The words “climate tipping point” brings to mind collapsing ice shelves, rainforests burning to a crisp, and other irreversible environmental disasters. But what if I told you that not all climate tipping points are bad?
A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences outlines the positive “tipping elements” needed to address climate change — society-wide shifts that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to avert disaster. Each tipping elements, researchers say, can be triggered by one or more “social tipping interventions” (regrettably abbreviated to “STIs”) — smaller changes that pave the way for societal transformation.
The challenge ahead seems almost insurmountably difficult. Global emissions (which rose every one of the past three years), need to reach net-zero by mid-century in order for the planet to stay below 2 degrees C of warming — the threshold between “bad but manageable” warming and “time to get in the bunker” warming.
But the interdisciplinary team of researchers with backgrounds in earth systems analysis, geosustainability, philosophy, and other fields, say these STIs can keep humanity not just below that threshold, but substantially so. The team surveyed more than 1,000 international experts in the fields of climate change and sustainability, and asked them to identify the tipping elements needed for rapid decarbonization. By aggregating the results, the researchers identified seven interventions that have the potential “to spark rapid yet constructive societal changes towards climate stabilization and overall sustainability.” The biggest takeaway, aside from the fact that there actually is a way (well, seven ways) to avoid climate catastrophe, is that financial markets hold the key to keeping us in the black.
Here are the two interventions that the researchers say can be achieved very rapidly, i.e. within a few years.
- Divestment from fossil fuels. If national banks and insurance companies warn the public that fossil fuel reserves are “stranded assets” — that is, resources that no longer have value — companies and people could start withdrawing investments in industries that contribute to climate change en masse, and the flow of money to polluting companies could quickly dry up. We’re seeing the potential of the divestment movement already — BlackRock’s announcement that it’s shedding its investments in coal last week sent a tremor through the financial industry.
- Emission disclosures from companies and politicians. People need to know how their actions affect the planet. That means more transparency in things like food labeling — the carbon footprint of a banana, say — as well as corporate and political transparency. Voters need to know if their politicians are bankrolled by fossil fuels, and corporations need to disclose their carbon assets. Once the public can clearly make the connection between their consumer choices and the environment, or their vote and the environment, it could trigger political action and lifestyle change on a massive scale, the study says.
The next two can be achieved in 5 to 10 years.
- Decentralized energy. Transitioning to locally controlled power systems, like community solar co-ops or community-owned power plants, could lead the way to total decarbonization. The biggest obstacle at the moment is cost. It’s expensive to move energy generation off the main grid. But as technologies develop and more communities invest in local energy initiatives, those costs will come down.
- Green cities. The energy needed to construct and power buildings contributes 20 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. Tweaks to building codes all over the globe, particularly in poor and developing countries, could spark demand for fossil-fuel-free resources and tech, like laminated timber. One of the ways to inspire such a shift would be for governments to make massive infrastructure investments in carbon-neutral cities, which could stand as an example to other cities and have a “spillover” effect on developing urban areas.
Flipping the next switches will take longer — 10 to 20 years.
- Subsidies for green power. If governments redirect national subsidy programs to existing green technologies like wind and solar and eliminate tax breaks for fossil fuels, renewables can become more profitable than other fuel sources. “Our expert group believes that the critical mass that needs to be reached is the moment when climate-neutral power generation generates higher financial returns than fossil-based power generation,” second lead author Jonathan Donges said in a statement.
- Widespread climate education. If educators incorporated climate change into their curricula it could have enormous implications for students, parents, and public decision-making, once those kids enter the workforce and the voting booth. Mass media campaigns, like the one targeting tobacco companies in the U.S. in the 1970s, can work alongside educational campaigns to trigger social transformation.
The final STI will require upward of 30 years of efforts to take effect.
- Moral reckoning. Once humans understand the moral case for ditching fossil fuels — aka the devastating effect of carbon emissions on vulnerable communities and future generations — societal norms could change and fossil fuels could become, in effect, taboo. But in order to achieve this, a majority of social and public opinion leaders would have to “recognize the ethical implications of fossil fuels and generate pressure in their peer groups to ostracize the use of products involving fossil fuel burning.”
All of this may seem a bit far-fetched at first. Will stamping foods with their carbon footprints really persuade shoppers to make more climate-friendly choices? Will teaching third-graders about carbon cycles really inspire them to vote for green politicians in a decade? The cool thing about this study, which incorporates findings from previous climate, health, and behavioral studies, is that the researchers found historical parallels for each of the interventions they recommend. The perceived health benefits of eating organic in the early aughts spurred shoppers to look for that label in the grocery store, boosting the global market for organic products by 10 percent every year. A literacy campaign in Cuba in the 1950s slashed illiteracy rates from 24 percent to 3.9 percent in less than a year. Progress is possible — it’s just a matter of opening the right floodgates.