[UsersTCP31] Passing a social tipping point: why achieving consensus on climate action just got a lot harder and what it means for the energy transition

The period from the signing of the UNFCCC in 1992, to the Paris Agreement in 2016 coincided with what is known as the ‘global unipolar moment’ between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to ’Brexit’ and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. This was a period of unprecedented global liberal democratic hegemony and economic prosperity - the ideal conditions under which to broker and progress action on climate change.

This period has now ended. The global economic and geopolitical headwinds have increased on the back of four forces driving global disunity.

  1. The geopolitical crisis - Accelerated by the Ukraine crisis we are now in Cold War II. The multi-polar world order is returning, with the rise of autocratic digital authoritarianism as exemplified by the growth in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
  2. The demographic crisis - The dependency ratio - the ratio of those not in work to those in work - is rising rapidly, increasing state burdens, reducing global productivity and creating intergenerational tensions.
  3. The climate crisis - Climate change impacts are occurring sooner and are greater than anticipated, driving a shift from mitigation to adaptation.
  4. The epistemic crisis - Liberal democracies’ capacity to reach social consensus is being eroded by social and synthetic media - diminishing their capacity to agree on, and govern in, the collective long-term good.

There is an urgent need to review energy and climate strategies in light of this. Firstly, we must review our scenarios and counterfactuals. Assuming the world beyond the energy system in next 30 years looks broadly like the last 30 is implausible and unhelpful. The above crises are largely independent of any climate mitigation actions we may take and will drive wholesale global change. We must stop asking just ‘What should the world look like?’ and also ask ‘What is the world likely to look like?’ when planning the energy transition. This lecture explores the implications of this confluence of crises on the energy transition and seeks to identify broad areas action that may mitigate their likely impacts.





First published October 26, 2022