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 with respect to technological and energy systems, political mobilization, financial markets and sociocultural norms and behaviors have been suggested as potential key drivers towards climate action.
Drawing from expert insights 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 towards climate action. We illustrate this definition with the European political system as an example of potential social tipping processes, highlighting the prospective role of the FridaysForFuture movement.
Accordingly, this conceptual framework for social tipping processes can be utilized to illuminate mechanisms for necessary transformative climate change mitigation policies and actions.