Can we identify the tipping points for transformative climate action?

Tipping points occur when a small change can lead to significant – potentially irreversible – shifts in the system as a whole. These changes can be positive, like when generating power from renewables becomes cheaper than using coal, or negative, like the feedback loops from melting permafrost.

At the European Climate Change Adaptation conference in Lisbon last month, I listened to researchers and practitioners from different disciplines discussing tipping points around climate change. Just a few weeks later, others were gathered in Bonn discussing transformational change for climate finance. This left me wondering, when is it useful to think about tipping points in social systems? What does it add to our understanding and our ability to work towards faster and more transformative climate action?

In the world of climate science, the concept of tipping points and tipping cascades are well established. The concept of tipping cascades, described as a ‘Hothouse‘ or ‘Uninhabitable Earth‘, have captured the media’s imagination.

These tipping points are points in the physical system where a small change in one dimension of the system could lead to cascades of impacts across related systems. For example, tipping points or cascades at temperature increases of around 1-3 degrees are likely to lead to changes such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, melting of alpine glaciers and destruction of coral reefs. If global temperatures go beyond these points other systemic shifts could occur in the Indian monsoon, the climate of the Sahel and the jet stream. There are feedback mechanisms and loops that either support maintaining the planet in its current state (such as carbon uptake by land and oceans) or amplify a change and transition (such as forest diebacks).

So, within physical science the concept of tipping points is clear. They are triggers to be avoided as they may set off unexpected consequences and lead to sudden and irreversible shifts in the planetary system. Being aware of them means we are – in theory – more sensitised to the need to halt emissions before they are hit. Scientists and policymakers can take into account non-linear feedback loops that might start to trigger cascades of change when thinking about future scenarios.

Within social systems, however, tipping points can be thought of in many different ways.

Within work on the economic costs of adaptation, socio-economic tipping points can refer to the points where climate change may suddenly negatively alter the functioning of social systems. For example, flood risks could become uninsurable as climate risks escalate, critical infrastructure could fail and industries such as ski or coastal resorts could shut down. These triggers might lead to massively increased costs and the social system may have to fundamentally shift its way of working. This way of thinking about social tipping points echoes the way physical tipping points can be seen as a pinch point in the system to be avoided and planned for.

But some groups are also starting to think about positive tipping points. These are points that trigger the sudden change in individuals and in collective systems needed to transform society into a climate resilient low carbon one. These tipping points need transformative capacities in individuals and groups to make them happen and there are unlikely to be single points that can transform entire systems: it’s more likely that there are multiple positive tipping points around a range of solutions that need to be activated together to shift whole systems.

Others have also tried applying complex adaptive system thinking to explore whether there are precursors to changing from one state to another (whether positive or negative) that can be identified. These could be signals such as a critical slowdown in the old system, or measurable changes in the qualities of social systems or networks that make social tipping points more likely. Others are working on how transitions in a particular direction might be politically accelerated.

These points are of particular interest to us at EIT Climate-KIC as we are seeking to use innovation to trigger systemic change. As we move into implementing our new strategy we are co-designing a new way of working through our deep demonstrations. This involves working in a demand-led way with local decision-makers and linking the supply of innovation with demand for new solutions to trigger widespread societal shifts. We’re also working on building transformative capacities for change.

As we do this, we are asking ourselves how we will know whether we are on a pathway to transformative change. What concepts and theories will help us to learn from and improve our approach over time to keep on track? How might we best work with our partners to put in place the conditions that support these systemic changes?

One of the challenges in identifying positive social tipping points is how we model social systems to predict what the future might bring and what value such a theoretical prediction has in the messy real world.

Social scientists can analyse the past to explore how and why specific changes happened in certain contexts. But it’s easier to do it in hindsight. It’s much harder to do this analysis before the change happened and to predict the complex changes across social systems that can result from a specific event, technology or social change. The wave of protests by the school strikers and Extinction Rebellion were not widely predicted for example. Nor do we know whether these are a positive and long-lasting positive tipping point in public opinion or just a temporary blip of concern before we go back to business as usual.

Another challenge is choosing which theoretical lens best supports our approach. Many social theories can help us understand key factors underpinning societal shifts or suggest how processes might unfold. But these frameworks put varying emphasis on individuals, networks, organisations and wider contexts and structures, as well the role of technology, power and politics in supporting change. Some may apply more in some contexts than in others. Some may take much longer to lead to change than others. Some may support disruptive change, others incremental.

We don’t have the answers. We’re working through these ideas in practice through our experiments at EIT Climate-KIC and developing our research, knowledge networks and thinking as we go. We hope identifying potential positive tipping points will help us orientate the portfolio of experiments. Learning fast and moving on should help us refine our best guess of where systemic change might happen. We are sharing this thinking as it emerges to help us pool learning from across our network and beyond to support each other in the race to keep warming within 1.5 degrees.

We’d love to hear from you if you’re working on similar challenges and can share your experience or thinking.

 
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