Tim Lenton: Climate Change - Social tipping points

In the lecture Climate Change - Social tipping points that occurred on 20th of July, Tim Lenton, Professor of Climate Change and Earth System Science at the University of Exeter, shared the data from the research he carried out for almost all his career.

In an often forecast of gloom, Tim Lenton asks us to flip the switch on tipping points, turning the negative climate tipping point to a positive one as "small change makes big difference". To continue with, it was mentioned that a systems level analysis of social change predicts that, while neither smooth nor linear, rapid adoption of an idea or technology is possible after a dramatic shift. Therefore, with the task of halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, there must be a "self-propelling" force of social, economic and political contagion that we must activate. Public perception of new technologies could be quickly recalibrated when we amplify positive feedbacks, "lowering the hill" of the possible social obstacles of adoption.

According to Lenton, media spectacle and moments of heightened interest and scrutiny, such as with pictures that evoke public outrage, are opportunities to push ideas to the forefront and prompt significant change. This is how, more recently, we see big social tipping points in the climate change crisis leading to broadscale social movements like Extinction Rebellion and Fridays For Future. It is important to note that our relationship to technologies can change quickly. Lenton refers to the "S scale" to describe the pattern of use of technologies in the public sphere. Initially, there is low and slow adoption until suddenly an exponential rise occurs as the product permeates mass consumer markets and buzz. Eventually it peaks and levels off.

Although Lenton does not use the term, the presence of social media influencers has acted as a catalyst for widespread exposure and subsequent integration of products and ideas. An economic strategy he recommends is to create a social tipping point such that continued consumption of nonrenewable resources becomes unprofitable. While this might seem like a logical reversal to the more common understanding of tipping points, we must consider the ways in which social influence, especially in virtual spaces, is mired with misinformation, biased algorithms, and our content being shaped by the highest bidder. The average eye does not necessarily have enough information (or time) to discern if a product or shift in lifestyle is actually “positive” for the environment. Greenwashing is especially prominent with “eco-friendly” marketing making the choice for consumers, rather than consumers understanding the system of production itself.

There is substance in the theory behind social tipping points, however, the conversation during the lecture was oriented around consumption shifts available to a more affluent subgroup of society. Lenton’s contemporary examples, such as the electric car, present a kind of top-down tipping point. When adoption of sustainable technologies is tailored to the rich, does this not just produce more efficient ways of experiencing luxury and convenience? Social tipping points should be critically framed in how ideas can move through society. For example, prospective positive social tipping points in promoting system transformation include not just questions around how to change one’s diet to be more environmentally-friendly, but also understanding and promoting the technology development that is aimed at the creation of meat substitutes.

Based on the lecture "Climate Change - Social Tipping Points" by Tim Lenton during AEMS 2022.
Written by: Katherine Bailey and Lidiia Mavdryk

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