Climate Change: the 7 Percent Solution

Once upon a time there was a terrestrial ball. Its atmosphere contained nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and a tiny bit of carbon dioxide. This ideal balance was conducive to life, so human beings evolved and lived there. In a mere blip of history, these people created cities, companies, universities, sports teams, and world economies. They celebrated birthdays and weddings; and helped one another in times of sorrow and illness. They made nation states with boundaries, languages, and prejudices. They multiplied.

Everyone died eventually; sometimes people killed one other preemptively. Existential questions persisted, like Where did we come from? What happens when we die? Is it ever okay to kill someone? What is happiness?

People built ever more comfortable and complicated structures to live and work in. These advances, astonishing and impressive, created problems.

Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze, Hong Kong: “The Blue Moment”

As far back as 1938, scientists began to sound alarms. They warned of the greenhouse gas phenomenon, caused by an excess of carbon emissions due to human activity. At first, and for a long time, the vast majority of people did not want to hear about this or do anything about it. First-world people enjoyed traveling by airplane, regulating the temperature of their indoor air, and ordering things for overnight delivery. The billions who didn’t yet have plumbing or electricity were intent on catching up, now.

A tiny percentage of people tasked themselves with conserving: composting food scraps and eschewing modern comforts and conveniences. They were considered a “fringe,” and largely taken no notice of.

What difference could a few kWh-counting greenies make? Not much. Gazing out at an urban skyline twinkling with lights, switching the lightbulbs or carpooling to work feels like just a drop in the bucket.

Meanwhile, scientists warned that time was running out. More muscular action was necessary; the entire world engaged in solutions.

Which is finally what happened in Paris six months ago: 198 nations agreed to curb carbon emissions, cheered on by corporate chief executives, financial giants, and other world leaders who heralded a historic shift, the greatest business opportunity in history, a milestone for humanity, etc.

Jeff McMahon, Forbes: opening night of COP21 on November 30, 2015.

But wait. Where is the universal chorus of support for these proposals? Have you noticed a momentous transformation, or even a trace of one? I haven’t. Have you changed your behavior due to this agreement? Not me. Not the record-breaking numbers of new SUV and truck owners. Has such a concentration of world leaders agreeing on a bold, integrated solution ever been met with such ho-hum complacency from the public?

I decided to look into this.

As it happens, 13% of Americans are urgently concerned about global warming, and many of them are working each and every day to advance immediate solutions in policy, technology, services, and behavior. This 13% percentage is corroborated by university demographers studying attitudes on climate change, teams on the East coast (at Yale and George Mason) and West coast (at Stanford).

A few days ago I mentioned the 13% to Jack Byrne, the Director of Sustainability Integration at Middlebury College. He said, “That’s great news!” Why? Because a scientifically corroborated 13% points to a “tipping point,” as Malcolm Gladwell has explained: “that one dramatic moment… when everything can change all at once.”

Taking Gladwell’s research, 20% is the magic number needed to create a tipping point for insistence on climate solutions. Assuming 13% already committed, only an additional 7% is required!

Although we hear a lot about the 1% these days, I am now much more interested in this 7%: the segment of the American population that must become urgently concerned about global warming in order for solutions to drive through the obstacles. Because unless they join in, we won’t have a 1% or a 99% to worry about.

Who is in this 7%? Do I know any of them? Do you? How willingly are they likely to convert?

As I write, there are 323 million people in the United States. For the sake of argument, let’s consider the 76%, or 245 million, who are over the age of 18. The 13% of adult Americans who are already engaged is 32 million people. Another 7% is 17 million, for a 49 million total.

How might this new cohort of 17 million people become urgently engaged, demanding change and participating on solutions, creating the tipping point when an idea takes hold, goes viral, and nothing is the same?

Whatever you want to call it, and wherever you fall on this spectrum of caring, it’s interesting to speculate on what could get us from today’s 13% to the tipping point of 20% ― and how long it will take.

If you are among the 13%, you really want to know. Because if we can expand by just 7%, it is tantalizingly reasonable to assume that the problem of engaging enough people to believe in or care about global warming goes away. And then the real work can begin.

Originally published at on July 6, 2016.