The epistemology of climate science and modelling

Causal and explanatory strategies for extreme events and tipping points

Social tipping points and the climate challenge: interdisciplinary perspectives

Social tipping points and the climate challenge: interdisciplinary perspectives

In collaboration with Prof. Dr. Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen (Institute of Political Science, University of Bern)

Discontinuous rapid transitions in the climate and Earth systems constitute one of the most concerning, yet in many ways one of the least understood aspects of climate change. It is argued that such tipping points and their interactions (potentially leading to cascading effects) are key to the climate emergency we are in. At the same time, in recent years, there is a growing interest in the possibility of triggering (‘positive’) tipping dynamics in social systems as a way to implement rapid, non-incremental social change in reaction to the climate emergency––and more specifically as a possible way to avoid climate and Earth system tipping points. In this context, the triggering of social tipping points is increasingly seen as a potentially central tool of climate governance.

However, appealing as it is when it comes to rapid climate action, the concept of social tipping point and its empirical investigation face a number of challenges that may weaken its concrete relevance. In particular, given the profound differences between social and physical systems, the extent to which the same conceptual framework and tools can be applied to both physical and social tipping points should be carefully assessed.

This research will investigate the epistemic and methodological strengths and limitations of the concept of social tipping points, both at the global level of Earth system science as well at the level of concrete case studies––with a focus on their political dimension.

1. Social tipping points: epistemic and methodological issues

The exact definition of a social tipping point is still debated in the literature. If the recent work on social tipping points is (partly) inspired and (largely) influenced by the research on their natural counterparts in the climate and Earth systems, there is however no agreement on the precise features that characterize a social tipping point. The very concept of tipping point––both natural and social ones––lies at the convergence of several different physical and mathematical notions, such as feedback and non-linearity, threshold and phase or critical transition, multistability, hysteresis, and bifurcation, among others, not all of which are necessarily relevant when it comes to social systems. Indeed, the analogy between natural and social systems can be very fruitful, but there are however fundamental differences that need to be taken into account (such as, e.g., agency, network dynamics, spatial and temporal scales, complexity). Given this complexity and the interdisciplinary nature of the issue, an increasing number of conceptual studies has proposed slightly different understandings of social tipping but also of its central elements and mechanisms.

The first part of this research will investigate the nature of the differences between natural and social tipping and the extent to which they can be meaningfully captured using mathematical tools––and beyond that, the extent to which social tipping points (and their interactions) can be understood and predicted within the modelling framework of Earth system science. This part of the project will then address the epistemic issues related to the triggering of ‘positive’ social tipping points in the face of the climate challenge, in particular when it comes to the management of uncertainties and biases (or, more generally, the management of non-epistemic values). In so doing, the research conducted will contribute to the existing state of knowledge in at least two respects: First, it will help to better understand the differences between natural and social tipping as well as their interaction. Second, it will contribute to and evaluate the potentials of translating social tipping from being a nice metaphor into a useful analytical framework.

2. Social tipping points: case studies

One of the central difficulties in social tipping point research is the lack of empirical data and concrete case studies: for instance, there is no social system counterpart to paleoclimate evidence and Earth system modelling data, which play a central role in understanding climate tipping points. It is therefore crucial to identify and study cases of tipping dynamics in social systems: the task can however be rather tricky given the fact that there is no unique set of features that characterizes social tipping points in the literature (see Part 1). For different sets of such features, the second part of this research project will focus on identifying concrete examples of social tipping point at various scales.

In a first step, we will consider cases of social tipping points that have been put forward in the literature and investigate what tipping features these cases display exactly. A crucial question that will be addressed is the extent to which these cases of social tipping dynamics can or cannot be explained by other theories of social change (i.e. without involving tipping points). Put differently, it will provide more insights on why and how social tipping indeed improves our understanding of the type of rapid and fundamental change needed for mitigating climate change. In a second step, the aim will be to identify new cases of social tipping points, that is, cases encoding tipping features that are essential to their understanding and––ultimately––their potential prediction