Can 3.5 Percent Save the Planet?

Environmental movements have shifted public awareness about climate change. How many more people will need to join them for their demands to be met?

Protesters hold signs while marching in a demonstration near the COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland.
An​drew Testa / The New York Times / Redux

Although world leaders were gathered in Glasgow for the United Nations Climate Change Conference last week, Greta Thunberg said change wouldn’t be coming from within the summit’s halls. “That is not leadership—this is leadership,” Thunberg said of, and to, her fellow activists. “This is what leadership looks like.”

The way many environmental campaigners, including Thunberg, see it, they are the ones who helped create the space for governments to take more decisive action on climate change—an issue that has attracted growing levels of concern across the world’s advanced economies, including from a majority of people in the United States. Through protests, school strikes, and other nonviolent actions, they have been credited with raising public awareness about the seriousness of the climate crisis, and the need for governments to solve it. Yet despite these efforts, many climate activists I spoke with recently lamented that COP26 was failing to meet the urgency of the moment.

A major question facing today’s climate movement is what critical mass is required to compel governments to take its demands more seriously. If millions of people aren’t enough to pressure leaders to take drastic and enforceable action on climate change, how many are? And what will it take for others to be moved to join them?

There isn’t a magic figure guaranteed to tip the balance in favor of widespread climate mitigation, of course. But some environmental campaigners have worked with a particular number in mind: 3.5 percent. This comes from the work of the political scientist Erica Chenoweth, whose research found that nonviolent movements require the active participation of at least 3.5 percent of a population in order to achieve serious political change. This so-called 3.5 percent rule was derived from Chenoweth’s study of hundreds of protests from 1900 to 2006, and has made an impact on contemporary movements, including Extinction Rebellion, an international climate-advocacy group based in London whose founders cite Chenoweth as a source of inspiration (the group publicly states that it needs the involvement of 2 million people, or roughly 3.5 percent of the British population, in order to succeed).

When I interviewed Chenoweth last year, they explained their findings in a more matter-of-fact way: Nonviolent protests are more successful than their violent counterparts because they are better at eliciting broad and diverse support from the societies in which they take place. This makes these movements more inclusive, and also more innovative. These kinds of protests don’t necessarily succeed because they appeal to the morality of those in power, but rather because they effectively constrain a government’s options by undermining its support in various pillars of society, such as bureaucrats, the media, and business elites. If 3.5 percent of a country’s—or the world’s—population backs any one issue or policy proposal, that is a substantial enough voting bloc, consumer market, and workforce to get those in power to pay attention.

The climate movement has already demonstrated this kind of influence. Fridays for Future, which was started by Thunberg in 2018 as a solitary school strike in protest of climate inaction, has since attracted millions of participants around the world and earned Thunberg an international platform, as well as high-profile meetings with world leaders and global institutions. In Britain, Extinction Rebellion has been credited with influencing Parliament’s 2019 decision to declare a climate emergency and commit to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, making the country the first major economy to do so. In the United States, the youth-led Sunrise Movement has been widely recognized for its role in elevating the climate crisis on the national agenda.

But with few exceptions, none of these efforts has been able to surpass the 3.5 percent threshold. Part of the challenge comes down to the fact that many of these movements were stymied by the pandemic, which forced them online. Others have been vilified for their more disruptive tactics: Extinction Rebellion, as well as its U.K.-focused offshoot, Insulate Britain, has become notorious for its commitment to civil disobedience, which has at times involved blocking bridges, freeways, and public transport. A recent poll found that less than 20 percent of Britons have a positive view of Extinction Rebellion. Insulate Britain, which has been on the receiving end of negative press over its recent spate of road blockages, has also seen a decline in public support.

The way many within these movements see it, their goal isn’t to inconvenience people; it’s to help raise awareness about the seriousness of the challenge we are all facing, and to be just disruptive enough to compel those in power to act. “Most of the people in [Extinction Rebellion] and other climate activists don’t actually want to be doing this,” Christina See, an Extinction Rebellion spokesperson in New York City, told me of the recent road closures. “But we’re also looking at the future and saying, ‘Okay, what is our future going to be like unless we fight for action now?’”

In many ways, this argument makes sense. The inconvenience posed by these groups pales in comparison with the kind of disruption that awaits if the climate crisis is left unresolved. Some of the more extreme weather events fueled by climate change, including flash floods, wildfires, and heat waves, are already being experienced. Not only is climate science on climate activists’ side, but they also feel that history is too.

“The suffragettes were vilified,” Tracey Mallaghan, a spokesperson for Insulate Britain, told me, in reference to the more violent arm of Britain’s suffragist movement. “If you look back at history, it’s always been a small percentage of the population fighting until it changes. And then everybody agrees that it was always that way and should have been done.”

But unlike their historical counterparts, climate activists don’t have the luxury of time. For this reason, environmental campaigners such as Rupert Read have been calling for the formation of a “moderate flank”—one that he believes can attract a broader base of public support and, in turn, accelerate the movement’s aims. It’s not that Read is averse to Extinction Rebellion’s civil disobedience—in fact, we spoke the day after a hearing in his trial, in which he has been charged with criminal damage for his participation in an Extinction Rebellion protest last year. But he believes that in order for it and other like-minded movements to be successful, they need to galvanize those who wouldn’t necessarily want to engage in civil disobedience.

When I asked Read what this moderate flank would look like, he told me that some iterations of it already exist, in the form of workplace-oriented groups such as Lawyers for Net Zero and Parents for Future, a network inspired by Thunberg’s movement. These kinds of organizations can help bring the climate movement closer to the 3.5 percent prescribed by Chenoweth, but Read said he doesn’t think even that will be enough to achieve the kind of drastic societal change that environmental campaigners are agitating for. “You need to have a large body of people who are going to be actively in support, and an even larger body of people who are going to be willing to make the kinds of changes that you’re after,” Read said. “That’s one reason why … we have to be careful about overly polarizing strategies.”

While they may differ on tactics, if all climate campaigners can agree on one thing, it’s that “volume matters,” Clare Farrell, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, told me, noting that even if COP26 fails, it could at the very least motivate more people to get involved, however they choose to. “That’s the message that I hope people are going to get after the COP: Nobody’s coming to save us.”

Numbers aren’t the sole way of measuring impact. Dana Fisher, an environmental-activism expert at the University of Maryland and a contributor to a forthcoming report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told me that “in terms of reducing CO2 emissions, there’s extremely little literature that shows that movements have had any effect.” Though she believes this can change, Fisher said it will probably take more time, and more extreme weather events, before there is enough political will to make the kind of tangible impact required.

“It’s not just going to be Australia burning; it’s not just going to be the Pacific Northwest burning,” Fisher said. “We’re going to have to see even more drastic effects of climate change to get people to realize that COVID was nothing compared to what we’re facing.”