New preprint: "'Tipping points' confuse and can distract from urgent climate action"

In a new preprint, my co-authors and I critique the increasingly broad way the concept of tipping points is being employed by natural and social scientists in climate research. We propose a correction to an excess of lumping that we think is causing confusion that may distract urgent climate action. We hope to provoke critical reflection that advances climate research and its synthesis, assessment, and communication.

The term ‘tipping point’ – which came to climate science by way of Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book The Tipping Point, and originated in the scientific literature in the 1950s and 1960s in work on neighborhood segregation – was first used in climate research to refer to ‘Earth system tipping points’: abrupt, irreversible, self-amplifying thresholds whose crossing has the potential to shift the planet as a whole into fundamentally different states.

It has since expanded to include ‘negative social tipping points’ with the potential for catastrophic and irreversible societal impacts, and ‘positive social tipping points’, viewed as a way to set in motion rapid and self-sustaining responses, like the adoption of new technologies, as well as ‘adaptation’ or ‘risk’ tipping points, which are simply tolerance thresholds for current strategies.

The current literature makes it seem like the tipping points framing captures the core of a dynamic that is ubiquitous in natural and social systems. We argue otherwise. Rather, we suggest that the ‘tipping point’ concept has become a fuzzy concept used in different ways across disciplinary and system boundaries, much like concepts of ‘sustainability’ – even as it continues to (wrongly) convey the sense of a mathematically precise dynamic.

We critique ‘tipping point’ framings for their insufficiency for describing the diverse dynamics of complex systems; their reductionist view of individuals, their agency and their aspirations in social systems; and their tendency to convey urgency without fostering a meaningful basis for climate action.

We argue for clarifying the scientific discussion of the phenomena lumped under the ‘tipping point’ umbrella by using more specific language to capture relevant aspects (e.g., irreversibility, abruptness, self-amplification, potential surprise) and for the critical evaluation of whether, how and why the different framings can support accurate scientific understanding and effective climate risk management.

In social systems, we suggest that the mental model of a ‘tipping point’ does not align with the multifaceted nature of social change, and that a broader focus on the dynamics of social transformation is more useful than centering the concept of a ‘tipping point.’

Similarly, though the originally adopters of the ‘tipping point’ terminology began using it in the explicit hope of inspiring climate action, we note that multiple social scientific frameworks suggest the deep uncertainty and perceived abstractness associated with many proposed Earth system ‘tipping points’ make them both unlikely to invoke effective action and not useful for setting governance goals.

Temperature-based benchmarks already provide a suitable guide for global mitigation policy targets, but these benchmarks should not be confused with physical thresholds of the climate system (as often happens in the media with the ‘1.5°C tipping point’).

The position we offer is provocative; many who – like I and a number of my co-authors – have contributed over the last couple decades to the literature on ‘climate tipping points’ will strongly disagree with it. We do not intend to disparage this literature, which has highlighted numerous important aspects of both natural and social systems, and certainly do not intend to disparage these researchers (including ourselves!), for whom we have a great deal of respect.

Bob Kopp @bobkopp