Interactions between subunits of the global climate–biosphere system (e.g. atmosphere, ocean, biosphere and cryosphere) often lead to behaviour that is not evident when each subunit is viewed in isolation. This newly evident behaviour is an emergent property of the coupled subsystems. Interactions between thermohaline circulation and climate illustrate one emergent property of coupling ocean and atmospheric circulation. The multiple thermohaline circulation equilibria that result caused abrupt climate changes in the past and may cause abrupt climate changes in the future. Similarly, coupling between the climate system and ecosystem structure and function produces complex behaviour in certain regions. For example, atmosphere–biosphere interactions in the Sahel region of West Africa lead to multiple stable equilibria. Either wet or dry climate equilibria can occur under otherwise identical forcing conditions. The equilibrium reached is dependent on past history (i.e. initial conditions), and relatively small perturbations to either climate or vegetation can cause switching between the two equilibria. Both thermohaline circulation and the climate–vegetation system in the Sahel are prone to abrupt changes that may be irreversible. This complicates the relatively linear view of global changes held in many scientific and policy communities. Emergent properties of coupled socio–natural systems add yet another layer of complexity to the policy debate. As a result, the social and economic consequences of possible global changes are likely to be underestimated in most conventional analyses because these nonlinear, abrupt and irreversible responses are insufficiently considered.