Are we in danger of runaway global warming? Join our call to action
Are we in danger of runaway GlobalWarming? What can we do about it together?
Professor Tim Lenton, Director of the Global Systems Institute, University of Exeter, talks to TTU’s Chris Langdon about how we must all face up to the climate reality. He says we can all be empowered by the opportunities in triggering positive social tipping points to avert climate crisis.
Join the call for action from Tim Lenton and Johan Rockström, Director of (PIK), PIK - Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research – supported by Thinking the Unthinkable.
Take part in the Global Tipping Points Conference from September 12-14 at the University of Exeter.
Over three days you will:
- Learn how long is left in the ‘safe zone’
- Drill into the implications of latest science on global climate tipping points and planetary boundaries
- Take part in ‘state-of-the-art’ plenaries and action-orientated workshops
- Co-develop new approaches for triggering positive tipping points for a socially just transformation
- Identify opportunities for positive tipping points in finance, landscape restoration, food systems, finance, communications and behaviour change and on the role of social movements
- Join a growing alliance of partners working together on tipping points for change.
Welcome to the Thinking the Unthinkable webcast, our leadership conversation. I’m Chris Langdon, I’m the co-author of the book Thinking the Unthinkable with Nik Gowing, and co-director of our project, Thinking the Unthinkable.
Our work is on leadership, and we particularly engage with leaders involved in transformative change. So it’s a real pleasure today to welcome Professor Tim Lenton. Tim is director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter. Welcome, Tim, good to see you.
Now, Tim, you’ve certainly not been afraid to think the unthinkable. You’ve been applying the ideas behind tipping points to climate since 2008. And you’re getting more and more influence. And you want to go one step further, with a conference from the 12th to the 14th to September, in Exeter. The title is a really interesting one - Tipping Points: Fom Climate Crisis to Positive Transformation. It’s a really interesting juxtaposition. And that’s what we’re going to be discussing this afternoon. You’re co-hosting it with Johan Rockström, the director of the PIK, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Research. That’s a pretty formidable team. And we’ve been helping you and Johan with the conference.
So what we want to know, Tim, is what do you hope will come from the meeting?
Prof Tim Lenton
In basic terms, the situation is urgent and important enough that we really have to form a coalition of the willing to try to both better understand the bad climate tipping point risks and work out how we’re going to manage those risks if we can’t avoid them better. But we really need is a coalition of actors or action to try to realise the opportunity in the positive social tipping points. Social, technological, ecological, etc.
So the aim of the meeting is not just to sit in a room and listen to some great talks, but to actually be part of a process of deep diving into both sides of the coin. The dive in the first half of the meeting is how can we better govern, manage, respond to risky tipping points, cascades through systems, etc? And in the second half of the meeting, what are the positive tipping points that haven’t been triggered yet, and could be? And can we flesh out the recipe for what can be triggered by whom and when? And which coalition’s are most effective? And what are the practical steps and guidance that can be given back to specific sectors - business finance, policymakers, ourselves and civil society - to move the proverbial dial on this. I need a better metaphor, but just start triggering the rolling of the snowball down the hill that’s going to keep gathering its own momentum in the spirit of reinforcing feedback at a tipping point.
Absolutely. So Tim, who would you like to be at the conference to be part of that process of rolling that snowball down the hill?
Prof Tim Lenton
Well, people who see the potential for that snowball, who want to come in, share their knowledge, but also learn about this way of thinking and how it can be operationalised into practice and bring a mixture of the people who are more on the thinking side like me. Okay, what good ideas, in simple terms, and understanding can help guide us through this challenge?
Equally we want those people who are doers, rather than just thinkers, who have that rich experience of bringing coalitions of action together trying to make change in their particular domain or sector to come and get our heads together and actions together. I hope to start this new kind of change or spread it faster. So, it’s a broad invitation, clearly, but we’ve tried to design the meeting to be true to Systems Thinking principles and to be accessible, really stimulating and carry that sense of urgency in its practice.
And I would add, team action orientated. That’s what I and our facilitator, Betty Dhamers, I’ve been trying to design with you using a particular methodology for facilitation, so the breakouts really both coalesce rapidly, people who don’t know one another different networks are brought together, and then they have great conversations which they can then take forward afterwards.
Prof Tim Lenton
Precisely. And that’s really the aim is to create a community that doesn’t just come together for a moment for a meeting, but feels a bond and can take something forward together.
So really, Tim, people who are listening to this video who believe that they can facilitate change or be part of the change process, they should sign up? Is that right?
Prof Tim Lenton
I’d love it if they would, yeah, because it’s like my gift to the world or something to try and organise the meeting is to say, the world seems to be crying out for this kind of joined up thinking and action agenda.
The time is now and I know you’re out there and we’re all feeling similar things. So let’s get our heads together and our actions together and see if we can get that start pushing that snowball off the top of the hill, rather than the slope as it were. Because, the world is crying out for for something now, because otherwise we’re staring down the barrel of this rather unfortunate climate ecological crisis gun. Oh, and not to mention on the social justice crisis and inequity as a situation,
We should stress one of our issues is obviously climate justice. And listening also to the global South. This isn’t just a Western European northern hemisphere conference. A lot of your work has been looking at the consequence for the Global South, already the existing change there has been in climate
Prof Tim Lenton
Exactly. Perhaps the deciding factor for whether we get on top of the climate ecological crisis is whether we can do that in a way that addresses to grossen kind of increasing thermal injustices of such crisis? So yeah, I believe that’s absolutely integral to this and will be indeed a key focus of the meeting. But yeah, we work very hard, engaged with the forefront of how are we going to get, for example, a finance mechanism to tackle global climate injustice. And we’re supporting Avinash Persaud, and climate Special Envoy to Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, in their proposal from the vulnerable nations for credible financing mechanism towards climate justice. That’s an example of the sort of practical steps that I think needs to be written in this systems thinking positive tipping points recipe.
Part of the conference is about what you call the positive transformation. You talked in Glastonbury about people power. How can people and social movements make a difference given the state of the science?
Prof Tim Lenton
Well, the thing about tipping points, whether they’re bad ones in the climate or good ones, if we like in society, and our relationship with technology is that they always involve at root amplifying feedbacks. And yeah, we know we’re in a climate crisis. At least I’m comfortable calling it that. And we know we’re not moving fast enough on solving it -we need to go about five times faster in terms of decarbonising the global economy - but we know that there can be what I would call social tipping points and positive social tipping points where we change behaviour technology, sometimes very rapidly. And my argument in simple terms is we need to find and trigger more of those to get ourselves globally on track to avoid the bad climate tipping points and to do our best to limit global warming, well below two degrees C.
So I like to use the concept on both fronts, really. And the good news is we’re already seeing positive tipping points. For example, in the UK, shutting coal out of power generation within the last 10 years. And in Norway, seeing the first nation to sort of switch to electric vehicles in a big way.
But the message is, this is not just about government and about what policymakers can do, which is certainly powerful. But that we all have some agency to help create positive tipping points. Because we’re even at a basic level where many of us are still consumers and we can choose whether to choose more sustainable products. But we’re also, if you think about it, we can be the participants in a climate movement, a social movement that’s put this thought further up the political agenda.
And also our behaviour and also our choice of technologies and such like can spread, sometimes in a self amplifying way through society through what we call social contagion. So we can kind of be participants in that. And of course, we’re not just citizens, we’ve usually got a day job and whether that’s working in your case in the media, or in my case in academia, coalitions of actors from civil society, media telling the story, academia underpinning it with the best science, finance bringing the money to the party. Together, I think we can, if we work in the right way together, we can make that change happen sooner and faster and be the agents of the positive tipping, if you like.
Tim, this is a leadership conversation. Do you think the current generation of leaders get it and are really prepared to take the right steps?
Prof Tim Lenton
Not in general, no. To put it simply. But we have seen occasional chinks of light and occasional leaders who do get Systems Thinking and get the long game as well. We all wish for more of them. So that’s perhaps… it’s not about apportioning blame, I would say, leaders represent a culture and a mindset and a worldview that’s maybe 400 years old, and sees the world as this linear, controllable clockwork machine where, you know, output is proportional to inputs, and they’re not sort of, they’re not like everybody else, and not generally trained to see this different view of how things work. Because that’s a young, well, we can debate it, but it’s a slightly fresher, newer view of how things actually change and how systems behave. So yeah, it’s all part of a wider education piece, I think, to bring this kind of thinking into leadership in all sorts of sectors.
The reason why we have something in common, Tim, is Nik Gowing and I have been interviewing leaders since about 2015. And this consistent sense that they shut out the unthinkable. And that’s part of the problem, the nature of the structures, how they work, the incentive structures. And a lot of the time, it’s not about thinking the unthinkable. It’s about thinking the unpalatable. Things they just don’t want to think about because its too complicated.
Prof Tim Lenton
Yeah, there’s what I call, Chris, paralysis by complexity. I think people, when they start to see complexity, they just shut down and their brain goes, oh God, I can’t, even if I could comprehend this thing, I wouldn’t know how to act. And even if I tried to act, it wouldn’t have any difference because x, y and z out there in the system, if they’re not also acting, it wouldn’t make a difference.
And my argument is, it’s not always like that. On the contrary, that complexity can be a friend, especially when you have this possibility of nonlinear to tipping point dynamics. It means that some things that start in little niches within a much bigger and more complex system can actually start something that ultimately may spread across the whole system.
So that the fun part, or the harder part, is to grapple with, okay, well, who are those? What are those actions? And who can take them? And where do things start? And that’s exactly the kind of research that I like to get my research teeth stuck into. But I don’t think leaders need to worry, as long as they’ve got good people to draw on doing the underpinning research. They just need to get out of the mindset of paralysis by complexity and instead, appreciate there’s a there’s actually increased agency sometimes in this complexity. So it’s kind of the contrary message, I think.
So let’s talk about what’s going to happen at the conference on the 12th to the 14th of September. And you’ve recently done research looking at the impact on the global South, haven’t you?
Prof Tim Lenton
Yes. So I and my colleagues have been working on what we call the concept of a human climate niche recognising that how human flourishing and population density depends on climate, temperature, rainfall, in a very consistent way. And that’s not changed radically for centuries, if not thousands of years.
We’ve pre-posted a pre-print on the latest update of those scenarios where the big question to ask is, you know, how does the future look? How are the best places for human flourishing moving across geographical space as the climate warms up, versus where are people projected to be in ever growing numbers as we carry on through this century?
And of course, the stark result is that billions of people are already being pushed into less favourable climate conditions. But those numbers just escalate from here on end. And I think that’s the sort of source of human suffering and harm from climate change that there’s also a crucial risk that we face and have to try to minimise that, of course, connects to narratives around well, no one’s quite sure how things could go badly wrong. But obviously, there’s huge, huge challenges that go beyond being able to adapt.
We’re talking about profound loss and damage for many people who are poor or vulnerable and myself or yourself. And yeah, well, from purely moral, ethical standpoint, we can’t stand by and let that happen. And know and they wouldn’t do that. So we need to really wrestle that risk down and minimise it in all possible ways.
So, huge topic for the conference in September. And just to remind people, the date is 12 to the 14th of September. It’s called Tipping Points: From Climate Crisis to Positive Transformation. And if you have something to contribute, given the urgency of the task, do come and join us. And Tim Lenton. Many thanks indeed for your time today.