If we can identify and trigger positive tipping points, we can fast-track climate solutions. So argues the author of a new analysis
We’re well familiar with the concept of climate catastrophe: one component of a fragile ecosystem collapsing, sparking a chain of unstoppable disasters. But what if we could counter these negative tipping points with positive ones?
Do positive tipping points even exist? And could we trigger them to catalyse rapid, lasting change?
Tim Lenton, professor of climate change and Earth system science at the University of Exeter, thinks so. Having studied negative climate tipping points such as melting ice sheets and rainforest destruction, Lenton has turned his attention to positives, publishing his findings in a recent exhaustive study.
“It’s easy to look at something like COP26 and just feel depressed, that elected leaders aren’t up to the job,” said Lenton. “But the truth is, there’s big evidence of self-propelling change starting to happen. We’ve seen positive tipping points in action, we just need to work out how to find and trigger them.”
Put simply, a tipping point is a small change that makes a big difference to a complex network – such as a planetary ecosystem – which triggers what Lenton calls a ‘reinforcing feedback’, exponentially amplifying the initial effect. The concept could unlock a sense of stalemate around the climate crisis, a feeling that there’s nothing we can do about it, he believes.
On a personal level, identifying positive tipping points can inspire hope in the face of despair. “A lot of people seem like they’re in a state of climate depression,” said Lenton. “They’re paralysed by the complexity of such an enormous problem, or they feel powerless.
“What I want to say is that small changes can make a big difference. We aren’t necessarily insignificant, and we can be the start of – or part of – something that becomes really powerful.”
Climate activist Greta Thunberg, for example, exploded on to the global stage seemingly out of nowhere, and inspired a revolution. “She’s a classic example of an individual starting a reinforcing feedback loop,” explained Lenton. “The protest goes from one person to millions within months, because one person makes it incrementally easier for the next to join them in protesting the status quo.”
Lenton’s study also tries to pinpoint some of the conditions that propagate positive change, be they policy decisions such as public investment or subsidies for renewables, or economic factors like the plunging cost of home solar panels, or the accelerating rollout of electric vehicles.
We’ve seen positive tipping points in action, we just need to work out how to find and trigger them
“That’s the obvious stuff,” he said. “Making new technologies competitive in price and comparative in technology, for example. But there are more subtle forces at work. Tipping tends to start in smaller groups or sub-communities that allow different ways of thinking to gestate, without being totally shut down and stamped on. There can be a funny kind of kudos to being an early adopter of a new way of doing things.”
One project that has already tipped into a cascade of positive action is TIST, a network that contains more than 100,000 smallholder farmers in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and India.
TIST members have been supported in planting more than 20m trees over 20 years. In addition to the direct benefits of fodder, fruit and shade, farmers are employed by the programme to quantify tree growth, generating verified carbon credits which are sold on the international carbon market, with profits returned to the farmers.
Lenton’s goal now is to figure out how to trigger other positive tipping points. “I feel like people are crying out for socially just, transformative change to tackle the climate crisis,” he concluded. “We all need a chink of light and a recipe: some practical knowledge and guidance on how we can accelerate it.”
Main image: Mark Richards/Extinction Rebellion