Professor Tim Lenton was one of the scientists sounding the alarm on the climate crisis decades ago. Today, instead of focusing on what doom might lie ahead, he’s pioneering a new line of research on the positive tipping points that might actually save us
Professor Tim Lenton is having a chocka-block afternoon. With back-to-back interviews, journalists are eager to ask Lenton, who is director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter, about one thing. They aren’t interviewing him for the same reason as I am though, he tells me. They’re eager to hear about a paper that will be published the following day. “A bad news paper” Lenton says, holding it up so I can see the title: Quantifying the human cost of global warming. Ouch.
Publishing work like this is “something you have to do if you want to avoid the tyranny of economists telling you that, ‘oh, [climate change] is not a big deal after all’”, he says.
Scanning a list of his publications over the last few decades, the headlines don’t get much cheerier: ‘Climate tipping points: too risky to bet against’, reads one; ‘Pronounced loss of Amazon rainforest resilience since the early 2000s’ another. Lenton is among the original group of concerned scientists that were sounding the warning bell for climate action back in the early 2000s, and much of his work has centred around climate tipping points. The concept refers to what happens when small planetary changes combine to cross a critical threshold, triggering irreversible consequences. The world may already be on the brink of crossing some of these, such as the collapse of Greenland’s ice cap and the loss of the Amazon rainforest.
But the reason I’m speaking to Lenton today is about something that began to percolate in his mind a decade ago. Something that has become headline-grabbing, but in a vastly different way: the idea that tipping points are happening not just within the climate, but within societies and economies, so-called positive tipping points. “I wrote a tiny bit about it in a book called Revolutions that Made the Earth” he recollects, which was published in 2011, “but I wasn’t spending a lot of time researching it.”
Until, that is, it became clear to him that positive tipping points were actually beginning to happen. “I could see these exponential changes starting to unfold around me and I thought, people just aren’t realising the potential here.”
Norway’s dramatic shift towards electric vehicles is a case in point, with nearly 80 per cent of new car registrations last year being EVs. The other is the cost of new solar and wind projects, which are now cheaper than new fossil fuel projects in most of the world. Like all positive tipping points – which range from the adoption of heat pumps, to the use of green ammonia as fuel for shipping, through to the rise of plant-based proteins – there are complex factors at play. For a particular solution or technology to reach that coveted point in the ‘S-curve’ of adoption, it needs to be affordable, attractive, and accessible. A favourable policy environment feeds into all of this – in the case of Norway, for instance, import taxes and car registration duties for EVs have been waived, and parking is free.
The research is fascinating, and incredibly promising. According to a report by Systemiq, positive tipping points could be reached before 2030 in sectors representing 90 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. And there are hundreds of researchers from all over the globe now working to understand how we make that happen. This is thanks in no small part to Lenton, who has just returned from a week-long retreat with the community of academics and researchers that he’s built up, who are all working on the subject.
“This is a magnetic idea that’s drawing people in because we’re all realising the stakes and the need for ‘plausible grounds for hope’, as my friend Simon Sharpe said,” says Lenton. He credits Sharpe, who is director of economics for the UN High-Level Climate Champions, as a collaborator on the concept. And there are many more who are working on similar ideas – the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, for instance, which call them social tipping points, and academics at the University of Oxford, who have labelled them ‘sensitive intervention points’.
“There’s been a crystallisation of different groups, interestingly, all Europe-based. And it’s good news that a bunch of people are gravitating towards the same core idea – it means we have the basis for a much bigger community,” says Lenton.
I think I have an inner optimism, which is part of the reason why you become a scientist
Lenton finds himself in a unique place. He splits his time researching, on one hand, climate breakdown, and on the other, what might set us free. So where does he sit on the hopefulness spectrum? “I think I have an inner optimism, which is part of the reason why you become a scientist in the first place. You’re captivated by the world around you in a positive way and you want to understand it.”
Does he think we’re going to get ourselves out of this mess? “Of course, I hope so. But I don’t want to just be dealing in hope, I’m a practical person. I think it hinges a lot on if we can shift our understanding of the world as it is and how that informs our actions. That’s why I keep plugging away at trying to convey this different view of the world. I can’t predict how it will unfold, but I think we’re a pretty resourceful species. We have a lot of qualities as well as a lot of flaws. It could go either way – that’s why I work on both sides of the coin.”
It’s rare to meet an academic who is interested not just in shaping research, but in convening a social movement. Which, it could be argued, Lenton is doing. When he does talks, he says he watches his audience’s faces to see what’s resonating with them. And he’s just started a year of study leave to work mainly on a “popular book on the subject.”
Eager to take his readers on an emotional journey, he says the book will follow a similar narrative arc to a classic Hollywood movie, or more specifically, Finding Nemo. There will be a build-up of tension (climate tipping points), followed by the crisis reaching a critical point, and then an emotional release (positive tipping points).
So, what’s the book going to be called?
“Positive…tipping points?” says Lenton. “The publisher’s not so keen but I like it!”
In all seriousness, it’s a topic that transcends ivory towers, because at a high level, it’s easy to understand. In practically getting behind it, however, some of the solutions that have the most promise are in very technical or industrial sectors, such as shipping or agriculture, which are far-removed from the general public.
So how can individuals support positive tipping points? Use the power of your pension, for one, Lenton recommends. Putting your money towards an ethical pension provider is an incredibly powerful way to support industries that are catalysing positive change. Another, he says, which is relatively easy and cheap, is to eat more plant-based proteins. “I have a strong sense that [the rise of plant-based diets] could go way faster than most people are thinking, that even farmers have begun to think about. That’s a huge one because it can liberate so much land while restoring nature.”
And simply, participate in democracy: “We’re part of the citizenship that determines who governs us in a democracy. We have a voice,” says Lenton.
In fact, he adds, “If we think about it, we suddenly realise we’ve got more levers than we thought we had as individuals.”
Main image: James Bannister
This article is part of Positive Tipping Points, a series about people who are discovering ways to trigger significant and cascading positive changes within the climate crisis. Produced by Positive News in partnership with Imagine5.
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