After 40 years of comprehensive climate reports by the world’s leading authority (the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC],) the IPCC has made the most significant single change to its climate position and predictions in its decades-long history!
The IPCC now says we can no longer prevent many of the worst consequences of global warming.
A glance at the news media on any given week will likely highlight all sorts of climate change impacts. From declining Arctic Sea ice and record-breaking heatwaves to melting glaciers and worsening droughts, the increase in global average temperature is being felt around the world.
Broadly, these impacts reflect gradual changes caused by a climate that is steadily warming.
BUT THERE IS MORE … MUCH MORE.
Environmental / ecological degradation and a biodiversity crisis, marked increases in inequality, economic crises, the rise of populism, rising geo-political tensions, the effects of increased globalization, and ongoing religious and ethnic conflicts provide clear evidence that current social institutions are not optimal, either for human flourishing or for addressing global challenges. The coronavirus pandemic has brought this dangerous reality into even starker relief, as it highlights both the deep interconnectedness and the sheer fragility of our globalized socio-economic-environmental system. This deep interconnectedness and complexity extend across multiple domains, including techno-economic, ecological, political and ethical.
THERE IS MORE ….
There are parts of the Earth system that have the potential to change abruptly in response to stress. These systems have tipping points, a climate tipping point, or any tipping point in any complex system, is where a small change makes a big difference and changes the state or the fate of a system. Natural fluctuations can also be the final nudge for a tipping point pushed to the brink by human-caused climate change. So, rather than a bit more warming causing slightly hotter heatwaves or more melting of glaciers, it causes a dramatic shift to an entire system. Typically, definitions for a tipping point fall into two categories. One is simply that one vital part of the climate system shows some kind of threshold behavior and that means that a small perturbation around that element can cause a huge qualitative change. And then there’s another definition that actually says there needs to be a positive feedback mechanism associated with the element. That means there is something self-reinforcing and then could lead to irreversible changes as well.
Passing an irreversible tipping point would mean a system would not revert to its original state even if the forcing lessens or reverses. There is evidence that in some cases that once the system has jumped to a different state, then if you remove the climate forcing, the climate system doesn’t just jump back to the original state – it stays in its changed state for some considerable time, or possibly even permanently. This is known as hysteresis. It occurs when a system undergoes a bifurcation – which means to divide or fork into two branches – and it is subsequently difficult, if not impossible, for the system to revert to its previous state. Another concern around tipping points is the potential for one to trigger a cascade effect on others. Potential social-ecological regime shifts could interact with one another through domino effects or hidden feedbacks. Domino effects occur when the feedback processes of one regime shifts affect the drivers of another, creating a one-way dependency. Hidden feedbacks rise when two regime shifts combined generate new (not previously identified) feedbacks; and if strong enough, they could amplify or dampen the coupled dynamics.
Finally, in addition to the physical tipping points in the Earth system, the term is often also applied to transformations in human society. We also need to be looking at tipping points in human, social and technological systems. These can push tipping points in the Earth system over the edge, but, contrary, there are tipping points across society that could lead to a rapid global transformation. It is clear that a number of these social, economic and political tipping points for the good will need to be crossed – and quickly – to avoid toppling those in the Earth system.
It will be a turbulent period. This means intensification of contradictions and conflicts, not excluding armed ones. We are in a moment of deep institutional breakdown. A period of reconfiguration of the World System.
ARE WE READY?
This moment of deep transition, as well as being a time of danger, presents an opportunity for positive renewal. For such positive renewal to occur, however, existing social institutions must be critiqued and re-imagined.
The aforementioned crises and challenges, framed as ‘grand challenges’, require approaches and re-imagined institutions which radically go beyond the mere technical or economic. Instead, the types of multi-level and transcendent problems which encompass such systems can be described as wicked problems, complex messy problems where there are no solutions in the sense of definitive and objective answers,’ and which even elicit broad disagreement in their framing. Such problems, layered with complexity, require multiple systemic responses, extending beyond reductionist science and accompanying command and control, managerialist conceptions of reality. Instead, any productive and purposeful engagement with grand challenges requires an appreciation and embrace of their system complexity, inherent uncertainty and a post-normal approach to science.
Deep societal transformations occur at specific moments in history when underlying changes lead to tipping points that necessitate systemic change. We are now at such a historical tipping point. Due to a confluence of circumstances, many of the foundational social institutions upon which societies have relied for decades for stability and direction, including economics, democracy, technology, religion, gender, and higher education, are currently failing. This is such specific moment in history.
Social institutions play a central and important role in society; they are typically meta-institutions, i.e., systems of organizations; and being central and important to a society, they are usually long lasting, typically trans-generational. Change is not linear and progressive, but is instead characterized by periodic degenerations, recurrences, and reversals, which can culminate in transformations of entire social institutions and societies. Contemporary social institutions are, almost by definition, characterized by historical continuity, pattern maintenance and social reproduction, rather than by change, innovation or transformation.
Society is lacking the ability to effect fundamental change in their capacity creatively and collaboratively to effect policies to address the most pressing problems.
The capacity of a social institution for progressive transformation is determined both by its existing values and norms as well as its capacity to reflect on its existing values and practices. This historic moment of deep transformational crisis requires not only fundamental innovations in all the major social institutions that make up society, it requires new imaginaries to guide the direction of those transformations and the consciousness to bring about the necessary changes in our economic, political and social lives.