You Asked: What Can We Do About Climate Tipping Points?

January 29, 2021

By Charlotte Munson

You Asked” is a series where Earth Institute experts tackle reader questions on science and sustainability. The following questions were submitted to climate scientist Radley Horton following his talk, “The Most Important Climate Tipping Point is Us.” In the talk, which was created as part of Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory’s 2020 Open House at Home, Horton explains climate tipping points — thresholds that, when surpassed, lead to big and sometimes unstoppable changes on the planet — and how humans can tip the scales in a safer direction.

If climate change is much faster now than we thought, how should we alert the public that it’s much faster? I think people still believe that climate change is slow.

The whole idea of tipping points and fast climate change is both confusing and frightening. So, there is a risk, as a communicator, that if when we talk about fast climate change and unpredictable outcomes, people may become pessimistic and even turn off and tune out in the face of the threat. This is a very real issue. The way I handle it is to basically say that the more we allow greenhouse gases to increase, and the longer we wait before dealing with this problem, the bigger the risk that something really frightening and impossible to adapt to will happen. That is very frightening, but it’s also true that our ability as a society to respond to this problem, to work together as a social species and to creatively act, could outpace the speed even of fast climate change.

Can you expand on the set of tipping points human society structures may have in tackling climate change?

As a social species, we are strongly influenced by psychology and the need to fit in within a group. Some of these factors can lead to rapid shifts in behavior and shifts in risk perception. So what’s interesting to me about this question is how we can map the somewhat cliché directives we all hear all the time about switching to renewables or consuming less and start to ask not just which of these activities are most important when done by one individual, but which of these types of activities have the biggest potential to rapidly be upscaled and mainstreamed?

Some of the most powerful examples include some of the dimensions of youth movements. When students start to demand that their colleges reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, with the implied threat that they might otherwise pick a different college, those institutions are incentivized to reduce emissions to stay competitive. When people start to broadcast that their purchasing decisions are based on considerations of social and ecological responsibilities, companies shift their business models to appeal to the demands of their customers. And then as these young folks get a little older, it seems very clear that their investment decisions are likely to centrally consider ESG — environmental, social and corporate governance — especially now that the ESG-focused companies are developing a pretty long track record of outperforming many business-as-usual companies. When these types of movements start out, with just a few people demanding a difference, it can be easily ignored. Yet at some point, if there’s enough of a critical mass, success could rapidly be seen as contingent on appealing to these new green demands of young people.

The legal system provides another area for social tipping points. There have been a lot of advances in our ability to attribute both extreme weather events and gradual changes to sectors of industry, countries, and companies that have historically been responsible for a lot of emissions. So, this is now leading to more and more lawsuits where those who suffer a harm can offset damages by suing those responsible. That’s something that might seem obscure and may not be on people’s radar right now, but attribution science is likely to keep advancing, so we can expect to see these types of cases start to have more success. Every successful legal case establishes precedent, making future cases easier to win, until fossil fuel emission or failure to adapt could be seen as another reputational and financial risk.

In your talk you conclude that you “know” we can do it. How do you know this? Based on what? Before COVID, I would drive by elementary schools when parents were there for events and the majority of motor vehicles were large gas guzzlers. If parents of young children cannot see what they should do to help ensure a future for their children and then do it, how can we do it?

We certainly can do it. But nobody can know for sure that we will do it. I think we can do it because I look at times when we’ve risen to crises in the past. But more than that, you mentioned pre-COVID. Let’s talk about COVID. Let’s talk about how quickly, when people were afraid, most of us started wearing masks much faster than a lot of us would have anticipated. Most of us radically changed our behaviors. We rose in the face of that crisis, now we want to do that in the future in a way that’s not requiring an economic and public health disaster. It really points to the idea that with some context in the face of fear, we can actually change really rapidly.

radley horton

Radley Horton is a research professor of ocean and climate physics at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. His research focuses on climate vulnerability, extreme weather events, the limitations of climate models, and adaptation to climate change.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already taught us a lot about possibilities that we might not have considered before. For example, the notion of cascading impacts, the idea that a storm in one place could affect the whole country, might have seemed pretty abstract to people in a climate context before. But now, as we live through a global pandemic, we saw, for example, how quickly economic effects cascaded when supply chains went down. We’re likely to be more amenable now to the idea that extreme weather and climate change-fueled disasters can affect everybody pretty fast and in unpredictable ways. Which could help motivate people to action.

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