Marching toward a threshold on climate action

Women's March on Washington, threshold climate action

The Women’s March on Washington, which occurred along with sister marches throughout the U.S. and the world on January 21, may signal an important threshold for climate action.

Marching toward a threshold on climate action

By Carla Wise

For most of 2016, I believed we were beginning to take meaningful action to protect a livable climate. Indicators of progress multiplied: the quick ratification of the Paris Climate Accord, the surge in renewable energy investments and installations, 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats joining the Climate Solutions Caucus, the outpouring of public support for the indigenous water protectors fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline. New people were joining our CCL chapter, looking for ways to get involved. The tide felt like it was turning.

In a day, everything seemed to change: we had a president-elect, and now a president, who has promised to dismantle the Paris Climate Agreement and cancel the Clean Power Plan. In just the first week, his administration indicated it may try to review the EPA’s scientific findings before they can be released to the public. 

It’s not easy right now for climate advocates to feel hopeful. But President Trump’s backward steps on climate don’t erase the energy and political will that helped create the positive progress we saw in 2016. It’s possible that all the recent indicators of the tide turning toward climate action mean that the tide is turning. It’s possible that we are passing a critical threshold of public knowledge, concern and even commitment to action on climate.

The Trump administration’s threats to undo climate action may actually be motivating those who care about climate to act. When at least 3.3 million people joined more than 500 women’s marches on January 21, climate change was an important motivator. A People’s Climate March will take place in Washington, DC on April 29, and regional marches are beginning to develop around the country.

We know that societies sometimes undergo rapid, dramatic changes that were not predicted. Consider women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the legalization of gay marriage. After years of small numbers of people working for those changes, they came suddenly. The big question is, why?

One idea, explored in a study in the scientific journal “APS Physics,”  (Xie et al., 2011) is that once a committed minority—dedicated proponents of an idea or principle—reaches a threshold size of 10 percent of the population, societal transformations occur suddenly.

The authors of this study found that when the fraction of a population dedicated to a cause reaches this 10 percent threshold, the population rapidly shifts to the opinion of these “committed agents.” The reason is that we humans are social animals, strongly influenced by our friends, family, peers, and leaders, so cues from others can and do rapidly change the prevailing attitudes in a society.

Perhaps 2016 marked the year we reached the 10 percent threshold on climate solutions. 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. 

There is one big catch. For the transformation to proceed, “committed agents” must continue to speak up about their cause and what needs to happen.

Even as a CCL volunteer, I find it can be difficult to bring up climate change. I don’t always know what to say and don’t want to upset anyone. But I now understand that as a committed agent, speaking up—clearly, hopefully, respectfully—may be the most important thing I can do right now.

And we know what to say: climate change is real; it’s us; it’s dangerous; it’s urgent; scientists agree; and most importantly, solutions exist. Putting a price on carbon is a critical first step to solving climate change, and with enough Americans on board, it is within our grasp.

An earlier version of this piece appeared on the The Huffington Post.

Carla Wise
Carla A. Wise is an Oregon-based environmental writer, climate solutions activist, and mom. She has a Ph.D. in plant conservation biology, and just published Awake on Earth: Facing Climate Change with Sanity and Grace.