In the early 2000s, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) introduced the concept of a climate tipping point— a warming threshold that, when crossed, causes an irreversible positive feedback loop, producing cascading effects on the climate. When the term was born, the IPCC believed these tipping points would only occur if global warming reached 5ºC. Two decades later, a major review study published by Science journal warned that there is a “significant likelihood” of multiple climate tipping points being crossed if global warming exceeds 1.5°C, and a possibility that some tipping points may have been hit already.
While many activists, scientists, and news outlets were quick to respond with apocalyptic, worse-case scenario takes, others have envisioned a different kind of tipping point with positive implications for the climate. A social tipping point refers to a point within a socio-environmental system at which a small qualitative change can “inevitably and often irreversibly lead to a qualitatively different state of the social system.” For a while, social tipping points were more of an inspirational concept rather than an actionable or measurable way of combating climate change. A 2020 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) sought to change that.
The study compiled data from an expert survey, an expert workshop, and an extensive literature review to identify six social tipping elements (STEs), or societal subsystems in which a meaningful amount of greenhouse gasses are at stake. In order to qualify as an STE, researchers had to identify a small change or intervention in the subsystem that could lead to large changes at the macroscopic level. These changes, or social tipping interventions (STIs), also had to be feasible within a 15 to 30 year time frame.
Below are the six STEs the researchers identified and the factors that influence them.
1 Energy Production and Storage Systems
The researchers established that a tipping point could occur when renewable energy production yields higher financial returns than fossil fuel energy production. One intervention that could provide this outcome is removing all subsidies from fossil fuels. The second intervention identified by the study is the redirection of government support to clean and decentralized energy. The world is actually already reaching this tipping point. Renewables have already become the cheapest source of energy in many regions of the world despite subsidies often working against them, with the price of large-scale solar photovoltaics decreasing by 89% between 2009 and 2019.
2 Human Settlements
Direct and indirect emissions from buildings account for almost 20% of all carbon emissions. That’s why researchers stress the importance of large-scale demonstration projects such as carbon-neutral cities. Carbon-neutral cities could educate the general public and drive consumer interest in emerging clean technologies, accelerating their adoption and commercialization. This system’s tipping point will have been reached when fossil-fuel-free technologies become the primary choice for new construction and infrastructure projects.
3 The Financial Market
Many believe a financial carbon bubble is emerging that could burst when enough investors perceive fossil fuel investments as too risky. While cleaner energy sources such as solar and wind are steady investments (once a solar or wind farm is constructed, it will continually generate revenue), fossil fuels can be very volatile as production numbers vary from year to year. If large investors warned against the global risk associated with fossil-fuel assets, an avalanche effect may be triggered, bringing rapid change to investment practices. The study identifies divestment campaigns as an effective intervention to achieve this system’s tipping point. Fossil fuel divestment campaigns urge institutions like universities, faith groups, pension funds, and insurance companies to get rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds tied to fossil fuels. The divestment movement largely started in 2011, when students across multiple college campuses hosted protests urging their administration to rethink their fossil fuel investments.
4 Norms and Values System
Social scientists have long observed that shifts in behaviors or beliefs by a minority of the population can incite abrupt, widespread shifts in cultural values and practices. A recent study published by Science journal found that dominant social norms can be changed by roughly 25% of a group. Arguing that there is a moral implication surrounding the continued burning of fossil fuels and resulting environmental, health, and justice issues is an intervention researchers believe is likely to induce a tipping process through changes in normative systems. Today’s environmental movements and policies give researchers hope that a change in norms and values may be taking place right now.
5 The Education System
The intervention identified to shift the education system is straightforward: increase the quantity and quality of climate coverage in primary and secondary education. While many teachers include basic coverage of climate change, comprehensive approaches at all levels of public education are still rarely seen. Changes to educational programs in the present can lead to a social tipping process, once the new generation enters the workforce and public decision-making bodies. Researchers also note that educational campaigns can be strengthened by more reliable media and a supportive community.
6 Information Feedbacks
The final tipping intervention relates to the flow of information and the creation of positive information feedbacks. The study argues that transparency and disclosure of information about carbon emissions goes beyond climate policy implications and promotes public and consumer awareness. One example the researchers cite is the disclosure of relationships between RWE, the biggest energy company in Germany, and local politicians protecting their interest in coal extraction. The disclosure triggered a national social movement and massive public demonstrations against plans to clear the Hambach Forest.
Despite the useful exploration of how social systems can be influenced to produce positive environmental benefits, this study is no silver bullet for solving the climate crisis. Critics argue that climate change’s complexity makes it hard to use historical precedents to predict future socio-environmental outcomes. It’s also hard to predict the collective behavior of 8 billion people with incredibly diverse life stories. However, this study can help guide the discussion around social tipping points to produce more concrete paths for change.