Compendium Vol. 1 No. 2: Appendix B: A systems approach to climate change

Compendium Volume 1 Number 2 March 2018

“The world is divided politically, but ecologically it is tightly interwoven.” – Carl Sagan, 1980, Cosmos

The magnitude of troubles ailing humanity is dizzying, if not terrifying – any 10 minutes of exposure to the daily news can attest to this. It’s hard to untangle the problems from each other, or to connect causes to effects, let alone to identify solutions that will work. That may well be because we tend to focus on symptoms rather than root causes. Wealth inequality, climate change and perpetual war are not inevitable conditions, but they are natural outcomes of the systems that produce them. With this in mind, here we explore solutions to the climate crisis from a systems perspective, meaning we seek to understand what complex systems are, how they work, and then to place what we observe of the world into this context.

Complex systems exist and behave the way they do based on the relationships among their component parts, as well as their interactions with other overlapping systems and subsystems. The Earth system is made up of a few major sub-systems: atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and human socio-economic systems [Donner 2009], within which countless other systems operate and interact. Elements, like carbon, cycle through systems as inputs and outputs, connecting systems to each other, and also collecting in various stocks, depending on rates of input and output.

Ecosystems, and indeed the global biosphere, are prototypical examples of complex adaptive systems, in which macroscopic system properties such as trophic structure, diversity–productivity relationships, and patterns of nutrient flux emerge from interactions among components, and may feed back to influence the subsequent development of those interactions [Levin 1998:431].

In other words, every system is greater than the sum of its parts. This is due to the relationships among parts giving rise to distinct patterns of behavior expressed by the system itself, often referred to as emergent properties, which in turn affect component parts. The human body is an example of a complex system, where all the organs working together give life to a person, and the behavior or the person affects the health of her organs. At the same time, individuals influence larger complex systems of which we are a part, such as our labor and spending in an economy; we are in turn influenced by economic volatility.

To understand global warming in the context of the Earth system, then, is to focus on how many components of the system interact to produce this outcome. It is to understand not only that greenhouse gas emissions trap heat in the atmosphere, but also that vegetation cools the Earth through evapotranspiration thereby generating rainfall that would otherwise be absent, while also drawing carbon out of the atmosphere. It is to further understand that vegetation is better protected and more productive in the presence of a greater degree of biodiversity. It is to accept and appreciate the vast complexity of billions of simultaneous processes that cannot be fully controlled, and yet also to recognize the larger patterns that restore balance to the systems sustaining all life. And it is to more fully account for how human systems interact with the other Earth systems.

As many studies in this Compendium show, Earth abounds with connections and causes that may surprise us. For instance, groundwater depletion is a source of CO2 emissions [Wood 2017], mushrooms cause rain [Hassett 2015], termite mounds mitigate drought effects [Bonachela 2017], and the Earth’s vast biosphere evolved into being thanks to a fungi-plant partnership [Mills 2017]. Understanding the planet as a complex system, encompassing myriad living and non-living subsystems, opens up our awareness to the interdependence among seemingly unrelated things and processes, and to the possibility of indirect effects and unintended consequences.

A systems framework also helps us understand the urgency of the crisis, given dynamics of complex systems that can lead to abrupt, transformational changes in the system. For instance, there are often time and space lags between cause and effect, as well as indirect effects, obscuring our awareness of the causes and consequences of our actions. Each time we drive a car, for example, we contribute to air pollution, acid rain, and climate change, however slightly. Yet, in the moment of driving, we are spared any immediately perceptible evidence of these effects. “With respect to climate change, greenhouse gases have accumulated in piecemeal fashion, with each car, cow, power plant, etc., having a minor effect. However, combining these small-scale impacts, through space and time, has manifested in large-scale effects that affect the entire planet” [Ingwersen 2013:4]

In addition, complex systems are influenced by positive or negative feedback loops, which either amplify a change or control it, respectively. Due at least in part to positive feedback mechanisms, complex systems exhibit nonlinear responses, meaning “that a very small change in some parameters can cause great qualitative differences in the resulting behavior”, as opposed to “the response of a linear system to small changes in its parameters or to changes in external forcing,” which “is usually smooth and proportionate to the stimulation” [Rial 2004:12].

Nonlinear behavior is triggered when the trajectory of a gradual change crosses a “tipping point,” or threshold, beyond which the system no longer maintains its equilibrium, and it changes abruptly into a new state. It’s akin to the age-old expression, “the straw that broke the camel’s back” – in other words, though increasingly strained the camel bore the weight of more and more straw, but only up to a point. An example of nonlinear change is the Arctic Sea, which hasn’t been ice free for more than 100,000 years but is now declining by 13.2% per decade [NASA] and could lose its summer ice entirely within a matter of years.

Understanding the climate crisis as a symptom of the global destruction of multiple interacting earth systems, rather than simply as the result of a buildup of greenhouse gases, leads us to different solutions. As Rockstrom et al [2009] suggest, in the interest of preserving the stable Holocene climate system we have known since before the dawn of agriculture, humanity’s response to climate change must account for multiple Earth system thresholds that are not to be crossed. “Since the industrial revolution (the advent of the Anthropocene), humans are effectively pushing the planet outside the Holocene range of variability for many key Earth System processes [Steffen et al. 2004].

Without such pressures, the Holocene state may be maintained for thousands of years into the future” [Rockstrom 2009:2]. The authors identify several other Earth system processes, including: ocean acidification, ozone depletion, aerosol loading, biodiversity loss, land-use change, nutrient and chemical pollution, and freshwater use, where “transgressing one or more planetary boundaries may be deleterious or even catastrophic due to the risk of crossing thresholds that will trigger non-linear, abrupt environmental change within continental- to planetary-scale systems” [Rockstrom 2009:1].

In other words, it’s not enough to solve the climate crisis only by switching to 100% renewable energy if the many other processes leading to ecological collapse are left unchecked. The explanation Rockstrom et al. offer sensitizes us to the strong interdependence among earth systems and processes, showing, for instance, that global warming can interact with (exacerbate or be exacerbated by) biodiversity loss, and with the human systems. How we respond to climate change can exert a positive (amplifying) feedback, for example, by ramping up our energy-intensive industrial defenses (artificial seawalls, air conditioners, geoengineering), or a negative (controlling) feedback – restoring coastal wetlands to mitigate hurricane damage, and increasing urban tree canopy to cool cities.

Donella Meadows, a systems thinker and sustainability advocate, offers an approach to intervening in these complex and overlapping systems to influence outcomes. She notes that we often look for leverage points in the wrong places, such as in the parameters. Parameters are what control the rate of flux into or out of a system, such as CO2 into or out of the atmosphere, and are often controlled through policy changes, such as changes in tax rates, minimum wage, and air quality standards, for instance [Meadows 1999]. Yet “if the system is chronically stagnant, parameter changes rarely kick-start it” [Meadows 1999: 8] because they are usually too small to trigger change in the overall goals or design of the system.

Meadows explains that a more powerful leverage point is the system’s guiding paradigm, such as that of our socio-economic systems that infinite growth will necessarily improve the human condition. Perhaps what’s needed is to reveal the current paradigm’s blind spot: that the planet’s resources, which fuel economic growth and absorb its waste products, are finite. Or a guiding paradigm of our political systems that downplays the role of biodiversity and ecosystem restoration/conservation by relying on emissions reductions to solve the climate crisis.

Paradigm change for an individual can happen in an instant, Meadows explains; for a whole society, it’s more complicated, though still possible. “In a nutshell, you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep coming yourself, and loudly and with assurance from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded” [Meadows 1999:18].

In our daily lives, we are well sensitized to the processes of our socio-economic systems – working for a paycheck, taking care of our families, and tending to our social networks. This is normal – it’s called living one’s life. We are much less sensitized to how our human systems interact with Earth systems, because any one person doesn’t necessarily need to consider this link to ensure his/her near-term survival or wellbeing. An exception may be farmers, whose wellbeing does depend on the land, and who are thus more likely to be in tune with Earth systems in a local context.

In general, though, we (at least in the West) rely directly on cars, buses, pavement, electricity, refrigerators, grocery stores, and plastic packaging, and only indirectly on the ecosystem processes that make these technologies possible. This is a glaring blind spot in one of our guiding paradigms – that our technology can save us. It’s a failure to visualize the world as a complex system with all its components and subsystems open and interacting, and to clearly perceive how the ingrained patterns of our daily lives, manifesting from the design of our socio-economic systems, are driving the cycles of Earth’s systems beyond the limits of equilibrium.

This is a glaring blind spot in one of our guiding paradigms – that our technology can save us. It’s a failure to visualize the world as a complex system with all its components and subsystems open and interacting, and to clearly perceive how the ingrained patterns of our daily lives, manifesting from the design of our socio-economic systems, are driving the cycles of Earth’s systems beyond the limits of equilibrium.

In short, the climate crisis we face isn’t just about greenhouse gases, biodiversity loss, poor soil health, or depleted aquifers, nor is it only about the food system, industrial society, poor individual choices, the military industrial complex, or unaccountable corporations, or any of a long list of ills. It’s about all of them in constant interactions, and our solutions need to account for that.

Donner, R., et al, 2009, Understanding the Earth as a Complex System – recent advances in data analysis and modelling in Earth sciences, European Physical Journal Special Topics 174, 1–9,

Hassett M. O., M.W.F. Fischer, N.P. Money, 2015, Mushrooms as rainmakers: how spores act as nuclei for raindrops, PLoSONE 10(10): e0140407.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0140407,

Ingwersen, Wesley W., et al, 2013, A systems perspective on responses to climate change, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Papers 196,

Levin, Simon A., 1998, Ecosystems and the Biosphere as Complex Adaptive Systems, Ecosystems 1: 431–436,

Meadows, Donella, 1999, Leverage points: places to intervene in a system, Sustainability Institute,

Mills, Benjamin J.W., Sarah A. Batterman and Katie J. Field, 2017, Nutrient acquisition by symbiotic fungi governs Paleozoic climate transition, Philosophical Transactions Royal Society B 373: 20160503,

Rial, Jose A., et al, 2004, Nonlinearities, feedbacks and critical thresholds within the Earth’s climate system, Climatic Change 65: 11–38,

Rockström J., et al, 2009, A safe operating space for humanity,​ Nature, 461: 472–475,​.

Wood, Warren W. & Hyndman, David W., 2017, Groundwater Depletion: A Significant Unreported Source of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, Earth’s Future 5,

For the full PDF version of the compendium issue where this article appears, visit Compendium Volume 1 Number 2 March 2018