Building on existing science-policy engagement processes

The full range of existing science-policy engagement processes across multiple scales of governance are relevant for fostering engagement and knowledge building on ESTPs. At the global scale, this places intergovernmental scientific assessment bodies like the IPCC and IPBES and their relationships to political negotiation and decision-making institutions (e.g. UNFCCC, CBD) into the spotlight. Below, we focus on these global-scale institutions, but many other formats of science-policy engagement exist, including parliamentary hearings, science advisory bodies, and expert groups at the national scale and in the European Union.

The IPCC is the central source of authoritative scientific knowledge for the international climate governance process. Despite multiple critiques levelled at the model in recent years (Turnhout et al., 2020; De Pryck and Hulme, 2022), it can and should play an important role in fostering knowledge related to climate (and Earth system) tipping points, elevating this topic on the negotiation agenda of the UNFCCC and possibly political systems at other scales. However, the seven-year reporting rhythm of the IPCC is moving too slowly to reflect the rapidly evolving scientific knowledge base related to climate (and Earth system) tipping points.

More frequent, shorter learning cycles are needed to ensure the latest understanding of science is available and accessible to a wide range of actors more rapidly (De Pryck and Hulme, 2022). Contributing to this increased frequency is one of the aims of this report. Such an approach requires capacity building both on the side of knowledge provision and communication and with relation to its adoption and use. The format of IPCC special reports provides an important avenue for developing scientific and policy-relevant knowledge regarding ESTPs, but does not fully address this speed deficit. Other scientific assessment processes, including this report, can complement the work of the IPCC, but to the extent they lack the formal relationship with and mandate from a negotiation or decision-making body like the UNFCCC, they lack the authority and perceived legitimacy of the IPCC (Cash et al., 2003) and are less likely to be utilised.

Scholars increasingly recognise that anticipating multi-dimensional, multi-scale and cascading climate impacts are not well served by existing climate risk assessment processes (Simpson et al., 2021). Both Earth system models (WGI, physical science) and integrated assessment models (WGIII, global mitigation pathways) will need to integrate biophysical and social tipping points to a greater extent (McPherson et al., 2023), and connect the implications to locale- and actor-specific vulnerabilities and adaptation capacities (WGII). In this vein, climate tipping points present an opportunity for stronger collaboration across IPCC Working Groups. 

Fostering more solutions-oriented knowledge elevates the importance of WGs II and III and the need to expand assessment of relevant knowledge in the social sciences and humanities. Going beyond economic perspectives and technological change, solutions work related to tipping points needs to bring in understandings of how knowledge and beliefs about the future shape future-oriented decision making and agency. 

More generally, the IPCC’s tendency towards conservatism (Brysse et al., 2013) is particularly problematic in the context of tipping points. This conservatism is a reflection of scientific values such as restraint, rationality, dispassion and moderation, which create a tendency towards caution and underreporting of certain scientific findings, but also results from the desire to provide information that is safe against attack or political misuse. The panel’s mandate to be policy relevant but not policy prescriptive further creates a tendency towards information that supports the pursuit of existing political goals, confirming their underlying linear assumptions of change. What is needed is accelerated learning of a kind that enables a shift towards non-incremental and transformative approaches to action. Proposals for IPCC reform are emerging (Asayama et al., 2023), but they do not address the question of how anticipatory and transformative knowledge co-production could be practically enabled in the UNFCCC. 

There are limits to what the IPCC can do when it comes to developing anticipatory and transformative capacities among diverse governance actors across multiple scales.

Fostering actor-relevant and context-specific knowledge demands distributed knowledge production with heavy involvement of regional (e.g. AMAP, EU), national (e.g. governmental foresight offices) and sub-national knowledge institutions.

Hoppe, 2005; Hoppe, Wesselink, and Cairns, 2013

Actor relevance combined with the time and resource demands of some methods for anticipatory knowledge development further minimises the potential role of the IPCC in its current form, which is already a time-consuming and unfunded commitment for most participants. Instead, it requires distributed efforts by organisations that can play a convening role for trainings and workshops, or technological resources like immersive or virtual reality environments. Major international science organisations or networks like Future Earth could adopt a role in fostering this type of learning at the interface of science and policy.

Looking beyond the IPCC, recent analyses of global environmental assessments consistently identify a set of challenges that need to be addressed to support global environmental decision making about the future (Norström et al., 2020; Pereira et al., 2021). These are particularly relevant for knowledge production related to ESTPs and include the need to: (1) anticipate unpredictable and diverse future conditions, (2) create knowledge that is relevant at multiple scales, and (3) include diverse actors, perspectives and contexts, and enhance the role of stakeholders including the public (Elsawah et al., 2020). Increasingly frequent iterations of learning cycles and the ability to respond rapidly to changing and new knowledge will also be needed (Norström et al., 2020). Finally, given the emphasis on distributed knowledge production in multi-scale networks, global assessment processes need to develop stronger relationships to knowledge-production processes at lower scales (e.g. national academies of science or government science advisory bodies), becoming network hubs in knowledge-production systems rather than sitting at the top of knowledge-production hierarchies. 

Recently, relevant activities and venues have emerged across global environmental assessments that implement some of these recommendations, and might serve as partial templates for the mode of knowledge production that anticipating tipping points demands. The CBD’s advisory body, IPBES, to some extent replicates the IPCC model, but with important modifications and dynamics. Through its Nature Futures Framework (Lundquist et al., 2021), the IPBES and the UN Environment Programme’s Global Environmental Outlook (UNEP, 2019, chap. 23) both take note of ways to combine regional-to-global systems modelling with imagination-driven, bottom-up stakeholder engagements and perspectives. This generates both a greater range and ‘thicker’ detail of risks that are relevant to communities and decision makers, as well as creating buy-in around actions needed. Combining natural and social sciences with traditional ecological knowledge, Indigenous knowledge and local knowledge is facilitated by the recent establishment of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform by the UNFCCC. The IPBES is also taking a greater interest in anticipatory and transformative knowledge and capacities with its ongoing efforts related to the Transformative Change Assessment

The processes and impacts of ESTPs would reach across multiple global governance issues, creating often-overlooked interdependencies between them. The challenge of linkages has been increasingly recognised in climate assessment and governance, for example, regarding interactions with multiple efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (Fuso Nerini et al., 2019). Tipping point assessments and knowledge production might innovate further by building on templates like the multi-issue ‘nexus’ assessments of climate, biodiversity and pollution (UNEP, 2021), biodiversity, water, food and health (IPBES work programme 2019-2030), or climate change, land-use and food security (IPCC, 2019).

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