Does ‘tipping point’ cause people to view climate change proactively?  Does it help them feel they are able to do something about it or is it apocalyptic, simply another way of expressing the end?  This was one of several topics discussed after a film screening hosted by IHRR’s Tipping Points project — a dedicated group of physical and social scientists along with humanities researchers who are studying the implications of one metaphor –-‘ tipping point’.  Researchers who led the discussion were Prof Antony Long, Prof Pat Waugh, Prof Dave Petley and Dr Pojanath Bhatanacharoen.  The metaphor ‘tipping point’ is indeed special, but in some cases is no different from others that imply something similar such as ‘butterfly effect’ or in academia ‘paradigm shift’ or the closely related ‘turning point’.

Metaphors like tipping point get thrown around so much in general discussion that their meaning(s) expand and soon many people are using them, shifting the context in which they were originally used.  The movie, Beyond The Tipping Point?, is not really so much about the science of climate change per se, but rather how people think and feel about it, whether tipping point incites action or inaction about the political issue of climate change and why.

Starting a public discussion about climate change is usually no easy task.  In fact, we didn’t originally set out to do this, although the film is indeed about climate change it is more about the tipping point metaphor itself influencing people’s perception and understanding of climate change.  Because the science of climate change has become so heavily politicised it is fused with many opinions, facts and beliefs.  There is silence about climate change and avoidance.  It is the alarmingly obese elephant in the room that is often not acknowledged or disturbed for fear it may step on someone and squash them flat.

To begin, we are now observing climate change solely from the period of today or in the relatively recent past, which is a very small part of what came before it millions of years ago. Antony Long found the use of tipping point to describe climate change potentially nihilistic or disempowering for thinking about climate change when in fact we should be moving the other way.  Also, tipping points may not necessarily be irreversible which is how climate change is often portrayed.  While less complex than the climate problem ozone depletion was seen as veering towards a tipping point, but as production of CFCs ceased the ozone layer restored over time.

During the discussion I couldn’t help but think that each person views climate change through her or his own reality tunnel, that the ‘facts’ are often construed one way or another to suit their relative belief systems, although I know climate change is certainly something real and more than likely people have something to do with it based on scientific data available.  We know that discussions surrounding climate change have moved far beyond the science and that it is not simply about ‘getting the science right’ and the rest will follow.

Obviously, it is of fundamental importance to understand climate change beyond our own individual, narrow perceptions of the world, that is what science is for, but the problem is that we still filter what we perceive before we even identify what it is we are perceiving.  This isn’t only a problem for climate science, but science in general.  There is always uncertainty within the methods people use to gather objective data of the world, we are not all-knowing, although at times people would like to think so, that they are always right and infallible no matter what the facts say or don’t say.  Those who deny that climate change exists are well-known for this, but perhaps it goes both ways.

Pat Waugh described metaphors used by scientists as a type of ‘placeholder’ for what we don’t know giving examples from evolution and genetics such as ‘missing link’ or ‘selfish gene’. In the case of tipping point there is uncertainty as to whether there is nothing more that can be done to reduce the impacts of climate change, although the majority of the scientific community tend to agree that at least something can be done and that it is not too late.  But scientific certainty is not enough said Waugh, we need to have ‘the right feelings’ and not only absolute science to address climate change.  While there are likely many who would disagree with this, science needs the heart of humanity to confront the problems it faces and the emotions that can help its knowledge move beyond the role of merely providing sound advice that can be easily dismissed politically.  Waugh also had another interesting take on how people view tipping points within the context of climate change beginning with Aristotle’s Peripeteia — “a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity”.

In Greek tragedy the audience knows more about the hero’s fortune than they do.  As the plot changes they experience fear but also pity for the hero as their situation takes a turn for the worse.  In discussions about climate change people use the rhetoric of fear to incite action within others.  Waugh suggested that we need a mixture of both to understand how to enable people to act against climate change, including viewing other people who are in situations different from our own.  Waugh said that people tend to retreat from notions of apocalypse, but that it can engage a broader range of emotions so people can do something about it.  Sigmund Freud also wrote about the apocalyptic response with regards to trauma and anxiety.

According to Freud, a certain kind of anxiety (signal anxiety) works in defence against an incapacitating fear or trauma.  Anxiety is a productive emotion; it causes us to do things about the situation we are in.  ‘We need a creative anxiety’, said Waugh, one that is inclusive of many points of view.  It is interesting to talk about fear in this sense as it is almost always seen in a negative sense.  Fear negates and prevents individual action from being taken, but it can incite action as well.  If people did not have anxiety about climate change it is unlikely that I would be writing this now or even have the interest in the first place.  I think there is something about making our fears our own that does incite people to transform the situation they are in or at least attempt to do so.  So portraying climate change in terms of tipping points is clearly attached to human emotion, but the metaphor also influences behaviour.

Dave Petley who led the discussion said that some people use tipping point interchangeably with apocalypse.  ‘If you substitute tipping point for apocalypse you realise people are actually talking about apocalypse, they are merely substituting one word for another’, he said.  But many people, including scientists, reject this view.  They are getting away from the apocalyptic tipping points and thinking about climate more in terms of complex systems.  However, Petley said that researchers may have needed to talk about it in these terms in order to get the world to pay attention.  Now we need to be careful about how we educate people about climate change, we have a generational responsibility.

From the social science perspective Pojanath Bhatanacharoen said ‘metaphors shape the behaviour of people who use them’ (see The Tipping Point of the ‘Tipping Point’ Metaphor).  They change the way a story is told and how we discuss climate change for example shapes how we think and behave.  Importantly Bhatanacharoen noted that climate change has to do with how close you are to the problem.  While extreme weather events appear to be increasing in many of the most developed regions of the world, the majority of hazards induced or amplified by climate change currently affect the world’s poorest countries the most.  Bhatanacharoen talked about how to manage the inevitable in order to prevent the unmanageable referring specifically to moving from a language of mitigation to a language of adaptation.

Those present who joined in the discussion saw tipping point in a number of different ways and did not necessarily connect it with climate change.  One person recognised the political issue of climate change as a ‘tension between mitigation and prevention’ and that engineering could likely find solutions to climate change.  Another questioned whether a critical mass had been reached in investing in enough scientific research on climate change.  It was also said that climate change requires a global response, but the problem is that some of the impacts are not taking place within our own time scale and someone disagreed with using ‘point’ to describe climate change preferring continuum because climate change is continuous, not discrete.

Towards the end someone expressed that they understood tipping point more in terms of another well-known political, technological and environmental issue – nuclear proliferation.  The number of nuclear weapons in the hands of countries in political opposition such as the US and former Soviet Union during the cold war was seen as dangerously close to a tipping point that would lead to large-scale nuclear war.  Fortunately, this never occurred but there is the notion of apocalypse present here as well although the challenge in negotiating reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is in many ways far more complex than reducing nuclear arms.

There is one more thing to note and that is that understanding climate change is about scale, it is about identifying a particular period of geological history in which climate change occurs.  It goes beyond lifetimes, beyond death and is complex in the sense that much like the universe it has no easily identifiable beginning, nor end.  If tipping point or similar metaphors continue to be used to describe climate change then it must be used to refer to its inherent complexity and non-linearity for drawing attention to the melting of the polar ice caps, extreme weather events, or any other environmental impact related to climate.