EGU General Assembly 2021
© Author(s) 2021. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Social tipping processes for sustainability: An analytical framework

Ricarda Winkelmann1,2, Jonathan F. Donges1,3, E. Keith Smith4,5, Manjana Milkoreit6, Christina Eder4, Jobst Heitzig7, Alexia Katsanidou4,8, Marc Wiedermann7, Nico Wunderling1,2,9, and Timothy M. Lenton10
Ricarda Winkelmann et al.
  • 1FutureLab on Earth Resilience in the Anthropocene, Earth System Analysis, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany (
  • 2Institute of Physics and Astronomy, University of Potsdam, Germany
  • 3Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden
  • 4GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, Germany
  • 5International Political Economy and Environmental Politics, ETH Zurich, Switzerland
  • 6Department of Political Science, Purdue University, United States of America
  • 7FutureLab on Game Theory and Networks of Interacting Agents, Complexity Science, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany
  • 8Institute of Sociology and Social Psychology, University of Cologne, Germany
  • 9Department of Physics, Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany
  • 10Global Systems Institute, University of Exeter, United Kingdom

Societal transformations are necessary to address critical global challenges, such as mitigation of anthropogenic climate change and reaching UN sustainable development goals. Recently, social tipping processes have received increased attention, as they present a form of social change whereby a small change can shift a sensitive social system into a qualitatively different state due to strongly self-amplifying (mathematically positive) feedback mechanisms. Social tipping processes have been suggested as key drivers of sustainability transitions emerging in the fields of technological and energy systems, political mobilization, financial markets and sociocultural norms and behaviors.

Drawing from expert elicitation and comprehensive literature review, we develop a framework to identify and characterize social tipping processes critical to facilitating rapid social transformations. We find that social tipping processes are distinguishable from those of already more widely studied climate and ecological tipping dynamics. In particular, we identify human agency, social-institutional network structures, different spatial and temporal scales and increased complexity as key distinctive features underlying social tipping processes. Building on these characteristics, we propose a formal definition for social tipping processes and filtering criteria for those processes that could be decisive for future trajectories to global sustainability in the Anthropocene. We illustrate this definition with the European political system as an example of potential social tipping processes, highlighting the potential role of the FridaysForFuture movement. Accordingly, this analytical framework for social tipping processes can be utilized to illuminate mechanisms for necessary transformative climate change mitigation policies and actions. 

How to cite: Winkelmann, R., Donges, J. F., Smith, E. K., Milkoreit, M., Eder, C., Heitzig, J., Katsanidou, A., Wiedermann, M., Wunderling, N., and Lenton, T. M.: Social tipping processes for sustainability: An analytical framework, EGU General Assembly 2021, online, 19–30 Apr 2021, EGU21-9161,, 2021.


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