A multitude of drops: Social tipping points in climate action

By Robert McLachlan

If you’re here, you probably know that the climate crisis is upon us, that it’s getting steadily worse, and that attempts to address it haven’t worked yet. People are still driving and even advertising SUVs with impunity, and oil companies are exploring like crazy, even in New Zealand. Politically, socially, economically, it’s a challenging problem.

In Social tipping dynamics for stabilizing Earth’s climate by 2050, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Johan Rockström and thirteen others take on this problem. Rockström, head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, is familiar as a pioneer of the Planetary Boundaries concept, nine aspects of the earth system that together define a safe operating space for humanity. That framework is based on physics, chemistry, and biology. Here the authors turn their attention to society.

The goal is to limit global warming to 1.5ºC. Somewhere between 1.5ºC and 2ºC lie numerous climate tipping points, such as triggering the melting of West Antarctica and flipping ocean currents into different states. Regional changes are already evident at the present warming of 1.2ºC: the Australian fires – devastating enough in themselves – accompanied by the continuously changing fire regime, may have tipped vast ecosystems over into new and seriously degraded states.

So the concept of tipping points is well founded in physics, and is an active area of study. But how useful is it in social issues?

To limit global warming to 1.5ºC, the burning of fossil fuels has to be phased out by at least 7% per year. That’s a vast transformation of the entire economy and infrastructure in just a few decades on a scale without parallel in history.

It’s true that there are many examples of social transformations that started small, grew rapidly, and ended up changing society. The article mentions the Reformation and the abolition of slavery, and also minor examples of how behaviours spread through social networks, like changes in lifestyles. But there are two problems here. First, there is a selection effect. It’s easy to focus on the famous and successful examples, and overlook the small groups of committed people with great ideas that went nowhere. Other ideas, like Reconstruction after the US Civil War, were successful at first but were later undone by opposing forces in the Jim Crow era. Was that because the “tipping point” wasn’t reached? If so, what’s the value of the theory?

Second, despite decades of research on complex networks and complexity, and vast amounts of data on social networks, it hasn’t really gelled yet into a theory that can be applied in any given situation.

What they sought and what they found

The authors were looking for “social tipping elements”, or small subparts of society, for decarbonisation. These should be able to be set off by small triggers within a decade or so, and bring about widespread change by 2050. They should be compatible with the Sustainable Development Goals.

We know that this is possible, because there is one outstandingly positive example, namely subsidies for renewable energy development and installation. From small beginnings, this idea spread rapidly to almost all developed countries. It’s been sustained over decades and has led to dramatic  falls in price for wind, solar, and batteries.

A second example is the fossil fuel divestment movement. From small beginnings on US universities in 2011, by 2019 $12 trillion has been divested.

Conversely, the one big solution preferred by economists, namely to put a proper price on carbon, has so far not succeeded in spreading anywhere near as much as required.

The six main tipping elements identified were:

  1. Energy: positive change triggered by subsidizing renewable energy and removing fossil fuel subsidies.
  2. Cities: triggered by building codes and the carbon-neutral cities movement.
  3. Finance: triggered by the divestment movement.
  4. Values: triggered by the recognition that burning fossil fuels is wrong.
  5. Education: led by teachers, climate educators, and youth movements.
  6. Information: triggered by emission disclosure requirements.

Although the experts that were consulted were not confident that these tipping points will be triggered, and will lead to the scale of change required, this is certainly a good time to focus on them. The authors write:

There is recent anecdotal evidence that protests, such as the #FridaysForFuture climate strikes of school students around the world, the Extinction Rebellion protests in the United Kingdom, and initiatives such as the Green New Deal in the United States, might be indicators of this change in norms and values taking place right now.

At the end of the novel Cloud Atlas, which opens on the Chatham Islands in the 1850s and includes a long journey through the Pacific, Adam and Tilda Ewing announce their intention to move back East and throw in their lot with the abolitionist cause. Tilda’s father is outraged and fumes bitterly, “Nothing you do will amount to more than a single drop in a limitless ocean!” Adam replies, “But what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”

Thanks to alert reader Paul Husbands for this tip.

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