Climate tipping points: the ones we actually want

Finding hope in how complex systems work

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Welcome back to Gen Dread, a weekly newsletter about “staying sane in the climate crisis”. Thanks for subscribing! If someone sent this to you and you haven’t yet signed up, you can do so for free here:

Off the bat

If you didn’t get a Gen Dread email last week featuring the anti-nuclear weapons activist Dr. Helen Caldicott’s advice for eco-anxious people, there was a pesky technical issue… but you can find the post here!

Next up: new eco-anxiety and grief resources

  1. The pioneering climate-aware psychotherapist Ro Randall is offering a free webinar on Coping with the Climate Crisis in partnership with the Centre for Alternative Technology on Weds Feb 17th. Details and booking here https://www.cat.org.uk/events/free-webinar-coping-with-the-climate-crisis/ 

  2. The Climate Journal Project was launched to help “alleviate environmental anxiety & fears. Through guided reflections and challenges, empower yourself and others to transition away from planetary grief and climate change paralysis.” They’ve designed some beautiful journals to help young people channel their difficult feelings towards action and have a Kickstarter you might be interested in.

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Climate tipping points: the ones we actually want

"Three boys, two on a wine bottle being tipped over with a spoon by a third. [front]" by Boston Public Library is licensed under CC BY 2.0

How’ve you been feeling amidst all the good news?

Environmentalists are not used to getting good news. We aren’t used to “winning”. And it can be a little disorienting, emotionally speaking, to get so much positive traction on the issues we most care about. Last week when Joe Biden came out swinging on “Climate Day” with bold climate policies and protections that centred environmental justice, I had to remind myself that it was okay to get excited. Like, go on girl, you’re allowed to feel energized in a good way by all of this. As Elizabeth Kolbert writes in the New Yorker, “It remains to be seen whether Joe Biden’s sweeping climate directives can make a meaningful difference”. But they’re hopeful signs that it is at least possible to build up the attitude that’s required for the US, alongside other nations, to lead humanity away from its otherwise clear death march. A crack has let the light in. Now we smash the ceiling open. 

It is so important to remain open to surprises in these dread-inducing times. That’s a crucial lesson I’ve taken away from my research about what it means to learn to live well with the climate crisis. Heck, seen from one angle, we can even entertain the idea that we could get used to feeling throbs of hope. After all, it’s an easy bet to say that the more unaffordable it becomes to keep ruining the planet, the more good surprises we’ll see. Exhibit A from last week: “Norway’s trillion-dollar wealth fund sold the last of its investments in fossil fuel companies”. 

Though of course, our job now is to go far beyond such an economic calculus, and redesign our systems so that they work in the service of human and planetary wellbeing instead of profit. Arguably, the task before us goes even deeper than that. As the writer Charles Eisenstein once said in an interview, “I think that this is actually a false hope that we’re going to be forced to change for survival. Because I think that the initiation that we are being offered is outside of valuing the Earth for our own survival or our own well-being, but to relate to it as a sacred being in and of itself.” Personally, I agree.

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Remaining open to surprise in existentially challenging times isn’t just hopeful rhetoric or an ethically imaginative orientation towards the future. It is a scientific feature of what it means to live inside complex interlocking systems. The political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon argues in his latest book Commanding Hope that a humble form of hope, based in truth, is a necessary ingredient for change, and that we can source this hope from studying the emergent properties of complex systems. 

The climate system is a classic complex system. Climate scientists talk a lot about tipping points — a main feature of complex systems — because they exhibit what’s called disproportional causation. This means that sometimes, very small things can have really big effects, and really big things don’t make much difference at all. If we surpass a certain threshold of melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet for example, or thawing of Arctic permafrost, or die back of the Amazon rainforest, the whole Earth system will shift abruptly and irreversibly.⁠ Those are just a few of the climate tipping points to worry about, and they’re fundamentally different from what happens in non-complex systems, where small changes cause small effects and big changes cause big effects. When a small change in a complex system produces an enormous shift, that new pathway gets reinforced by positive feedback loops, which lock in all that change. That’s why tipping points are irreversible. You can’t go back to where you were before. A tipping point that flips non-linearly could be the thing that does us in, but it could also be the thing that allows us to heal our broken systems and better sustain ourselves. 

Homer-Dixon uses the example of Greta Thunberg to bring this point to life. Back in 2017, if someone had said that a 15 year old girl with Asperger’s would soon sit in front of the Swedish Parliament with a sign, and that would catalyze a global movement of millions of young climate activists around the world, and that this teenager would be invited to speak at the European Parliament, the World Economic Forum, the United Nations, and have meetings with several powerful heads of state, you would have scoffed at how ridiculous that sounds. What a silly idea, a pipe dream. But that was a possibility generated by the complex interlocking systems we live in, which lay beyond the edge of our collective knowledge. It was always there, lurking as a possibility, though none of us could see it. Thankfully, Greta Thunberg pulled it from the realm of what Stuart Kauffman calls “the adjacent possible” into reality, creating an opening for healing that many others have since widened. 

Just as a virus can suddenly appear that few people expected, and then redefine nearly everything about modern life, surprises can emerge, seemingly from nowhere, and have dramatic impact, bad or good. For a shot at creating the future we want, we are the points that need to tip. As economist Eric Beinhocker writes “Humankind is in a race between two tipping points. The first is when the Earth’s ecosystems and the life they contain tip into irreversible collapse due to climate change. The second is when the fight for climate action tips from being just one of many political concerns to becoming a mass social movement. The existential question is, which tipping point will we hit first?”

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