5. When Public Opinion Tips

Gas Free Pensions

Before I write about why I think my pension fund is in a delicate position, I take a deep breath. 

And put down some thoughts about change in societies, which I got from a scientific publication, which, when it appeared in 2019, caused quite a stir in the media. It was done by a team of the German Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and is about “Social tipping dynamics for stabilizing Earth’s climate by 2050” (1). So this is something positive! 

What was once seen as normal can soon be perceived as outrageous

Somehow it’s easy to believe that we live in a fixed world where big changes won’t happen anymore. But change is happening, unevidently. Our dependence on fossil fuels as a human civilization is undergoing a big change right now. 

As with every change, there are factors that hold it back, habits, routines, traditions. And there are factors that push society to a brink, thereafter something tips. The Berlin Wall, for example, or the upcoming transition of the economy towards decarbonization.

The Potsdam Institute team looked into these “social tipping points”. There is a number of them. They are triggered by behaviors, opinions, knowledge, technological progress, policy implementations, social norms and structure. Once triggered, such processes can be impossible to stop. 

We are living in this process right now. The world contains diverse systems and subsystems on different levels that are interacting with each other. There are biophysical subsystems of the earth. There are the social, cultural, economic and technological subsystems of human societies. A small change in one or several of these systems can lead to large changes in the interconnectivness of all the systems, and drive us into a transition. A behavior, belief or technology can travel from a minor tendency to widely accepted practice. 

Business models calculate that a share of 17-20% of a market or population can be sufficient to cross the tipping point, scale up and become the dominant pattern.  What was once seen as normal can soon be perceived as outrageous. 

Social norms are important because they determine what will become law. So if burning fossil fuels was recognized as immoral it would lead to regulations, restrictions, even prohibitions. Public money like coal or gas subsidies will be redirect to renewables and low carbon technology. 

The financial market will also play an role in that. Simulations show that just 9% of investors could tip the system. This is where pension funds come in, and a social movement calling for divestment of assets from the fuels of the past.    

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(1) Otto, M, I. Donges, F, J. Cremades, R. et all (2019) Social tipping dynamics for stabilizing Earth’s climate by 2050. https://www.pnas.org/content/117/5/2354