Juggling dual roles successfully

Economist and philosopher, Philippe Colo, analyses social tipping points. He says that a project like this is only possible in an interdisciplinary environment such as the Oeschger Centre, which uniquely supports and thrives on interdisciplinary collaboration.

Photo: Ana-Tia Buss

The job advertisement for the postdoc position was tailor-made for the young scientist.  "When you apply for a position, you usually have to put a few things in perspective," jokes Philippe Colo, "but here I could just tell the truth."

And it goes like this: The Frenchman has danced at several weddings throughout his academic education.  He has two Master's degrees, one in statistics and economics and one in philosophy. His doctoral thesis at the Paris School of Economics was entitled "Essays on the foundations of expert knowledge", and he has written papers with titles such as "Justification of testimony in the presence of epistemic conflict of interest" (philosophy) and "Why are scientific predictions on climate change unable to trigger its mitigation?" (economics). Most recently, he worked in two research groups at the same time: on the one hand in the Epistemology of Rationality Group at the University of Zurich and on the other at the Chair of Integrative Risk Management and Economics at ETH Zurich.

"Conceptually, philosophy and economics are very close to each other," explains Philippe Colo. Unfortunately, however, this does not apply to publication culture and career opportunities. "The Oeschger Centre is one of the few places where this duality is appreciated." Indeed, because the newly created postdoc position on social tipping points is doubly rooted at the OCCR, firstly in the "Comparative Politics" group and secondly in the "Climate Change from a Philosophy of Science Perspective" group.

Photo: Creative Commons

Negative and positive tipping points

The concept of tipping points is widespread in many areas of science. This refers to critical thresholds beyond which a small change can lead to significant and often irreversible effects on the environment or society. Tipping points in connection with climate change are probably best known to the public. This refers to the danger that negative tipping points pose to the climate. If the ice in the Antarctic melts or the Amazon rainforest disappears, this can have irreversible consequences for the Earth system. Once such tipping points are crossed, the climate could change abruptly, and feedback and cascade effects could occur.

Sociology, on the other hand, defines a tipping point as a point in time at which a group rapidly changes its behaviour by adopting a previously uncommon behaviour. Regarding climate change, the concept of positive tipping points has become established against this backdrop. This refers to social and technological changes that can have a positive impact, setting the course for a climate-friendly future, so to speak. One example of how positive developments can reinforce each other is renewable energies and electromobility. If there are more and more electric vehicles on the roads, there will be a significant reduction in the cost of batteries. This in turn makes the use of heat pumps and the storage of renewable energy more favourable.

When it comes to electromobility, the focus is currently on Norway, where electric vehicles are now so advanced thanks to government subsidies that they could become the new norm - the tipping point seems to be within reach.

Photo: Creative Commons

Critically scrutinising the concept of tipping points

But are social tipping points really suitable for creating a climate-friendly world? This is precisely what Philippe Colo and his colleagues at the OCCR want to find out in an interdisciplinary project. " In this project, philosophy challenges the validity of adapting this concept from natural to social sciences, questioning if such a transformation is indeed well suited", explains Philippe Colo. "Despite fundamental differences, climatic and social tipping points are generally treated in similar ways and with similar tools, which raises a number of epistemological and methodological questions."

After critically analysing the tipping point concept in the first phase of the project, new potential social tipping points will be identified in a second part. The researchers also want to investigate the extent to which social tipping points can be predicted and triggered. And how should economics and philosophy complement each other in this project? Philippe Colo summarises the interplay between the two disciplines as follows: They use different tools. Economists rely heavily on maths, which makes the approach more rigorous. Philosophers, on the other hand, forge concepts that allow phenomena to be analysed in a much more granular way. These concepts enable a deeper, granular analysis of complex phenomena that economic models may oversimplify. "In our project, we take as much philosophical complexity as possible and incorporate it into the economic approach in order to increase the rigour of our modelling."

Photo: Creative Commons

The project is still in its infancy, but Philippe Colo has already indicated that he and his team are sceptical about the suitability of the tipping point concept in a social context. "Such approaches may work on a local scale, but we doubt whether they will work on a global level." The big problem with social tipping points is that they raise false hopes. In fact, positive tipping points are presented as a beacon of hope in the fight against climate change - Philippe Colo believes this is a risky bet.

Photo: Creative Commons

Traveling by train to Oslo

If the philosopher and economist questions the suitability of the concept on a global scale, this does not mean that he generally doubts it. He believes that social behaviour can be influenced by role models, which is why he wants to incorporate knowledge about how decisions are made, focusing particularly on the influence of societal norms and individual role models on eco-friendly behaviours.  He explains that experiments have shown people generally underestimate the number of others willing to behave in a climate-friendly way - for example, travelling by train instead of by plane. Everyone has the impression that others are trying to shirk their responsibilities, and that stands in the way of good decisions.

That is why Philippe Colo wants to create new potential tipping points in his project. For example, a mobility platform that not only shows how much CO2 a mode of transport produces compared to others for a certain route, but also whether travellers would choose a climate-friendly alternative. Users of this platform would then see, for example, that 20 per cent of users would be prepared to travel from Bern to Oslo by train rather than by plane. This information is intended to counteract the so-called free-riding effect that the fight against climate change is suffering from. In other words, people say to themselves "Why should I bother taking the train if nobody else is doing it?" If, on the other hand, we realise that many others are willing to make this effort, this logic collapses, as my action will have an impact.

Whether such transparency actually has a motivating effect is to be investigated in a laboratory test as part of the OCCR project.

Incidentally, the example of the trip to Norway is not plucked out of the air. Philippe Colo himself recently spent two days on the train to a conference in Oslo. This experience, he says, changed his view of the reality of travelling. "What is needed is precisely this new mindset. Above all, something has to change. The change to responsible behaviour in the long term has to happen in the mindset."

(April 2024)