Tipping Points for Positive Transformation

09.13.22 | 3 min read | Text by Erica Goldman

The news on the earth’s climate can feel unrelentingly depressing. And increasingly often, headlines and reports focus, correctly, on tipping points.  The IPCC first introduced the idea of climate tipping points decades ago; the concept is that once certain climate thresholds are reached, it could force life on earth to contend with long-term, irreversible changes. 

From the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet to the Labrador Seas Convection Collapse to the dieback of the Amazon Rainforest, these tipping points will send earth systems into a catastrophic tailspin. They are forecasted to unleash progressively as we approach the warming thresholds of 1.5°C.

But tipping points don’t have to be negative. What if, instead of envisioning every tipping point as the edge of a cliff overlooking an ecological abyss, we can start to think about positive climate tipping points, leading communities, countries, and yes, the globe to a more sustainable, cleaner and livable future?

This is not a utopian pipedream – a growing body of research suggests that positive tipping points, such as thresholds in electric vehicle adoption, or changes in food markets and consumption habits, could just as rapidly accelerate transitions to a more sustainable way of life. 

In fact, this week, experts are convening at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, for the first ever Global Tipping Points Conference. This event will bring together a growing alliance of partners working together on tipping points and seeking to co-develop new approaches for triggering positive tipping points for a socially just transformation.

Thus far, the idea of positive climate tipping points remains largely academic – and researchers are still working on how to identify enabling conditions for these positive tipping points before they occur.  But the goal of operationalizing positive tipping points is well within reach, and some of our counterparts in the UK and Europe have already begun applying this concept in thinking about policy intervention.

What does this mean for the United States? Given the window of opportunity provided by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), we have an opportunity to drive real transformative change. Positive tipping points might  jumpstart recovery and accelerate our return on investment. For example, what if we could map the penetration and distribution of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure required to cause electric vehicle use to take off — and then target infrastructure subsidies to optimize that result? Or if in planning for implementation of the Federal Sustainability Plan, the government could sequence the transition of its operations, toward 100% zero-emission vehicle acquisitions for example, to achieve results faster and more economically by capitalizing on positive tipping points? 

The Federation of American Scientists and our collaborators at Metaculus, a forecasting community and platform dedicated to generating accurate predictions about future real-world events, will be watching this week as the Global Tipping Points Conference kicks off across the Atlantic. Our hope is to harness this energy to inspire policymakers back home, to make the most of this moment to drive toward a sustainable future.