Not targets but U-turns: reflections on the IPCC report

Released today, the report, which summarises scientists’ understanding of what is happening with climate change, warns that Earth will unavoidably hit the critical threshold of 1.5°C warming due to climate change within the next 20 years. This is a combination of natural processes and human emissions. This is regardless of how radically global governments cut greenhouse gas emissions. This article urgently proposes a new framing approach: a pivot.

Should emissions continue, the Earth will see temperature increases of up to four degrees centigrade, making much of the planet uninhabitable.

This is new messaging partly. Earlier, we have heard that scientists have set a target: not higher than 1.5 degrees warming. Now we hear that, as the target is likely to be hit, we must limit release of greenhouse gasses to that which are taken up by the planet. No net increase. And prepare to handle the consequences of breeching the 1.5 degree limit.

How did we get here? Warnings about CO2 levels have been around since 1856. It is not as if the political system has not been given time to adjust to a new reality. Scientists have been sceptical of the Earth system’s ability to handle carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels since Eunice Foote identified CO2 as a greenhouse gas in 1856. It was in 1992 that The United Nations established the The UNFCCC secretariat (UN Climate Change) which brought the Paris Agreement on the 1.5 degrees of warming in 1995. 

Yet, as the diagram above illustrates, despite the information coming from the science world and high level policy bodies, the trajectory established in the 1950s has continued.

Society is a complex, adaptive system. Typical of complex adaptive systems is that they are resilient to interventions. Simply publishing information will not budge this system.

Absence of constraints

Systems go into disorder – and reach tipping points – when there is nothing stopping them. And perform badly when there is no enabler to help them. Systems thinkers categorise these enablers and barriers under the broad term constraint. A constraint is something that controls the way a system performs by keeping it within certain limits. Constraints are also enabling, their existence can promote system health too.

The necessary constraints that should have been in place to stop our way of life causing climate chaos were not in place. And they are still not in place. Indeed, the talk of constraints gets lost in arguments about targets and causes.

What needs to happen is for people of Earth to agree on, and demand action. The kind of action that is introduction and application of constraints that will reverse the ongoing trend and return Earth’s temperatures out of danger. We could say we need constraints that pivot.

A pivot- a complete change of direction as a result of hard constraints

One could do well to follow the work of Dave Snowden in this context. Dave Snowden has recently developed a typology of constraints based on his extensive work with complexity (Snowden 2016, 2017 2021).

Laws, rules and codes create governing constraints. Rules of thumb, or heuristics  and principles provide guidance, on the other hand.
Possible Climate constraints:
Rules like allowed rates of extraction, or rules governing disposal of the material can ensure the amount of resource remains in use in society.

Organisational design creates a structure within which to work which is both enabling and constraining
External constraints include environmental ceilings.

Possible Climate constraints:
Environmental limits, for example on phosphorus and nitrogen in waterways control land management practices and sewage treatment.
Structures in society that control the flow of materials (For instance a nationalised oil industry) provide limitations in handling of the material

Connections are like hashtags in knowledge management, and categories are containers.

Possible Climate constraints:
National networks of resource users brought together to find ways to reduce resource use.
Fixed or rigid constraints are clearly visible and known – examples are walls or fences. They are predictable and can be enforced, but can become brittle and fail catastrophically.
Permeable constraints  can allow some things to pass while others cannot – the constraint is contingent. What can pass can be managed. Think of borders, where some people can pass while others cannot.

Possible Climate constraints:
Limits on extraction, or restrictions on use of materials (for example oil restricted to use as base material for plastics) are examples in this category.
Increasing carbon levies are an example of flexible constraints. These fees are intended to be raised when the market is not phasing out carbon at the intended rate.
Dark constraints are not visible but still effective. Snowden uses aspects of organisational culture or taboos, rituals and the like as examples for dark constraints. He cautions that they are far more prevalent in modern organisations than people realise.

Possible Climate constraints:
(No suggestions.)

Harder than envisioning a list of possible constraints, is garnering public opinion for their introduction. Any change of policy and rules – like a halt to all oil extraction – will devastate the economy as it is set up now, ruining people’s lives. Like any complex adaptive system, society has its own inbuilt constraints to change, and the way the economy is set up is one of them.

We propose a STOP model for the pivot:

Pivot in the absence of pre-existing constraints

As explained above, systems go into disorder without constraints in place. Nearing that situation a rational response would be one of pivot. A pivot is where society decides to add constraints before a tipping point or peak of extraction is reached.  These constraints change the direction of stress on the environment form an increase to decrease.

We envisage the pivot as STOP:

STOP is a process that produces options for constraints along with explanations and clarifications. These options should be offered to the political system for public deliberation. The step P is where the options get put to the public to garner widespread political acceptance.

  • S Cap the increase, Stop extraction/emission increase (with hard constraint)
  • T Think – how to arrange production and introduce vectors from constraints so limits can be respected and people taken care of.
  • O Organise: find materiality, and normativity. Choose among constraint options and “wedge” thinking
  • P Agree and Proceed with the process

The first choice is one of hard constraints that will stop the increase and reverse direction. Dave Snowden points out that these can be quite unpopular, and could be applied on a temporary basis.

These hard constraint options have been known a long time, but there has been little action on them. In this situation we have little choice but to dust the list off and start to consider each in detail.

Of course, each will be unpopular and probably political suicide. This we will consider later in this article. For now, let us continue with the STOP approach.

In complex adaptive systems there are several kinds of limits that should not be exceeded. In human society you take care of the planet and people at the same time. In framing the first hard constraint options you need to bring with them other system changes to ensure functioning of the whole.

The diagram above illustrates the framing of the scope of pivot considerations.   The most challenging pivot is represented by the middle where infrastructure is insufficient, needs aren’t being met and resource extraction is exceeding limits and the stress is affecting the economic system.

The natural system – social system – infrastructure nexus

Pivot planning will be informed by five different main questions at the nexus of social provision, earth system and infrastructure.

  1. Which Earth systems are involved?
  2. What drawdown stage of natural capital/function has been reached? 
  3. Which societal functions are involved?
  4. How well is the societal function performing now?
  5. What is the capability and capacity of installed infrastructure to deliver the function in a sustainable manner?
  6. What are the likely impacts on the economic system? Can the national economy respond?

Framing the need to pivot as a resource or emissions issue is necessary but not sufficient for a full citizen involvement. Indeed focussing on the scientific aspect will lose the attention of many.

Social provisioning performance 

A second aspect is levels of social provisioning. Is the outtake of resources providing for all citizens? For example, in the case of water stress, it may be that the provision of clean water is enough for all but not reaching all citizens anyway. A ceiling on outtake might mean even more going without.

Installed infrastructure capacity and capability

Thirdly, is current installed infrastructure capacity sufficient to provide basic needs to citizens and is it capable of delivering services without exceeding resource limits?   

Economic system stress

Rapid changes in capital tied up in infrastructure or rapid loss of income all stress the economic system.

The following section aims to present a communication framework specifically suited to presenting the options in a situation of overshoot, collapse or pivot.

First: communicate in normative terms

A normative approach offers a metrics format that is both informative and rational when entering into a narrative that involves values.

Normative metrics format:

Metric =    Status, what is  
What should be

´Politicians tend to claim What Should Be is their area as it involves subjective judgement. What Should Be  implies values beyond metrics. Values is an area often claimed by economists too – for example a good’s contribution to GDP measured in money.

Normative measurements can, though, be framed in the narrative of sustainability. Another term for sustain is keep, and metrics can be presented by scientists in the format:

If you want to keep X, then activity Z (extraction/emissions etc.) should (remain below Y).

Measuring current status would then take the pattern:

Metric =               Z, What is
Y=What should be to keep X

Dealing with normative metrics, we can add the alignment of the pivot metric to things like the SDGS, the Paris agreement and other networks which inform us what should be.

The diagram above gives us a better idea of the scale of overshoot.

According to scientists, if we want to keep the climate stable, we should limit concentrations to 350 ppm. The graph shows us what happened from 1960 onwards to when the safe limit was crossed and to the current situation.

We are, then 410/350 = 117% or 17% over the safe limit.

CO2 levels in the atmosphere= 410 ppm
The clarifications around the sustainability aspect of “stable climate” are then added to the discourse using the same pattern.

If we VALUE ( )

Then we need to SUSTAIN ( Function)

This is dependent on retaining or regenerating NATURAL SYSTEM STATUS to ( Levels)

Then. with the normative framing of the situation, how do we explain the need to pivot?

The table below shows the need to present the inter-connectedness of the pivot nexus. Presenting the options for an initial hard constraint needs to be followed by a deliberation of the options to manage the drawdown situation ensuing.

The first step is to identify the current situation


Current stress on natural systems
Maximum  stress to keep function
Economic System stress
Maximum Stress to keep function
Current social provisioning
Level to fulfil requirements
Current infrastructure capacity
Capacity needed to fulfil requirements

The next step is to explore dependencies among the current status and look for trajectories away from the negative effects of climate change and climate change response.


Social performance pivot
Maintain capacity: Stewardship
LOWTotal pivot. Regeneration
of earth system and provisioning capacity

Urgent regeneration
of earth system capability

This is one example of how options to manage drawdown can be framed. If the system is performing well (And not causing greenhouse gas emissions) – High/High then careful stewardship is required.

If the Earth system is degenerated (LOW) and societal provisioning is LOW, some kind of emergency situation needs to be called.

Materiality and Normativity

Having explored the situation as whole, the next step is to look at how ideas could be actioned. The materiality question is about which organisation’s purpose is material to the end. It could be that, for example, all the corporations in a county bear very little materiality to the constraints that need to be put in place to ensure appropriate actions ensue. It may even be that there are not clear enough responsibilities assigned to government departments and agencies. At least, stress on all four dimensions – natural systems, economic system, people and infrastructure – need addressing.

The next part is to explore normatives. What SHOULD something be. As a scientist, you will need to phrase it as: “if we value (X) then (Y) needs to be sustained and there are (A,B,C) options of constraints.

Constraints need to stimulate changes and it will be necessary to answer question like – if I can’t have electricity from coal, how will I keep my lights on. To convince people to pivot they need to see that they will be OK.

As a thought experiment we offer the idea of “Wedges”. Wedges are proposed interventions that swap one bad – like greenhouse gas emissions – for another, less bad solution.

To illustrate, we take the example from combustion engine powered cars .

Measures to reduce resource use can be illustrated in “wedges”. Each wedge is a measure that will reduce demand for the resource, increase efficiency and introduce alternatives.

The diagram below shows how internal combustion engine (ICE) personal vehicle kilometers  might be reduced to zero with three main strategies: reducing travel demand by increasing proximity, increasing ridership in vehicles and swapping ICE vehicles for electric ones.

The diagram is presented to illustrate principles only and is not intended as a proposal, rather a starting point for discussions.

Source: Hinton 2019.

The strategies can also be introduced using different types of constraints:

  1. Replanning cities to reduce transport demand
  2. Changing vehicle taxation to encourage electrification
  3. Introducing nationalised sharing schemes

A skilful way to introduce a measure is to look at vehicle kms travelled. Emissions are similar whether one or two or three are in the car.

Assembly or referendum or both?

The STOP pivot framework allows policy makers to engage the general public in a dialogue around choices of combinations of constraints. Indeed, the choices can be framed and left to deliberative process in citizen’s assemblies. 

Pivots are theoretically hard to introduce if it is obvious a large part of the population will be worse off, even if it is better to be a little worse off now than endure a collapse later. The combination of constraints that both stop harmful resource use and divert resources equitably to citizens allows people to deliberate around these trade-offs.

The results of a STOP process could be offered to deliberation. In this case assemblies could rank their preference of combination of constraints. Or, alternative combinations, including “do nothing” could be put to national vote in a referendum.

Either way, citizens will have something to engage with rather than the nefarious language of targets.


Scientists together with communicators can be helpful in framing overshoot, its consequences and the options available. Such a process could be envisioned for COP26. This report proposes framing the situation in terms of overshoot and need for the behaviour of the system to swerve and pivot. To achieve this, constraint options need to be formulated and analysed in the four dimensions of sustainability: Infrastructure, natural systems, societal performance and economic system. Language can use the pattern of:

  • If we VALUE (X )
  • Then we need to SUSTAIN ( Function Y)
  • This is dependent on retaining or regenerating STATUS of (Natural system, Economic System, Infrastructure, social provisioning) to (normative level of Z )

To achieve this, the system needs constraints. Options are evaluated against the value (X). If no constraints are in place, this will negatively affect value sustain (Y).

This framework can be part of a deliberative citizens process in something like a citizens’ assembly process or referendum.


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