuts, the potentially “slippery slope” of research and development, unilateral implementation, interstate conflict, militarization, rising tensions between industrialized and developing countries, and governance challenges and opportunities. The international politics of climate engineering is then considered through the lenses of the leading IR theories (Realism, Institutionalism, Liberalism, and Constructivism), exploring both what they have contributed and possible lines of future inquiry. Disciplinary IR scholars should have much to say on a number of topics related to climate engineering, including its power and transformational potentials, the possibility of counter-climate engineering, issues of institutional design, international law, and emergent practices. We believe that it is incumbent on the IR community, whose defining focus is international relations, to turn its attention to these unprecedented technologies and to the full scope of possible ramifications they might have for the international system.