THE BLOG
01/24/2017 05:05 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2018

Is 10 Percent A Magic Number For Climate Action?

In the days just before the election, I believed we were on the cusp of meaningful action to protect a livable climate. So many indicators of progress suggested it: the quick ratification of the Paris Climate Accord, the surge in new renewable energy, the ten Republican Members of Congress publicly supporting action to fight climate change and joining with ten Democrats to form the Climate Solutions Caucus, the outpouring of public support for the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters. New people were joining our local climate action group, looking for ways to get involved. The tide felt like it was turning.

In a day, everything seemed to change: suddenly we had a president-elect who promised to dismantle the Paris Climate Agreement and cancel the Clean Power Plan, and began picking oil, gas and coal proponents for key cabinet positions. He chose Exxon's CEO to run the State Department, and to run the EPA, he chose a man who has spent a lot of his energy attacking and suing it.

But sometimes, alongside the main plotline in a story, something else is going on that turns out to be just as important. I'm not sure this is true right now, but its possible. All the recent indicators that the tide was turning toward climate action might still mean that the tide IS turning. It's possible that even as Trump becomes president, we are passing a critical threshold of public knowledge and concern about the climate crisis.

We know that societies sometimes undergo rapid, dramatic changes that were not predicted. For example, women gaining the right to vote, the civil rights movement, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the legalization of gay marriage all happened fast. After years of small numbers of people working for these changes, they came suddenly. The big question is, why?

One idea, explored in an obscure scientific journal article (Xie et al., 2011), is this: once a committed minority--vocal and dedicated proponents of an idea or principle--reaches a certain threshold size, societal transformations occur suddenly.

Modelers examining this threshold phenomenon found that when the fraction of a population dedicated to a cause (such as marriage equality or carbon pricing) reaches a threshold of 10 percent, the population rapidly shifts to the opinion of these "committed agents." The reason is that we humans are strongly influenced by our friends, family, peers, and leaders. Cues from others can and do change the prevailing attitudes in a society, and it appears that 10 percent is the threshold fraction it takes to instigate such a change.

I believe that the reason 2016 was such an important year for climate action is that we are reaching the 10 percent threshold. A recent survey of American's attitudes about climate change (Maibach et al., 2016) found that 61 percent of Americans said climate change was important to them, and of these, 26 percent of respondents said it was extremely or very important to them. That's a quarter of us who say we care deeply about climate change.

There is one big catch. For societal transformation to occur, committed agents must speak up about their cause and what needs to happen. Mostly, we have shied away from talking about climate change. We don't know what to say and are afraid of upsetting others, so we keep quiet. At least, I know I have.

But not anymore. Here's why: It is tremendously unfortunate for climate progress that someone with Trump's views won this election. But whether it is simply unfortunate or truly disastrous for the future of humanity may depend on whether we, the committed agents, speak up.

And it turns out that what we need to say has two simple parts: 1) Climate change puts everything we we care about and depend on at risk, and 2) Solutions exist, and require to immediately get off fossil fuels, and this transformation must be at a speed and magnitude completely unprecedented in human history.

There are important details, but I think speaking up boldly about these two truths is what may still allow us to protect a livable climate.