Tipping points highlight the urgent need for interdisciplinary collaboration

The idea of crossing critical tipping points in the climate system, which could trigger a domino effect of worsening global warming, is a truly alarming scenario. But could they potentiality be countered by  positive social tipping points, which turn the tide towards  a safe and just space for people and planet?

This question was raised in a well-attended semi-plenary at the Earth System Governance Conference at Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands, earlier this month.

The conference convened  over 500 participants from the international Earth system governance community. It was co-hosted by Future Earth and the Earth Commission who also arranged the semi-plenary event: Social Tipping Points and Living within Just Earth System Boundaries. 

Joyeeta Gupta, Co-Chair of the Earth Commission and Professor at the University of Amsterdam, opened  the session by introducing the safe and just Earth system boundaries launched by the Earth Commission in Nature earlier this year. Some of the questions addressed were:

Do safe and just boundaries ensure justice and wellbeing for people? 

“The safe boundaries are set to ensure the stability of the planet, but they don’t necessarily ensure justice and the wellbeing for people. Therefore, we evaluated all the boundaries from a justice perspective. In some cases, the just boundary needs to be more stringent than the safe – as people are harmed before the Earth system is destabilised. Climate is one example, where people are impacted already today at 1,2°C of warming.” said Prof. Gupta

Can social tipping points be triggered that help reach a safe and just future? 

Most of the boundaries identified by the Commission have  already been breached,with the experts highlighting that massive transformations are needed to shift societies into a safe and just operating space.

Earth Commissioner Tim Lenton, Professor at the University of Exeter and a climate and Earth system scientist, elaborated on this by explaining the dangers of crossing tipping points in the Earth system. For example, the collapse of ice sheets and methane release could lead to cascading effects and self-reinforcing feedbacks that may in turn speed up global warming even more. Prof. Lenton pointed to the rise of electrical vehicles and solar panels as encouraging examples of positive social tipping points that are indicative of impactful systemic change.

What assumptions are currently being made about social tipping points?

Even if social tipping points have been a hot topic in the last few years, it is a concept that is also contested – especially among social scientists. Dr Manjana Milkoreit, based at the University of Oslo, highlighted the many assumptions being made about social tipping points.

Can social systems really tip like biophysical systems? Can such tipping be deliberate, driven by actors – and can we ensure the tipping is manageable and leads to desirable outcomes? asked Dr. Milkoreit

In the Q&A, the audience raised the many other established social science theories of change  that need to be considered,  and that it might be risky to apply a concept such as tipping points from the natural sciences too directly to social systems.

The conference had a cross cutting focus on trans- and interdisciplinary research, which was highlighted in the semi-plenary and in other sessions raising the need for bridging the gaps between Earth system science and Earth system governance to achieve transformations to sustainability.

Watch the ESG Conference: Social Tipping points and living within just Earth system boundaries here.