A new study has identified certain basic similarities in how global networks respond to tipping points, or large-scale, abrupt changes such as epidemic outbreaks. Photo: A. G. Farran/UNAMID Flick

Tipping points

Consistent responses to unpredictable events

Similarities found in global networks' response to large-scale abrupt crises

Story highlights

  • Ocean acidification, fisheries collapse and infectious disease outbreaks can be described as tipping point
  • Such tipping points are large-scale, abrupt changes that are difficult to anticipate, let alone deal wit
  • Three cases demonstrate how global networks attempt to complement more formal and global institutions to deal with such changes

What do ocean acidification, fisheries collapse and infectious disease outbreaks have in common besides embodying the ingredients of a blockbuster disaster movie for apocalyptic-seeking marine biologists?

Turns out quite a lot.

All three phenomena can be described as tipping points, or large-scale, abrupt changes that are difficult to anticipate, let alone deal with. And despite an increased scholarly and policy interest in the dynamics of these dramatic changes, little progress has been made on understanding how state and non-state actors actually deal with them.

In a new study recently published in the journal International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics', centre researchers Victor Galaz, Henrik Österblom, Örjan Bodin and Beatrice Crona have identified certain basic similarities in how global networks respond.

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While these "tipping points" are in many ways different, they have one important thing in common: they are all globally occurring phenomena that represent substantial governance challenges.

"Responses are often considered too little, too late and managed by the wrong people"

Victor Galaz, lead author

Three cases, four similarities
Specifically, the study took a closer look at how the Global Partnership for Climate, Fisheries and Aquaculture (henceforth Pacfa) dealt with cases of ocean acidification; how a multitude of international networks and organisations such as World Health Organization (WHO) respond to epidemic outbreaks; and how illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean was reduced thanks to a coordinated international response.

From these three case studies, four governance functions were elaborated: The first was "information processing and early warnings". This includes the capacity to continuously monitor, analyse and interpret information about changing circumstances. Interestingly, all three case studies featured the role of a few centrally placed actors responsible for continuous data gathering and information exchange.

For instance, the reduction of illegal fishing is partly thanks to a well-established information-sharing system developed over time (and with much effort) through the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). The system include an electronic catch documentation scheme and information collected from satellite monitoring of vessel activities. Suspected vessels or trade flows are also reported extensively.

The second function was "multilevel and multinetwork responses”. Governing "tipping points" requires a capacity among centrally placed actors to rapidly pool resources from participating network members at multiple levels. For instance, global epidemic networks are nested in a large global network landscape designed to react swiftly to epidemic early warnings.

Which national, regional or international organisation that becomes the central coordinator depends on the disease agent and location of interest but the WHO Global Outbreak and Response Network and the FAO Emergency Centre are central in any operation.

The third function was "Development and maintenance of diverse response capacity". Maintaining response capacity over time requires maintaining access to diverse resources and competences. All three cases examined in the study have evolved through time by strategically expanding the membership of the network. For instance, CCAMLR hosts and funds strategic training workshops in regions where effective response capacities have been viewed as lacking.

The fourth and final function was "Balancing legitimacy and efficiency goals". According to Galaz and his colleagues, centrally placed actors seem to build legitimacy by strategically enhancing the diversity and number of members, thus increasing the degree of formalisation in what originally were informal collaboration mechanisms. However, this is not always a straightforward process as it may affect efficiency within the network.

The Pacfa has struggled to balance legitimacy and efficiency. As the global partnership has become increasingly explicit in their policy recommendations, tensions have surfaced between actors wanting to achieve tangible outcomes and those concerned with overstepping their respective organisations’ mandate. While most of the activities initially evolved through the work of a few centrally placed actors the partnership has now become increasingly formalised and recently became a UN Oceans-Taskforce.

This is likely to increase its legitimacy in the UN system.

Putting pressure on institutions
Overall, the three cases demonstrate how global networks attempt to complement more formal and global institutions.

"The perceived 'sense of urgency' in avoiding the next pandemic or a large-scale fish collapse seemingly triggers the emergence of global networks created by concerned state and non-state actors. These networks can support the enforcement of existing international institutions as well as put pressure on them to change and adapt,” co-author Beatrice Crona says.

The analysis by the four centre researchers is only tentative, especially considering the small number of cases, the contested nature of "‘tipping points," and the need to explore additional working propositions. However, it brings together a number of theoretically and empirically founded propositions worth further attention, including how state and non-state actors perceive and frame global change-induced "tipping points," the unfolding global network dynamics and how these are shaped by international institutions.

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Published: 2014-08-26



Galaz, V., Österblom, H., Bodin. Ö., Crona, B. 2014. Global networks and global change-induced tipping points. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, DOI 10.1007/s10784-014-9253-6

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Victor Galaz is an Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in political science. His current research interests are in global environmental governance, planetary boundaries, emerging technologies and emerging political conflicts associated with the notion of the Anthropocene.

Henrik Österblom is Deputy Science Director at Stockholm Resilience Centre. His three primary research interests are 1) Social-ecological dynamics of the Baltic Sea, 2) International marine governance and 3) Seabirds and ecosystem change.

Örjan Bodin combines and integrate methods and theories from several different scientific disciplines. He describes complex and intricate webs of interactions between and among different ecological and/or social components.

Beatrice Crona's work focuses on resource governance issues with particular focus on marine related topics. Her research can be divided into three strands: the role of social networks, multi-level governance and the role of trade in marine resource governance.