The notion that small changes can have large consequences in the climate or ecosystems has become popular as the concept of tipping points. Typically, tipping points are thought to arise from a loss of stability of an equilibrium when external conditions are slowly varied. However, this appealingly simple view puts us on the wrong foot for understanding a range of abrupt transitions in the climate or ecosystems because complex environmental systems are never in equilibrium. In particular, they are forced by diurnal variations, the seasons, Milankovitch cycles and internal climate oscillations. Here we show how abrupt and sometimes even irreversible change may be evoked by even small shifts in the amplitude or time scale of such environmental oscillations. By using model simulations and reconciling evidence from previous studies we illustrate how these phenomena can be relevant for ecosystems and elements of the climate system including terrestrial ecosystems, Arctic sea ice and monsoons. Although the systems we address are very different and span a broad range of time scales, the phenomena can be understood in a common framework that can help clarify and unify the interpretation of abrupt shifts in the Earth system.