Home Research Chaos theory might be the key to ending the climate crisis

Chaos theory might be the key to ending the climate crisis

An economic butterfly wing creates a social tornado that changes the energy culture

The theory of chaos provides an unexpected solution to the climate crisis: butterfly wings can create a tornado of climate action that changes the energy culture and favors the transition to a clean economy.

The measures that are being taken to contain global warming are not working. The escalation of temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions continues, without the human system being able until now to apply corrective measures to stop the race towards the abyss.

Given this observation, a group of nine scientists from the fields of mathematics, economics, social sciences and complexity, in an article published in the journal Science, suggest that a possible solution to the climate crisis can be provided by the theory of chaos.

This theory is a branch of mathematics, among other sciences, that works with complex systems and dynamic nonlinear (chaotic) systems. A complex system is one that is made up of a series of interconnected elements.

These interactions generate new properties that cannot be explained by the mere sum of the parts: they have their own laws and their internal logic. These new properties are called emergent and are only perceptible from a complex perspective.

The climate is a clear example of a complex system: a series of factors, such as temperature, precipitation, humidity, wind, atmospheric pressure, evaporation or cloudiness, are not only closely related but also related to the continental drift, atmospheric gases, biological evolution or the distribution of living beings on Earth.

It is a very difficult system to interpret and manage. The climate crisis is a clear example of its complexity and the difficulty of managing it properly.

Butterfly Wings

These scientists pose an original approach to the climate crisis: given that it is a complex phenomenon, we apply the principles of chaos theory to their solution. We resort to butterfly wings.

They point out that physical science has shown how complex adaptive systems can cross critical thresholds. A complex adaptive system is not only integrated with interconnected elements but also has the ability to change and learn from experience.

When a complex system of this nature crosses a critical threshold, the entire system can undergo a significant sudden change from a relatively small change. This small change causes a major change that becomes irreversible, amplified by non-linear feedback effects (does not follow the laws of the changing system).

Examples of complex adaptive systems are the human being or the stock exchange, but also the communities of insects, the biosphere or the terrestrial ecosystem. The brain and the immune system are also complex adaptive systems, as well as human activities within a specific cultural system, such as a company, an institution or a political party.

Climate change students protest in Invalidenpark, Berlin, Germany. Image credit: Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Social application

What scientists propose is to exploit what we know about the behavior of complex systems and apply them to human activities to solve the climate crisis.

They introduce a new concept, which they call “sensitive intervention points” (SIP), which are unique situations within socioeconomic and political systems, in which seemingly simple interventions can amplify a radical change.

This concept is similar to the so-called “inflection points”, a term used in climate science to describe a critical threshold within a complex system: once crossed, it activates feedback mechanisms that lead to massive and irreversible changes.

The authors give a social example: the well-known work of Harriet Beecher Stowe “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, the best-selling novel in the 19th century and the second most purchased book of the time after the Bible, which decisively contributed to ending the slave system in the United States.

“If the school strikers keep gaining momentum, Greta Thunberg could become the Harriet Beecher Stowe of our time,” explains one of the authors, Matthew Ives in a statement.

He adds, “a variety of examples from very different fields, however, suggests that modest, highly-targeted policies could have oversize effects to mitigate climate change – what you might describe as economic butterfly wings creating a climate action tornado.”

In an article published in The Conversation, some of the signatories of this article give an example of these possible changes: photovoltaic energy. Its eventual expansion could have an explosive effect and cause substantial changes in the energy culture.

The same could happen with the financial markets, which are key to the energy transition. The factors that lead to exit the polluting economy, from the depletion of resources to the worsening of the climate crisis, will cause a turnaround at some point (SIP) and reorient investments towards sustainable energies.

In August 2018, outside the Swedish parliament building, Greta Thunberg started a school strike because of the climate that has a growing international impact. Image credit: Anders Hellberg.

New Hope

“This approach provides hope for preventing the worst impacts of climate change. Many economic models project temperature increases that would be catastrophic, but that’s because they all-too-frequently fail to account for such socioeconomic tipping points.  With the right intervention, at the right time, a modest intervention can trigger feedback effects that lead to massive change,” explains Cameron Hepburn, professor of Environmental Economics at the University of Oxford.

“The interventions have snowball effects. An adolescent outside the Swedish parliament could lead to a powerful global movement. If we focus on points of sensitive intervention (advances in key technologies, changes in social norms, new regulations), its amplification mechanisms associated can produce a quick, profitable and popular acceleration towards a post-carbon economy”.

It would fulfill thus the butterfly effect of the theory of chaos, formulated in 1972 by the mathematician and meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz, who had been anticipated by an ancient Chinese proverb: The fluttering of the wings of a butterfly can be felt on the other side of the world.”


Sensitive intervention points in the post-carbon transition. JD Farmer et al. Science, 12 Apr 2019: Vol. 364, Issue 6436, pp. 132-134. DOI: 10.1126 / science.aaw7287

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