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Could social transformation help us avoid climate and biodiversity tipping points?

7 July 2020

This article originally appeared in The Circle: A New Deal for the Arctic. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

When it comes to preserving biodiversity, we face twin challenges: a constantly shrinking number of species and constantly rising greenhouse gases. Both are the result of a growing number of people on the planet whose need to consume seems limitless. Dag O. Hessen explains why we must counteract the risk of a biodiversity tipping point—and how social tipping points could help.

A [social] tipping point is a point in time when a group of people rapidly and dramatically change their behaviour by widely adopting a previously uncommon practice.

As I peer over the cliff’s edge, I see them: two adult polar bears strolling through the valley 100 metres down. The wind is against me, so I can safely follow their journey until they vanish around a hillock. My pulse rate is a bit faster than usual. We’re doing fieldwork in Svalbard, Norway, sampling DNA to reveal biodiversity at the microbial level. We are watching retreating glaciers and looking for signs of thawing in the permafrost. This High Arctic site is changing rapidly and may offer clues to what lies ahead for the rest of the Arctic.

Loss of diversity, burning forests, rising oceans, storms and heat waves: some fear that a series of such disasters could precipitate our extinction. But too many people seem to think these problems will sort themselves out, and that there is little that we, or I, can do about them. We face threatening and complex issues compounded by a wealth of contradictory messages. What is true and what is not? What do we know and what do we believe? How does it all fit together?

Twin menaces

The gravest threats to all forms of life on Earth stem from population growth and mounting consumption. As such, I believe we need to view these problems as indivisible—and discuss them in the context of the great questions of purpose, meaning and the future of our planet on the scale of eternity.

Since the literature on this topic is endless and few have read the various reports of the UN Nature Panel and the UN Climate Panel, I offer a personal conclusion: the world will not end, and we humans will not go extinct. However, we are headed for some tough times. There are no quick fixes; we cannot consume our way out of these problems. Even achieving entirely CO2-free energy will not be enough, because our footprint on the planet is about so much more than emissions.

On the threshold of the Anthropocene, the double threat of increasing greenhouse gases and deteriorating nature is fundamentally new in our history as a species. We are evolutionarily, psychologically, socially and politically unequipped to deal with it, yet we will not escape confronting it. It is easy to answer why we need to act. There is consensus on that. But how is another matter, and there are numerous contradictory answers.

This is also an existential question that reduces all the other issues to trifles. To have a meaningful existence here on Earth, we must be able to envisage a planet that offers both Homo sapiens and the five to 10 million other species with whom we share the planet the potential to live full lives. But getting agreement on how to do this—and on how pressing it is—is difficult because we all have different perspectives on what constitutes a relevant time horizon. Some people are mostly concerned about conditions on Earth during their own lifetimes. For others, a thousand years ahead seems like oceans of time, and the state of the planet in 3020 almost irrelevant. Others, like me, will think that the premise for a habitable planet must apply indefinitely.

A series of tipping points

It sounds dramatic to speak of a world at a tipping point, but strong language is sometimes necessary. In fact, there is not just one tipping point, but several potential tipping points in individual ecosystems and climate systems—such as the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets, permafrost thaw, rainforests turning into savannas or ocean circulation patterns changing. It is crucial that we avoid each and every one of these tipping points because they can trigger each other, kicking off the cascade of disastrous, cumulative global changes that we most hope to avoid.

Fortunately, awareness of this risk seems to be growing. In the best case, this will lead to socio-cultural, political and economic tipping points that will benefit the Earth—for example, perhaps leading to fewer flights, less consumerism and a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. We will need to overcome formidable systemic inertia to achieve this. Intriguingly, the pandemic crisis may be paving the way for such major transitions.

It is well known that our risk of reaching a dramatic tipping point in climate is real and imminent. But tipping points in ecosystems are equally problematic. Avoiding them calls for a suite of social transformations related to consumption, behaviour, economy, law and norms as well as technology and politics.

I think the essence of the challenge is accurately summed up in a meme I recently encountered on a poster: The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.

DAG O. HESSEN is a biology professor at the University of Oslo, Norway, where he is also head of the Centre for Biogeochemistry in the Anthropocene. He is the author of several popular science books.