Communicating tipping points and resilience: editorial introduction

Smith, Joe (2013). Communicating tipping points and resilience: editorial introduction. In: O’Riordan, Tim and Lenton, Tim eds. Addressing Tipping Points for a Precarious Future. Proceedings of the British Academy. Oxford: Oxford University Press / British Academy.



Humanity tends to be fearful of change, yet change is our constant companion. What seems to be new about change is that climate science and linked policy research are indicating the possibility of abrupt and hazardous transformations. Yet change can be exhilarating if embraced with a spirit of creativity. In personal and working lives, and in business and public institutions, change is not just accepted, it is often actively sought. It is central to any notion of modernity. The media struggle to imagine or represent potential broad system changes, yet are constantly in search of apparently new ‘stories’. This volume contains plenty of examples of the kinds of difficult new knowledge that climate research and other Earth system adjustments are generating. Such alterations are novel threats, and have at times, generated fearful accounts of possible futures. However, there are also many ideas, innovations, as well as long-established practices that can permit human thriving, whatever may come its way. In this chapter I seek to cover both the media dilemma of how to inform and engage yet not panic, and the growing body of optimistic research which reveals how much humanity can cope.

Here I consider the ways in which the media might limit or enable learning and debate about the causes and consequences of climate change tipping points, and of ways of adapting to them. It is written during a period of widespread ‘climate change fatigue’ when cynicism and suspicion infect influential portions of the media and substantial minorities of public opinion. Yet it also takes place at a time when an unprecedented body of intellectual and creative effort is going into making sense of anticipating and responding to global environmental changes more generally. In short, humanity’s relationship with the non-human natural world is being dramatically revised in a very short space of time. If that isn’t a story: what is?

I begin with a summary of six distinct features of the cultural politics of climate change. These are the ground-conditions for media production and consumption. I subsequently consider the quality of media performance around these issues. This includes a discussion of the scope of media coverage about, and for, those people who are most vulnerable to the social and physical impacts of abrupt climate change. In this chapter I conclude with a discussion of how society might balance media accounts of potentially doom laden environmental presents and futures which have been at the core of environmental politics in the past, with stories from the ‘islands of successful transformation’ referred to in the final chapter.

Viewing alternatives

Download history

Item Actions