Taken from Daneen Cowling’s (GSI Seminar Co-ordinator) blog
For the final seminar of the 2021 summer term we hosted GSI Associate Research Fellow, Dr Chris Boulton. Chris gave an overview of his applied methods to explore the early warning signals that precede system tipping points. Chris gave examples of resilience sensing in both physical and human systems – ranging from the Amazon resilience to COVID-19 response. The talk given by Chris highlighted exciting opportunity for future research of identifying, monitoring and understanding how systems of resilience give warnings before crossing bifurcation thresholds.
Dr Chris Boulton is a GSI Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter. From a Maths at Exeter Chris moved to the Geography department to pursue his PhD on ‘Early warning signals of environmental tipping points’. During his PhD Chris looked at a number of key ecosystems that could approach disastrous tipping points, and assessed what sort of early warning signals could be observed and modelled.
Dr Boulton started the seminar with an introduction of how ecosystems can tip into new states when pushed by external pressures of self-enhancing feedbacks. Under normal ‘stable’ conditions we can imagine a system as a ball in a trough – swinging slowly between peak and dip. When a system is under pressure and approaching tipping point, the trough begins to shallow which then pushes the ball into a new state – a new trough. Check out the graphic below displaying this.
Dr Boulton then talked us through his first case study – exploring the resilience and critical thresholds of the Amazon Rainforest. Dr Boulton explained that due to the ‘committed response’ the mean state does not necessarily tell you if it is stable. Dr Boulton then went into the signals that can be shown with Autocorrelation (AR1), which when increasing shows a loss of short-term memory of a system and thus resilience. It was found AR1 increases in regions with less rainfall as well as regions closer to human land use, indicative of loss of resilience in these regions.
The case study of measuring country resilience to COVID-19 was then introduced. This research explored how a single perturbation to a system triggers resilience responses. The measure of resilience was the decay of cases from peak to the next minimum. Dr Boulton described the range of responses observed – categorised by 2 key country response characteristics:
Adaptive Stringency (the strictness of the rules)
Public Trust – found that <40% trust was needed for resilient response
Finally, Dr Boulton went through a new project using Twitter data to detect the Arab Spring through early warning signals in public sentiment. The shift from observing physical systems to social systems will be useful to identify, understand and encourage positive social tipping points that will help bring about to positive transformative change needed.
Dr Boulton finished the seminar with an engaging Q&A session as well as some links to presentations of research (link here).
To listen to the discussion and Q&A in full, the recording is available here.
Please keep up to date with GSI events via the website, Twitter, LinkedIn, or join the mailing list by contacting infoGSI@exeter.ac.uk.
Taken from Daneen Cowling’s (GSI Seminar Co-Ordinator’s) Blog
Our seminar on 26th May hosted Dr Kirsty Lewis, who gave a talk on her experience and research and policy priorities of a Science for Adaption and Resilience action with a development perspective. Dr Lewis talked through the needs of evolving climate change research in relation to resilient development, and how central adaption and mitigation will be to not only being climate change resilient but also achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). In Her talk, Dr Lewis laid out how these priorities for research can be important for policy and action, as well as fostering an interdisciplinary approach.
Dr Kirsty Lewis is a Climate Science Advisor and is part of the Research and Evidence Division of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development. Dr Lewis is also Climate Security Science Manager at the Met Office, and will soon be joining the GSI. Dr Lewis is specialised in Climate Security and is informing several UK govt and international development and climate resilience projects.
Dr Lewis began by introducing the current priorities of academic research and government aid. Dr lewis explained how aid budgets are assessed against climate risk assurance to understand how well money was utilised to work for climate adaption and resilience. Dr Lewis exemplified this with current UK spending priorities, and how there is a growing shift in discourse to a realisation of the need for adaption and mitigation.
Dr Lewis then explained these priorities in relation to research and how they translate to current climate change research priorities. It is clear that adaption and mitigation are required to build the more realistic and complete picture of the future, and to not exclude and only assess the physical impacts. Further, tackling climate change this way will be crucial to even address the SDG’s – as it’s influence sweeps across economical, social and cultural systems of society. Hence, it can not be regarded as an isolated driver of change. It is therefore apparent we have reached yet another critical point – policy and action must include mitigation and adaption, or we threaten reversing all SDG achievements.
Dr Lewis then went on to explain examples of successful Science into Action. Science producing direct action in response to emergency not only provides fast data mobilisation and operationalisation, it can also optimise systems for future climate change. So what does all this mean for research? Dr Lewis arrived at a Climate Risk Framing, and the importance of:
Coping capacity (Systems that deepen rather than emphasise sensitivity)
Climate risk can be summarised by: Hazard x Exposure x Vulnerability
However, Hazard is the common focus for climate research (e.g. the different CO2 scenarios). Exposure and Vulnerability inform the Adaption action – which for development should be in the context of the Hazard. This, Dr Lewis argues, should motivate a different priority of why we do climate research, to understand how much we can constrain an operating space for decision making. Dr Lewis does note that a current limitation to achieving this is the type of data available – much of the hazard data is quantitative, while the socioeconomic change that informs exposure and vulnerability is harder to constrain. This demonstrates the need for more interdisciplinary science.
Dr Lewis concluded with introducing some projects and alliances that are working to create research frameworks that have a focus on climate adaption and resilience. Dr Lewis summarises with three main priorities for climate adaption and resilience science action:
Risk informed early action
Developing in a changing climate
Understand climate risk
For information on these projects, the questions posed to Dr Kirsty Lewis and the seminar in full, the recording is available here.
Please keep up to date with GSI events via the website, Twitter, LinkedIn, or join the mailing list by contacting infoGSI@exeter.ac.uk.
Taken from GSI Seminar coordinator Daneen Cowling’s blog post
For our seminar 19th May, the GSI hosted Laurie Laybourn-Langton, who gave a talk Entering the storm: the policy and political challenges of the next stage of environmental crisis. Laurie spoke about overall strategy and where we stand in restoring the natural world and dealing with the adverse consequences of climate change change. Laurie examined the current strategies in in place in relation to mitigation, adaptation, and how we mediate with the suffering. Laurie puts forward his argument that current policies do not constitute the required emergency response and aren’t live to the impacts that will grow with time, hence more explicit work is needed to ensure policies are robust to these consequences.
Laurie is an Associate Fellow, Responding to Environmental Breakdown at the Institute for Public Policy Research, a trustee of the New Economics Foundation, and currently a Visiting Fellow at the GSI. Laurie has worked on political economy and how shifts occur in economic ideas and policies, the role and power of digital platforms, and mobility transitions. Laurie also has an expertise in environmental breakdown, which he is applying as co-authoring a book on how to build a politics capable of responding to environmental breakdown.
Laurie gave his talk through a series of personal experiences, including provocative imagery to communicate the urgency and emotive elements of the crisis. Laurie introduced with the context that through human activities destabilising so many systems, we are now ‘well into the storm’. This also conseqwuence of politics and policy not recognising the pace and depth of the environmental emergency. Through his and colleagues experiences, Laurie noted how there has been a shift in how those that advocate climate change action have shifted from a cautious front of not to be too negative to put off people, to a new, re-energerised movment of recent climate protests. This has had the impact of helping the way discussions within political circles can be had, with the new attention, priority and energy being given.
Laurie then highlighted the transitions of the framings and narratives around the climate change emergency. From around 2018 there was a shift in framing to apply a binary target of ’12 years to save the Earth’ to not exceed with the 1.5 temperature rise, or else risk catastrophic global disaster. But, use of this framing could obscure the truth about being in this climate emergency storm.
Laurie questioned this language in the context of whether we have a credible strategy for repairing and restabilising? Emphasis on the framings of the targets and the threat of surpassing a 1.5 degree warming, misses the key point about the mitigation strategies then needed. Laurie also questions whether we have such a strategy in place to meet much of the Net Zero pledges. Key to reaching goals for Net zero, there is a reliance on technologies. But there is no global strategy in place to support this, and questions still remain whether we can accept the risks and inevitable mortalities to come from our close future. Laurie then demonstrated the current timeline put forward for Net Zero by 2050, highlighting how the status quo of policies are characterised as swapping dirty technologies for clean technologies – without change in behaviours. But this carries with it 3 major problems:
Consumption: Do we have enough of the overall environmental budget to swap all current dirty tech for clean, while also maintaining growth
Power: Can we follow this Net Zero trend with the current attitude toward debt and deficit? Specifically in the global South, where debt is largely limiting mitigation they can introduce. Hence, is the current power balance enoough?
Fairness: Can we achieve levels of cooperation needed in a high in-equality world?
It is then clear, we cannot do what is needed for the tasks at hand, with the current social, political and economical structures.
Laurie then posed the question of how we will continue to fight for these transformative changes, in a world that is to become more de-stabilised? Laurie began by unpicking a quote and critiquing the use of the phrase ‘too late’. Laurie then flagged how the median age of politicians in the UK, is round 50. Younger generations such as millennials and gen-z, will have to live through these ‘too late’ futures, carry the struggles and to not only introduce and win systemic change, but also to implement and maintain it. This creates a vast multi-generational project to re-stabilise and restore the natural world. The binary view of the future does not accurately represent the complexities of feedbacks and impacts, and so no future can be certain or known. This is also because threats and impacts go beyond the local – risk cannot be compartmentalised, impacts ripple outwards and interacts with the social, political and economic contexts. In many systems which are already highly vulnerable, are we operating in a resilient world? This sometimes gets presented as edging us towards a cliff-edge of societal collapse from environmental disaster – but looking at varying degrees of de-stabilisation already happening around the world, it is a far more complex situation than a Hollywood film portrayal. Instead of a cliff -edge, it could be better imaging we are moving off the smooth road we have travelled for many years, onto a bumpier topography.
Laurie concluded with explaining the need to develop more robust political systems, leadership practice and advocacy. Laurie also introduced his new project to help address the problems highlighted in his talk. For information on this project, the questions posed to Laurie and his seminar in full, the recording is available here.
Please keep up to date with GSI events via the website, Twitter, LinkedIn, or join the mailing list by contacting infoGSI@exeter.ac.uk.
Professor Mat Collins has been appointed Field Chief Editor of Frontiers in Climate . The journal is organized into specialty sections in Climate and Economics; Climate Law and Policy; Climate Risk Management; Climate Services; Climate, Ecology and People; Negative Emissions Technologies and Predictions and Projections. The main way the journal accepts submissions is through curated Research Topics that collect articles under a common theme. Current diverse topics range from Machine Learning for Climate Predictions and Projections to Carbon Pricing and Trading. The journal is completely Open Access and the University has entered into an institutional agreement with Frontiers that we can publish free of charge. If you are interested in proposing a Research Topic, please contact Mat.
The University of Exeter’s Innovation, Impact and Business (IIB) team have recruited a new Impact and Development Partnership Officer (IDPO) to expand SWeCAN, the South West Environment and Climate Action Network.
Organisations and individuals across Cornwall, Devon and the wider region are invited to indicate their interest in joining the system-wide network, and share ideas for how it can support innovative activity inside and outside the university. Anyone can be involved, from local authorities, charities and individuals to international business in the region or local SMEs.
The network will bring together research and tools to support decarbonisation and environmental gain with partners from businesses and communities to policy-makers and institutions. It will serve as a repository for existing and future developments and services, including the recently launched Impact tool to measure and compare local carbon footprints.
“We are hugely excited about the potential of SWeCAN to identify and respond to gaps in the existing inter-disciplinary and cross-sectoral work already taking place across the South West,”
“We have world-renowned research taking place on our doorstep, and SWeCAN will bring the capacity and perspective to translate this into practical actions that are accessible to businesses, local government, community groups and more. As well as responding to the current interconnected challenges being faced in our region, and in the wider world, we have an unprecedented opportunity to think ahead and co-create new systems to shape what happens next.”
(Peter Lefort, the new IDPO responsible for developing the network)
Information on upcoming events, membership details and other ways to get involved will be launched on a new website in the coming months. In the meantime, anyone who is interested to find out more and discuss how SWeCAN could support their work can contact Peter at .
New connection found between meat intake and meat disgust that could be useful for future interventions to reduce meat intake
Research coming out of the University of Exeter has found that feelings of disgust towards meat, something previously only thought to exist in vegetarians, might play a key part in how much meat omnivores and flexitarians eat. The impact of livestock farming on our climate and global ecosystems presents an urgent challenge to reduce the consumption of meat. More and more research is now aimed at finding factors that help people reduce their meat intake.
“These meat eating groups were not previously thought to experience any meat disgust at all”
Elisa Becker, of the University of Exeter told BBC Radio Devon:
“We found that 3% of omnivores and 15% of flexitarians experience what we would class as robust levels of meat disgust.”
This novel finding could be a game changer for future meat consumption interventions. Based on the findings, the researchers say harnessing the “yuk factor” may be more effective than relying on willpower for anyone who wants to eat less meat.Elisa Becker, of the University of Exeter said:
“We were surprised to find that so many people are grossed out by meat – even people who eat meat all the time,”
Prof Natalia Lawrence who is part of the Global Systems Institutes has previously developed interventions that aim to increase people’s control over impulsive food choices, including meat. Together with Elisa Becker, she is now looking to combine these interventions with an element of disgust. She said:
“not everyone wants to reduce their meat consumption — but for those who do, we are working on computer tasks that might help them harness the power of disgust in a fun way.”
In April 2021 Reuters identified and ranked 1,000 climate scientists according to the influential power of their research. Six Global Systems Institute, University of Exeter members made the top 100. The following introduces them through a current research publication.
Five years after the adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement, growth in global CO2 emissions has begun to falter. The pervasive disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic have radically altered the trajectory of global CO2 emissions. Contradictory effects of the post-COVID-19 investments in fossil fuel-based infrastructure and the recent strengthening of climate targets must be addressed with new policy choices to sustain a decline in global emissions in the post-COVID-19 era.
Spatial–temporal dynamics of aboveground biomass (AGB) and forest area affect the carbon cycle, climate and biodiversity in the Brazilian Amazon. Here we investigate interannual changes in AGB and forest area by analysing satellite-based annual AGB and forest area datasets. We found that the gross forest area loss was larger in 2019 than in 2015, possibly due to recent loosening of forest protection policies. However, the net AGB loss was three times smaller in 2019 than in 2015. During 2010–2019, the Brazilian Amazon had a cumulative gross loss of 4.45 Pg C against a gross gain of 3.78 Pg C, resulting in a net AGB loss of 0.67 Pg C. Forest degradation (73%) contributed three times more to the gross AGB loss than deforestation (27%), given that the areal extent of degradation exceeds that of deforestation. This indicates that forest degradation has become the largest process driving carbon loss and should become a higher policy priority.
“Yet our study shows how emissions from associated forest degradation processes can be even larger.
“Degradation is a pervasive threat to future forest integrity and requires urgent research attention.”
Carbon dioxide has continued to build up in the atmosphere and is now 50% higher than before the industrial revolution. The latest measurements released by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego show that the atmospheric CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, are now at record levels. The average for March 2021 was 417.14 parts per million (ppm), which is 50% higher than the average for 1750-1800. Independent measurements by NOAA also show record CO2 levels. The Met Office predicts monthly CO2 concentrations in 2021 to peak at 419.5 ± 0.6 ppm in May (Figure 1). This is despite a temporary reduction in global emissions last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Political dynamics across scales are often overlooked in the design, implementation and evaluation of environmental governance. We provide new evidence to explain how interactions between international organizations and national governments shape environmental governance and outcomes for 238 World Heritage ecosystems, on the basis of a new intervention–response–outcome typology. We analyse interactions between the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and 102 national governments responsible for implementing ecosystem protection under the World Heritage Convention between 1972 and 2019. We combine data on the reporting, deliberation and certification of individual ecosystem-level threats, with data on national governance quality, economic complexity and key stakeholder perspectives. We find that the extent of threatened ecosystems is seriously underestimated and that efforts to formally certify threatened ecosystems are often resisted by national governments. A range of responses to international intervention, including both productive and counterproductive responses, generates material impacts at the ecosystem level. Counterproductive responses occur in nations dependent on limited high-value natural resource industries, irrespective of overall level of economic development. We identify new political approaches to improve environmental governance, including how to overcome the problem of regulatory capture. Our findings inform how we can better anticipate and account for political dynamics in environmental governance.
Carbon cycle feedbacks represent large uncertainties in climate change projections, and the response of soil carbon to climate change contributes the greatest uncertainty to this. Future changes in soil carbon depend on changes in litter and root inputs from plants and especially on reductions in the turnover time of soil carbon (τs) with warming. An approximation to the latter term for the top one metre of soil (ΔCs,τ) can be diagnosed from projections made with the CMIP6 and CMIP5 Earth System Models (ESMs), and is found to span a large range even at 2 °C of global warming (−196 ± 117 PgC). Here, we present a constraint on ΔCs,τ, which makes use of current heterotrophic respiration and the spatial variability of τs inferred from observations. This spatial emergent constraint allows us to halve the uncertainty in ΔCs,τ at 2 °C to −232 ± 52 PgC.
“We have reduced the uncertainty in this climate change response, which is vital to calculating an accurate global carbon budget and successfully meeting Paris Agreement targets.”
Climate science provides strong evidence of the necessity of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, in line with the Paris Climate Agreement. The IPCC 1.5°C special report (SR1.5) presents 414 emissions scenarios modelled for the report, of which around 50 are classified as ‘1.5°C scenarios’, with no or low temperature overshoot. These emission scenarios differ in their reliance on individual mitigation levers, including reduction of global energy demand, decarbonisation of energy production, development of land-management systems, and the pace and scale of deploying carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies. The reliance of 1.5°C scenarios on these levers needs to be critically assessed in light of the potentials of the relevant technologies and roll-out plans. We use a set of five parameters to bundle and characterise the mitigation levers employed in the SR1.5 1.5°C scenarios. For each of these levers, we draw on the literature to define ‘medium’ and ‘high’ upper bounds that delineate between their ‘reasonable’, ‘challenging’ and ‘speculative’ use by mid century. We do not find any 1.5°C scenarios that stay within all medium upper bounds on the five mitigation levers. Scenarios most frequently ‘over use’ carbon dioxide removal with geological storage as a mitigation lever, whilst reductions of energy demand and carbon intensity of energy production are ‘over used’ less frequently. If we allow mitigation levers to be employed up to our high upper bounds, we are left with 22 of the SR1.5 1.5°C scenarios with no or low overshoot. The scenarios that fulfill these criteria are characterised by greater coverage of the available mitigation levers than those scenarios that exceed at least one of the high upper bounds. When excluding the two scenarios that exceed the SR1.5 carbon budget for limiting global warming to 1.5°C, this subset of 1.5°C scenarios shows a range of 15-22 Gt CO2 (16-22 Gt CO2 interquartile range) for emissions in 2030. For the year of reaching net zero CO2 emissions the range is 2039-2061 (2049-2057 interquartile range).
“This calls for an immediate acceleration of worldwide action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by all available means,”
For our second seminar of our summer series (11/05/2021) Victor Leshyk gave an art-filled talk on his philosophies for the creation, use, and power of Science Art. Victor led the audience through an extensive portfolio of his jaw-dropping work, exemplifying it’s importance of getting Science Art right to improve science literacy, but also fight back against the progress-limiting conspiracists.
Victor Leshyk is the Director of Science and Art at the Centre for Ecosystem Science and Society, Northern Arizona University. Victor has over 20 years experience expressing scientific knowledge through fine art. He has used this alliance to help scientists have means to be better communicators, and for the public to have the means to be better learners. Through this experience Victor has developed philosophy to apply to creating, developing and applying Science Art.
Victor explained his found philosophy through his artwork. To see examples of his work, please visit his website (we definitely recommend you check it out!). Victor started to question what Science Art can do and what we are aiming for, starting with the conjured images and meanings of a ‘worldview’. From this exploration, Victor took us how these views and depictions have changed overtime. These depictions have been limited by the edges of knowledge, but as Victor scaled down from the world view, to cells to particles – it is clear the frontiers of knowledge opened by science discoveries, have created new bounds to what we can understand and what we now compromise for a worldview.
Victor then highlighted the quote by Neil Degrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is that it is true whether or not you believe in it”. But using the pandemic and the protests against orders to stay home backed by science, the science is still irrelevant if you can’t communicate the science to the other people. Hence, Victor proposes an alternative of: “A great thing about Art is that is can help determine whether people do believe in Science”.
Victor backed the ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ phrase with the stats – pictures can be understood 60000 times faster than words. Then told the importance of this during the Renaissance period, whereby much of scientific knowledge was stored through art, which has increased in detail. Scientific knowledge, artistic detail and storytelling accuracy have increased in tandem.
Victor then told the story of his own journey with Science Art. But soon discovered that simply making more art does not make the world more scientifically literate. Highlighted by the prevalence of conspiracy theorists and flat-earthers, Victor stated we are living in a crisis of science literacy. SciArt is hope to address this – existing as a spectrum. On one end ‘Found Art’ – the beauty in this existing in nature, or ‘Fine Art’ – free-form abstract art creating experiences. SciArt has capacity to create new worldviews – to communicate the breadth of life, the different behaviours, the diversity of past life and environments, mass extinction events and the biogeochemical changes that caused them. Victor demonstrated how he has used SciArt to ultimately help us learn from the past using these lenses. Learning from the past helps inform the present, which is especially true in the context of anthropogenic climate change and the pressures we are putting on the earth systemm. As Victore displays through his art – this is in parallel to the atmospheric and oceanic chemical changes that have happened before.
But what about data visualisation? Can’t graphs serve the same purpose as art to communicate science and data? Victor proved otherwise, arguing that the data can speak for itself but still not be heard. Reading graphs and understanding attributes is not accessible or as instantaneous as absorbing art. Word-less art can still communicate the same message of a comprehensive graph.
Science Art also lets us see through an experts eyes. Victor used the example of how, through the eyes of an expert, a lump of chert is rich evidence of past environments and life. SciArt can tell the story visible to the expert and reveal it to the world.
Science Art helps us care about things we cannot see, e.g. ecosystems exchanging and cycling matter. Victor also highlighted the power AciArt has to communicate the danger and urgency of a changing landscape. He has used the case of peatlands, which to view the landscape as is, it’s a peaceful, beautiful thing. But through the ‘x-ray’ of SciArt, erupting CO2 from thawing, dynamic movement of the peat, methane bursting through ice – this can all be revealed to show the true dangerous nature of the landscape.
As real as mud is – it’s a personality, this can be conveyed through SciArt. Responsible personification can help bring the process of microbe behaviour change with thawing, we can then easily see these real mechanisms. SciArt can therefore help build responsible drama with accurate passion. Science does not have to be emotionally sterile, the passion behind the work and it’s importance should also be illustrated. Victor shows the impact of this when climate change impacts such as wildfires, unlock legacy carbon that has been buried for geological-scale time. This gives emotion to the irreversibility of these tipping points.
The ‘Trowl Problem’, as Victor describes it, is the case of media communications of science that use a trowl to illustrate the finding. A missed opportunity and failure of imagination; use of SciArt instead would add tenfold to the article to help put the science into peoples understanding. This is evidently a current barrier to the application of SciArt.
Victor also explored the role of SciArt as invoking our intuitive visual reasoning – how we respond best and have done through history, to props and visuals to communicate and understand things. He exemplified this with mapping supply chains, and the additions of simple toy-like graphics can have for the digestibility of the science. Intuitive thinking also helps the use of SciArt to help us see into the future. Either through the pressures that will amount of services with future climate changes, or how iconic landscapes are projected to change. This helps reinforce changes to be very real and comprehendible further than statistics of temperature and precipitation change.
Popularisation of science in TV, movies etc. has also helped give science a face – but as a double-edged sword. It has portrayed scientists in a certain way that creates distrust and sensationalism. Victor argues, science fiction is another avenue for SciArt to create accurate portrayals and repair the trusts.
Victor finished on two services of SciArt: How it allows us to keep updating our ideas, we can continually add and develop past and current understandings through art and developments of it’s various mediums. Finally, Science Art helps us see our place in the world. The world is big, it is old and it is complex. SciArt helps make sense of the parts and processes of the world and the role we play amongst it all.
Victor Leshyk introduced, explained and demonstrated the power, potential, and inspirational beauty of Science Art. As well as demonstrating his portfolio and progression of science art, Victor also shared his courses he’s run with students to help these scientists be better communicators through SciArt. For information on this course, the questions posed to Victor and his seminar in full, the recording is available here.
Please keep up to date with GSI events via the website, Twitter, LinkedIn, or join the mailing list by contacting infoGSI@exeter.ac.uk
On 5th May we kicked off our summer seminar series. This seminar was a special hosted by our GSI Director Professor Tim Lenton. Tim hosted a workshop on Positive Tipping Points; sources of hope within our societal and economic structures, leading on from a brief introduction he gave outlining the progress and research on these tipping points and their potential. Tim’s talk triggered it’s own tipping point of engaged discussions and enthusiasm for the research and projects. These discussions continued in short break-out room sessions which was a great opportunity to share the diversity in ideas and experiences of the topics raised. The event ignited an enthusiasm for Positive Tipping Points, which we hope has wet the apatite for more sessions on these themes.
Professor Tim Lenton has been a leader in researching the Earth System and the feedbacks and tipping points that have influence on climate changes, past and present. Now as Director of the GSI at the University of Exeter, Tim is channeling new visions to invest research energy to systems-thinking solutions. To find out more about Tims leading direction of the GSI, see this blog post.
Tim introduced Positive Tipping Points with a concise but incredibly informative 30 minute talk, covering an array of hot topics of climate change solution transformations. The talk started with an examination of familiar Earth System Tipping Points that have been identified through deep time, and predicted to occur in the future. But, as important as this research is – what good is coming from prioritisation of understanding of the problems without giving equal/more attention to the solutions.
Tim argued that there is a desperate need to now understand how social tipping points can be triggered. It is clear that to get to Net-Zero and out an of ecological emergency, the changes required need to happen as rapid transformations. So to meet this rate and magnitude, tipping points are needed.
Similar to natural tipping points, this would allow our current system state to tip into a new stable state. This will come once we cross thresholds of elements in the system, that will override the resistance of opposing forces and negative feedbacks that work to maintain the current system state. To demonstrate this, Tim showed an animation created by Chris Boulton to show the classic ball tipping out of a dip (business as usual), over a hill into a new dip (stable state). We therefore need to identify what are the self-propelling feedbacks, how strong they are, and how we can make them stronger.
But are positive feedbacks just a theory? Tim proved they are very much real and already have had impact, with several historical examples of social and technological tipping changes. One example, an image comparison of 5th Avenue, New York City, showing a single car immersed in horse-drawn carriages, to 13 years later, a single horse-draw carriage amongst a road full or cars. Image below.
Other examples were also highlighted: Technology Adaption revealing trends from 1860-2019 showing a signature ‘S’ curve, a result of Economies of Scale (the more things being made = the cheaper they are to make), a reinforcing feedback (see Comin and Hobin, 2014). Social Contagion being an intrinsic reinforcing feedback in society, by imitation of each other to spread through society. The threshold of society to adopt new norms is said to be ~20%, this has been evidenced with the example of introduction and neighborhood adoption of roof solar panels.
Also shown was Tims recent work looking at trends, early warnings and tipping points in the car industry – specifically with Electronic Vehicles (EVs). Norway have exemplified a tipping point, now the difference in price of petrol has resulting in EV’s breaching a new share in the market, now at ~50%. Economies of scale have also played a part, with battery prices decreasing over time with the increase in sales, with a trend that suggests a EV’s will be the same price to manufacture than fuel combustion cars in 3 years, globally! Price of batteries has been a key reinforcing feedback to bring about this positive tipping point.
Who needs to come together to help things spread globally? Tim discussed this in the context of his work with Simon Sharpe (2021), and the importance of upward scaling tipping cascades – how reaching one tipping point can create opportunities for further tipping points. Tim used the example of the UK coal industry to highlight some of the triggers and tipping points that create transformative change. A combination of increased renewable power capacity, price of carbon production and policies putting pressure of coal use helped reduce the UK usage. From these changes came investor expectation changes, which then alters distribution of resource leading to irreversible events, such as the demolition of Didcot coal station. The rest of the world are increasingly becoming reliant on renewable sources of power, through interactions of economical, industry, social and political tipping points.
Tim then introduced the work with SystemIQ, to identify and understand positive tipping points in the Food and Land Systems. Again, reinforcing feedbacks are key to push towards a tipping point. Such reinforcing feedbacks can range from:
Economies of scale
Learning by Doing
A transition to positive tipping can exist as: Performance –> Price Convenience –> Cultural Norm –> Tipping Point. Transitions and tipping points can also be explored at smaller spatial scales – with research in collaboration with Pivot Project and City Future to use Exeter as a system to identify tipping points for sustainable futures, with work on the Exeter Living Lab.
Do we have power to predict and influence these tipping points? Using Early Warning Signals such as Ar-1 and Variance in a system could help us understand when we might be approaching a Positive Tipping Point, and what we need to focus on to nudge the system closer to threshold. Hence, change is to be deliberate and nudge the various elements of a system to reinforce feedbacks and create in momentum in the right direction.
Tim highlighted, this may help empower the public to feel part of the hope and power to change the course of climate change, just through actions they make within the complex system they exist in. Awareness that we do live in a complex system that is not and cannot be managed, but instead is a product of a full agency of feedbacks. This will involve a shift from the compartmentalized way of solution thinking and to trust in the things we cannot control. With this, we can move away from incremental change, but to the transformative change that is needed for the scale of problem.
Discussions around all these topics lead to some interesting conversations in the chat and short group sessions. The time to act was yesterday, but learning what is the best action, how we trigger it and when to apply pressure, will allow deliberative positive tipping. Local to global, social to political – all nudges and feedbacks that interact and cascade will allow a faster rate of transition.
To hear Tim’s talk in full, you watch it via YouTube here. Please note, discussions from breakout rooms is not included in the recording.
Given the success of the seminar and workshop, the GSI hopes to continue the conversations and momentum with more events and collaborations. Please keep up to date with GSI events via the website, Twitter, LinkedIn, or join the mailing list by contacting infoGSI@exeter.ac.uk