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Not All Tipping Points Are Bad

Maintaining a habitable biosphere for us to live within cannot be done in small steps. The possibility for incremental change was viable in the 1990’s, but that opportunity is long gone. The little action being taken from nations to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming is underlined by environmental tipping points – points of small environmental events that cause cascading effects of larger environmental change. However, these tipping points do not always have to be bad, and exist within the social sphere too. Social tipping points (STP’s) describe ways in which pressure for change builds up over time, leading to radical shifts throughout society. But until recently they have been a very abstract concept.

What are social tipping points

This paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science attempts to create a framework from which we may come to understand these social tipping points. The authors define them as a small change that leads to larger shifts in social components that are:

“driven by self-reinforcing positive-feedback mechanisms, that inevitably and often irreversibly lead to a qualitatively different state of the social system.”

To put it plainly, social tipping points occur when a seemingly small action leads to radical change in our social systems and behaviour. They shift our moral norms away from that which has led to the climate crisis we currently face. Ideally these STPs create enough social momentum to change our technological and institutional attitudes toward fossil fuels, renewable technology, and climate justice. These small events that catalyse change are known as social tipping elements (STE’s) – the changes in our systems that cause tipping points to occur. But what do these events look like?

Social and Moral Norms

It’s been noted that a sufficient and vocal minority within a group can tripper tipping points for larger social change. Recent evidence puts that number at around 25%. Because of this we have arguably already seen social tipping points for climate change already. In August of 2018, Greta Thunberg decided to skip school in order to protest outside the Swedish parliament for more action against climate change. One year later, 3.6 million climate strikers gathered, from over 169 different countries in order to follow in her footsteps. The social demand was there, but Greta’s actions were the catalyst for this radical change.

While this social tipping point did not solve climate change, it met the criteria for the elements of a STP in which “a small change or intervention in the subsystem can lead to large change at the macroscopic level and drive the system into a new basic of attraction, making transition difficult to reverse”. Greta’s action and the Fridays for Future movement mobilised millions, held governments accountable, and identified those who were complicit in climate inaction. The conversation shifted from climate ignorance to climate accountability.

The Possibilities of System Change

However, STPs are not limited to the world of activism and protesting. Shifts in social norms and values is just one example of possible STPs. There are a number of systems that can catalyse change. For that, three things are needed:

  1. Small changes catalysing larger changes.

  2. Trends towards a positive direction.

  3. Reduction in GHG emissions. In opening up this criterion the possibility for social tipping interventions become far more possible.

Infrastructure and energy production are two industries that have to radically change. Within them many STPs are possible. These can include the reduction of fossil fuel subsidies which has been a major barrier to clean, decentralised energy. Reconsidering the ways we design and live in our homes, could lead to a large reduction in global emissions. Employing biomimicry in our architecture, and relying on carbon neutral building materials could be a tipping point to greener change.

Education is yet another element that can drastically transform social norms. By increasing the amount of climate news, education, and reporting, the public gains a greater understanding of the actions required to combat climate change. Efforts resonating those by The Guardians such as pledging to climate reporting increase the public’s exposure to climate injustices and environmental destruction. It makes the crisis of climate change more visible to everyone, motivating the decision making of people.

While too much money is still invested in fossil fuels, there are large financial incentives to invest in climate mitigation. Even private businesses that use the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to inform their decision could create an STP possible of radical change within the private sector. Pairing this with green finance that emphasise the risk of ignoring the adverse effects of the climate crisis, the incentive for the financial sector to implement change is ever growing.

Radical Hope for Radical Change

What is most obvious about the STPs above, is that they are intimately interconnected. They contribute to the effectiveness of one another and help to influence the larger system towards change. Events in one can affect another and weigh the scales towards greener change within our world. The common thread between them is that they require us to rethink what our society could look like moving forward.

Whether it be rethinking how we structure our society or how we value nature, social tipping points require that we have a radical hope that our societies can move forward in the face of uncertainty. It means embracing the change that may occur to our current energy systems, our educational structures, or infrastructure design, and ultimately our way of life. While we may not fully foresee the change that will occur, we have to radically hope that a climate positive future is still possible.

The beauty of tipping points lies in their potential. One small action can lead to drastic change once all the pieces are aligned. If social tipping points are the dominos being stacked, then we have the potential to tip them over. The next bold move you take, the next campaign you’re a part of, the next innovation you create could be that moment. The moment that puts everything into motion. If you are one of the people who has an inkling for change, who wants to see a better world, it also means you are one of the few people who can tip the scales towards a brighter future.


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