• University of Exeter

Tipping Points: Climate Change and Society

Discover how rapid changes to natural systems may make Earth look very different in the future.

16,023 enrolled on this course

  • Duration

    2 weeks
  • Weekly study

    3 hours

Explore the possible future of Earth

A tipping point occurs when there’s a shift in the state of a system towards a new equilibrium. We’re now facing tipping points in our climate system that could accelerate the dangerous effects of climate change. Natural systems will change, as will human systems. In future we could see the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, dieback of the Amazon or droughts across the Sahel but also behavioural changes and regional warfare.

On this course you will explore the concept of tipping points from an interdisciplinary perspective, discovering their role in climate change and the future.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 17 seconds You might have heard that we need to limit global warming to less than two degrees in order to avoid dangerous climate change, but what does that actually mean? And what will the impact on our daily lives be? Tipping points happen when a small change makes a big difference to the fate of a system. Now there are examples of tipping points all around us. Some of them are in the climate system, but some of them are in our societies, and they have profound implications for our future on this planet. My name’s Tim Lenton, and I’m a professor of climate change and earth systems science here at the University of Exeter.

Skip to 0 minutes and 54 seconds Now for the last 10 years, I’ve spent a lot of my research time trying to identify tipping points, especially in the climate system, but increasingly, I’m now thinking about tipping points in social systems. And we’ve been researching, can we get early warning signals [? of ?] these abrupt damaging changes? And if so, could we provide society with some forewarning, for example, catastrophes like a collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet so that we can then do our best to try and avoid the worst. So in this two week course, I’ll introduce you to the key concepts of tipping points. How we go about modelling them, and how we observe them in the real world.

Skip to 1 minute and 34 seconds In natural systems including the Arctic, the Amazon, and the oceans, but also, how we see rapid changes in social systems, including the Middle East and in conflicts, more generally. And then, we’ll look at how policymakers are using the concept of tipping points to try and prepare us for these rapid and potentially damaging changes. But do tipping points always have to lead to negative consequences? Or might we be able to tip positive change in the world around us? Increasingly, we have incredible agency to reshape this planet. Join me to find out more.

What topics will you cover?

Tipping Points in the Natural World

  • What are ‘tipping points’?
  • Recognising early warning signals for major tipping points
  • Tipping points in the climate system - Arctic, Amazon and Circulation systems

Tipping Points in the Human World

  • Tipping Points and policy
  • Links between tipping points and social systems - Syrian droughts and conflict
  • Positive tipping points - influencing behavioural change and collective action

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Explain what a tipping point is
  • Explore the potential for tipping points to drastically change the climate system
  • Apply your knowledge of tipping points to the Arctic, Amazon and circulation systems
  • Investigate how tipping points might affect your life
  • Debate the relevance of using ‘tipping points’ to shape policy
  • Discuss the concept of tipping points in relation to social systems

Who is the course for?

This course is for people with a basic knowledge of climate change science (to get an introduction join the course Climate Change: The Science).

Who will you learn with?

Professor Tim Lenton is Chair in Climate Change/Earth System Science at the University of Exeter. His research focuses on understanding the behaviour of the Earth as a whole system.

Senior Lecturer at The University of Exeter specialising in Glaciology, GIS and Remote Sensing
Educator on Climate Change: Challenges and Solutions
Find me on twitter @DamienMansell

Lecturer at Leeds University researching the impacts of climate change on our world

Course producer for University of Exeter Global Systems Institute


Who developed the course?

University of Exeter

The University of Exeter is a Russell Group university. It combines world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction.

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  • Complete 90% of course steps and all of the assessments to earn your certificate

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