Tipping Points & Wildcards – How To Change The Climate Game

In Britain in the 1930s, only a quarter of women were employed – mostly in the home or on farms. When a woman gets married, she automatically loses her job. Then conventions changed during World War II, the swinging 60’s and 70’s led to a shift. At the turn of the century 65% ​​of women in the UK were employed. My great-grandmother was fired for marriage, and as her great-granddaughter, I run my own business.

This kind of social fluidity in the way we live our lives is the result of social turning points. A tipping point is a concept that has its roots in 19th-century chemistry and mathematics and was later picked up by other disciplines, including the social sciences. Tipping points are moments in a system where a small change can trigger rapid, nonlinear changes that then become self-reinforcing. The effect is an irreversible change in the system.

In case of Social Tipping points, the changes in question concern the way we live our lives, interact with one another or otherwise exist in the world.

Turning points, as in the case of women’s employment, can be exciting, powerful moments of progress. They can create positive cascading effects, a happy spiral of benefits that produce more benefits. Crucially, they can accelerate change—they provide a shortcut to bring about big changes that linear, incremental changes would take centuries to achieve. Of course, tipping points can flip the other way, dealing fast and uncontrollable damage. Such is the nature of the tipping points that exist within the climate system, notably melting permafrost, bleached coral reefs, and the loss of large ice sheets.

These ecological tipping points are daunting, but they are necessarily slow compared to the speed at which society can change. After all, people can change much faster than technology or infrastructure. We can change tomorrow if we want, or even now.

This potential for quick social tips is a topic of growing academic interest. Conferences such as the University of Exeter’s Tipping Points: From the Climate Crisis to Positive Transformation are leading the conversation, and I was recently fortunate to discuss the power of social tipping points with Johan Rockström, one of the conference’s keynote speakers.

In its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — the global authority on climate science — identified these sociocultural shifts as critical to our response to the climate crisis. Everyday behavior changes such as walking instead of driving, choosing a plant-based diet and video calling instead of flying – all of which could lead to a reduction in demand-side carbon emissions by up to 5% – faster than many other emission reduction strategies.

To get there, new social norms need to be established – which the IPCC calculates only requires 10-30% of the committed individuals to exemplify these new behaviors. This percentage is what it takes to tip everything, for everyone.

There are several social tipping points that scientists have identified as likely to change the climate game. They cover many of the areas you might expect:

● support clean energy and eliminating fossil fuel subsidies

● Change as we do to buildwith large-scale zero-carbon demonstration projects, local clean-tech clusters and large-scale public infrastructure projects

● Outsource finance from fossil fuels

● Move social norms about a committed minority of people engaging in low-carbon behaviors that are becoming “contagious.”

● More and better climate education in schools

● Make carbon more visible to consumers, businesses and governments information feedback.

I agree that all of these are powerful and have the weight of expert opinion behind them.

But can we add to this list by thinking laterally and looking in less obvious places? The following are just some of the emerging trends that are easily overlooked and could unleash the waves of positive change we so desperately need.

Web3 and dematerialized consumption

A huge, unseen shift happened last month that flew under the radar of most sustainability agencies. The Ethereum blockchain – which previously had a carbon footprint comparable to that of all of Switzerland – reduced its energy consumption by more than 99%, becoming nearly carbon neutral. If Unilever or Ikea did the same, sustainability freaks would cheer heartily from the sidelines.

The virtual world – the Metaverse – is a neglected source of hope. It holds the key to so much that the planet needs. Namely pixels instead of environmentally harmful products. Web3 offers an opportunity to value the intangible and will mark the beginning of a new way in which we manage the resources we use.

generational change

Generation Z – those born after 1997 – are more concerned with the climate crisis and how to deal with it than anyone before them. They are behind the Fridays For Future campaigns, which have been gaining momentum around the world since 2018, and it is these young people who will soon be running for election.

Their conversations are already different from those of their older colleagues: they talk about the climate more often and see more about it on social media. As many as 59% of Gen Z say they post content they hope will change the world – and soon they will have the power to make those hopes a reality.

Local energy industry

The energy market is not geared towards renewables. Our network structure means that the most expensive generator determines the price – so renewable energy is not always cheaper. Affordability will drive the large-scale clean energy transition that we need, and that can be done through localization.

A large-scale study across Europe has shown that citizens could play a crucial role in the renewable energy transition and commit €176 billion to fund community-based wind energy – enough to boost renewable energy to 32% of total energy use by 2030.

Neighborhood solar panels, local geothermal projects, even Pee-powered technology — all could accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels.

Demographic change

Our world population is getting older, more urban and more and more people live alone. As society transforms itself, the fabric of our lives will change with it, making turning points of various kinds inevitable. Loneliness will drive more people to embrace co-living and the sustainability benefits it brings. A growing number of retired citizens means more people will have time to work together on campaigns and solutions. And the “quiet quiet” will continue to challenge hustle and bustle culture and drain talent from big capitalism as more people choose purposeful jobs.

If that sounds too good to be true, remember you’ve already experienced a tipping point. In just a few decades, we’ve gone from hailing cabs on the street to ordering on our smartphones, from sitting in boardrooms to video calling co-workers in our pajamas. The Internet is now as old as I am and poised to shape the next phase of society’s transformation. Can you really remember life before this tip?

Researching turning points is exciting, not least because we can see how these trends often build up over years. But sometimes change can come out of nowhere…

Climate maps Wild

What hasn’t been studied as thoroughly (yet) are social ‘wildcards’ – perhaps defined as ‘quick tips’.

You will get reasonable odds on many of the above turning points. The wild cards are ‘all bets off’ – unlikely, unpredictable and utterly transformative when they happen.

Here are just some of the left-field phenomena that could steer us away from climate catastrophe. They may sound crazy, but listen to me – they might just be the black swans of the sustainability world.

eco religion

We have already seen that Generation Z is the generation most concerned with the climate crisis. They are also the least likely to have a religious belief that underpins their lives and attitudes: in the US, more than a third identify as an atheist or agnostic, more than any other generation. They are looking for meaning – and they might find it in a new ecologically based belief.

Not alone

The James Webb Telescope has just started bouncing back stunning images of planets and stars, both near and far. It even took the first step in detecting vital signs. Advances here could lead us to reassess our place in the solar system and collectively reconsider what humanity really is.

Conscious AI

Thinking robots are the stuff of tech brothers’ wildest dreams, but some experts say the AI ​​is already reaching limited consciousness. With this kind of tremendous intelligence on board to deal with the climate crisis, we can expect solutions to skyrocket.

no more meat

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s not: A tick found in the US causes meat allergies and can spread due to climate change. Meat-rich diets are a big part of the climate crisis, but as our climate changes, we could see pandemics and other ecological events that could spell the end of the “meat and two veg” culture.

Clever robots, extraterrestrial life, allergic arachnids – hard to imagine, I know. But it was also impossible in 2019 to imagine a world that would spend almost two years in lockdown.

Between placeholders and tipping points, the world faces dramatic social change—and with a nudge in the right direction, those points could tip fast enough to save us.

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