Is there an absolute need for an intervention to spark a climate action revolution?

Tipping points and nonlinear amplifying feedbacks are easier to identify in the climate system.

Is there a revolution brewing that will tip the global community over to accepting climate change and the human role in it as a reality?

Will that lead to a full-fledged implementation of the Paris agreement?

Or is such a revolution possible only with well-designed interventions or kicks?

As deadly and record-breaking hurricanes and heat waves come, there is no noticeable change in the level of urgency of national or global climate action plans, it is clear that a climate revolution may not happen on its own. Not soon enough anyway in terms of averting dangerous climate change in the coming decades. Nomenclature changes from Climate Change to Climate Crisis or Climate Emergency seem to have no real impacts in hastening global action for climate change mitigation.

 Is there an absolute need for an intervention to spark a climate action revolution?

The placard reads: "The thermometer of the life, No more CO2". Image credit: REUTERS/Andrea Comas 

If a team of scientists from the UK and USA, led by J D Farmer of the University of Oxford, are right, then such revolutions can happen only when Sensitive Intervention Points (SIPs) are identified in pre-existing systems. After such points are identified, then the existing systems get transformed into something new. SIPs may involve just changing the pathways of the existing system without changing its basic dynamics or a shift in the dynamics of the system itself. In the case of the dynamics of the human system, it is tied to highly-energy intensive lifestyles. They are not easily amenable to drastic behavioural changes that may be needed for avoiding targets such as 2oC warming.

Climate change is a quintessential problem of shared common goods specifically, the atmosphere, ocean and land along with the ecosystem services. The paradigms of saving for one’s children’s college funds or paying insurance to protect one’s future do not translate into paying for the future of the climate or the environment. This is because the human mind cannot easily own up to paying for common goods. The classic tragedy of the commons can be the outcome when multiple parties exploit a common resource unsustainably.

Climate change does appear like a tragedy of the commons underway.

A monarch butterfly having a meal.

Climate change is a quintessential problem of shared common goods.

Now, arguments are being made that climate change mitigation is heading towards collective actions, such as the Paris agreement, which can lead to catalytic cooperations because of increasing returns into the future. There is also evidence that climate-related regulations have increased 20-fold from 60 to 1200 from 1997. Even developing countries are adopting more regulations to enhance their climate resilience.

However, such catalytic cooperations also need incentives to bring about participation in collective action. That brings us right back to what will it take for this revolution of catalytic cooperation to reach the threshold of effectiveness to avert the climate crisis.

On most days, it appears unlikely that a climate revolution will ever come. But despite the stubbornly persistent denial of climate change and concerted efforts to foster said denial, it is impossible to scan through the news in the world without seeing an article on some aspect of climate change, on a daily basis. Even though the US is having an existential crisis about climate science and action due to the relentless efforts of the Trump administration to reject anthropogenic climate change,  some elected Democratic representatives have proposed a Green New Deal and the Democratic presidential candidates are vying to outdo one another on climate action plans. Even the Republican party strategists are now concerned that climate could be an ‘electoral time bomb.’

Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg

Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg

The climate phenom, Greta Thunberg, is a Swedish teenager, who has taken the world by a storm. She has inspired climate change protests across the globe. However, some people argue that her movement is radical and anti-democratic. Others see her as having succeeded in creating a global community that is taking a stand on an issue which is encouraging for democratic processes not only for climate change but also for other issues within or across national borders. Thunberg focuses on spreading awareness on the need to listen to scientists and climate science. But there is no real mention of the uneven distribution of climate impacts already occurring and that is expected to continue. This is seen as a limitation of her teen movement because science can only point to the solutions that are needed but do not tell you how to implement them ethically and equitably.

What guidance is there for using SIPs to combine and amplify these seemingly disjoint pieces in the political, scientific and societal arenas that are striving to bring about a revolution in climate action? Farmer and colleagues propose that SIPs can be for socioeconomic, technological and political systems what the tipping points in the climate system are for irreversible shifts – small perturbations that grow because of internal feedbacks between different components of the earth system. Putative candidates abound in the climate system from the collapse of ice-sheets on Greenland or Antarctica to the collapse of the Amazon forest and corals. For example, the alarming melting of the Greenland ice sheet that is underway reduces earth’s reflectivity or albedo which increases the absorption of the Sun's energy and thus amplify the warming that is melting the glaciers. 

A few examples of SIPs that have occurred in the past — Subsidies for renewable energy technologies to alter the trajectory of energy intensity of GDPs across the globe without altering the basic rules of life. The shift from the top-down nature of the Kyoto protocol to the more democratic approach in Paris agreement is asserted to have led to catalytic cooperation and a shift in the dynamics of global climate action. Such shifts are also foreseen, to lead to potential new opportunities for accelerating the ongoing sociotechnical transitions by synergistic innovations. Dropping prices of renewables inducing a slow death of the coal industry is an example of a new opportunity emerging on the backs of incentivised renewables and the Paris agreement. This new opportunity can be exploited to accelerate the transition to zero and negative emission technologies. Innovations are needed of course to make such transitions a reality.

Solar panels in place Reuters

Solar panels collecting solar energy. Image credit: Reuters

The authors propose four SIPs for a timely decarbonisation:

  • The first focuses on regulations for open accounting of the financial and physical risks they face by businesses and industries. Requiring this from the fossil fuel industry, for example, is hypothesised to provide realistic estimates of drops in traditional energy prices and reduce investments in the exploration of new sources and thus facilitate an easier transition to renewables. It is imaginable that this will also make it politically accessible to reduce hidden subsidies and raise taxes on fossil fuels.
  • The second SIP focuses on leveraging the dropping prices of solar and wind energies by driving targeted investments in technologies such as batteries to level the playing field for renewables against traditional energy sources and also remove any barriers to switching to renewables.
  • The third SIP draws on sociopolitical transition theories to suggest that committed minorities and latent majorities that support climate action must be pushed above the critical numbers needed for a ‘regime shift towards green technologies’. This would require political entrepreneurship that would bring together the disparate pieces like the Thunberg movement and the Green New Deal using groups of influencers who can help move the silent majority past vested interests of status quo.
  • The last SIP is an example of how a window of opportunity was exploited based on the political climate and the Stern report to establish the Climate Change Act in the UK in 2008. The impacts of this act are manifest as institutional structures for continued carbon accounting and holding the subsequent governments to the commitment of an 80% reduction of UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 independent of the rest of the world. This unilateral act influenced the Paris agreement as well as several other countries to focus on long term targets and pathways.

Tipping points and nonlinear amplifying feedbacks are easier to identify in the climate system. But finding SIPs in the socioeconomic and sociotechnical systems will require a better understanding of the system dynamics and complexities while incentivising and aggregating appropriate technologies to hasten the onset of a climate revolution. A careful evaluation is also necessary to design timely acts and actors for an ethical and equitable sociotechnical transition to a safe and sustainable future for all inhabitants on planet earth.

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