Climate Policy’s Search for the 100th Monkey


Original appeared at Civil Notion

Climate Policy’s Search for the 100th Monkey

Joel Stronberg, Esq.
By Joel Stronberg, Esq. and 04/04/24

Just the other day, I bumped into the 100th monkey theory. Never heard of it? Neither had I. But I believe it’s a tale with a message that the clean energy and climate communities should think about seriously.

Lyall Watson is credited with popularizing the “putative [monkey] phenomenon.” Watson, a South African botanist, zoologist, biologist, anthropologist, and ethologist, tells the story that’s the basis for the theory in his book “Lifetide.”

History is that thing that, in hindsight, one always saw coming.Stacy Schiff

As Watson explains, the 100th monkey theory is based on the observation of scientists studying macaque monkeys on the Japanese island of Kōjima. As part of their study, they “provided a group of monkeys with sweet potatoes covered in sand. The monkeys liked the taste of the potatoes but found the dirt unpleasant.”

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

A young female figured out that washing the potatoes in a close-by creek solved the grit problem. Long story short, other troop members learned from her and began washing their potatoes. Then, according to reports, “a startling phenomenon was observed.” All the Kōjima monkeys suddenly appeared to take up the practice.

What was at first a gradual adoption became an adoptive explosion.

It was concluded that at a certain point, the new behavior of potato washing tipped from individual adoption to the entire troop. The 100 number is a convenience. The scientists couldn’t tell exactly how many individual monkey actors needed to adopt the practice before it became widespread. The exact number isn’t really important. However, the concept is.

The really startling thing the scientists observed went beyond Kōjima’s shores. “Colonies of monkeys on other [nearby] islands and the mainland troop of monkeys at Takasakiyama [all] began washing their sweet potatoes!” The scientists hypothesized that the macaques could transfer the behavior through telepathic communication.

I know what you’re thinking—those things didn’t happen. Let’s say—they did and they didn’t. The macaques on Kōjima did adopt the new behavior over several generations. Troops on other islands were observed to take up spud washing around the same time.

However, the bit about paranormal transmissions is a syllogism too far—especially since there are more plausible and probable reasons for what happened, e.g., imitation on Kōjima and a macaque or two from there swimming over to the nearby island and teaching a new population.

Notwithstanding the rush to the wrong conclusion by the ever-watchful animal behaviorists, there’s a critical concept in the observed 100th monkey phenomenon that shouldn’t be lost on climate and clean energy communities—even if it isn’t doesn’t involve telepathy. It’s all about tipping points.

Conceptually, tipping points are a familiar phenomenon. They occur everywhere, in and out of nature. On Kōjima, it was going from a few monkeys washing potatoes to the entire troop appearing suddenly to adopt the practice. In business, it’s when a company goes from losing money to making it. In marketing, it’s when a “cool thing” becomes the “in-thing.”

By this time, you must be wondering what the 100th monkey has to do with clean energy and environmental policies. It’s about protecting climate policy from being constantly buffeted about by political winds—of which there are many.

The 2024 elections will profoundly impact US climate and clean energy policy. In Biden and Trump, we have presidents at the very ends of the political spectrum when it comes to climate policy.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, it will matter to the environment. I can say from nearly fifty years of experience that no election has ever mattered more to federal clean energy and climate-related policies than the one in November.

Trump promises that he will use his Day One dictatorship to “drill, drill, drill.” His staff has already drawn up plans to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Accord. Under the aegis of the Heritage Foundation, dozens of conservative organizations have “banded together to provide Trump a road map[i]” for canceling out Biden’s climate actions and gutting woke climate-related programs and policies throughout the federal government.

In a second term and a Democratic Congress, Biden can be even more aggressive in setting US climate-related policy. As a second-term president, he would be free to push a more progressive agenda—building on existing programs like the Infrastructure Investment and Inflation Reduction Acts (IRA). Biden’s re-election will limit any damage that could be caused by a Republican Congress—particularly a MAGA-aligned Congress.

A Trump victory would prove disastrous for US climate policy. He’s made no secret of his disdain for solar and wind energy. He seems to have a particularly passionate problem with electric vehicles, although it’s unclear what they ever did to him to deserve such deep disdain.

Should the Party of Trump take the Congress and the White House, the damage done to climate-related programs and policies would be catastrophic—not potentially catastrophic–catastrophic. It’s an evidence-based conclusion.

In what House Republicans call their “energy week” package of ten proposed bills and resolutions, they propose things like repealing the IRA’s $27 billion GHG Reduction Fund. The fund focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in low-income communities. One of the resolutions denounces “the harmful, anti-American energy policies of the Biden administration” and its “irrational and unpredictable” Federal lands policy. The resolution further condemns the administration’s clean energy and climate agenda and blames it for rising prices at the pumps and for power generation.

The swing of federal climate policy from one side of center to the other has gone on for decades. Over that time, the pendulum has swung a bit further in each direction with every change of administration to the point where energy and the environment are now among the most partisan issues dividing the nation.

Despite climate being way down the list of this year’s voter priorities, Trump will ensure that climate change is discussed throughout the campaign. Given his over-the-top excesses, it might be a good thing. It’s likely, too, that down-ballot Republican candidates for Congress and state offices will mimic their leader—particularly in those states where the candidates are MAGA-aligned and Trump-endorsed, e.g., Arizona and Pennsylvania.

Expect Trump to trivialize and spout alternative facts about both climate science and clean energy technologies. Recognize that he and other GOP candidates are unlikely to be convinced by any facts that would refute any untruths and alternative facts.

Looking for the 100th monkey in all the wrong places

It’s imperative that the climate and clean energy communities do not let Trump and company dictate the narrative. If allowed to, they’ll start making up things about the Green New Deal and Americans having to sacrifice hamburgers on the altar of wokism, getting cancer from wind turbines,[ii] or not being able to watch TV because the wind isn’t blowing. It isn’t as if solar and wind won’t be leading the growth of US power generation for the next two years—continuing a multi-year trend.

Notwithstanding all the polls and surveys of voter concern for the environment and the consequences of climate change, it’s lop-sided support. Over the last decade, Republicans and Democrats have grown further apart on the threat of climate change.

According to the Pew Research Center, “nearly eight-in-ten Democrats (78 percent) describe climate change as a major threat to the country’s well-being, up from about six-in-ten (58 percent) a decade ago.” By the same token, only “about one-in-four Republicans (23 percent) consider climate change a major threat, a share that’s almost identical to 10 years ago.” Independents fall in between the extremes—but over 50 percent.

It’s troubling that there’s been no growth in the percentage of Republicans who believe climate change should be a federal priority. It suggests that there is something amiss in efforts to communicate convincingly with GOP voters about Earth’s warming and its horrific consequences.

If all the science-based evidence out there isn’t convincing doubters and deniers, then what will? Before answering, consider that within Republican circles, it’s required to believe Trump’s lie about the 2020 elections (among other things) or face the rack and possibly ruin. Between the “big lie” and all the misinformation and digital noise, it’s easy to understand that messages can get lost or ignored.

In today’s world, it’s the messenger that matters. Advertisers have known this—like forever. Consider the power of the person. Trump became apoplectic, thinking that Taylor Swift was going to endorse Biden in 2024, just as she did in 2020. Trump was reported to be “practically begging” her not to endorse. He was responding to social media chatter; Swift hadn’t said anything to suggest she was even thinking about it.

Climate and clean advocates need to find and engage the influencers who can tip the balance within the ranks of Republican and independent voters. The most effective way to influence Republican policymakers is through their constituents.

Absent enough independent and Republican support, US climate policy will continue to be caught in the middle between hyper-partisans. What’s enough? It’s not an easy question to answer.

Conceptually, it’s the 100th monkey—the point where individual adoption explodes and becomes a new tribal behavior. Where’s the 100th monkey when you need one, you ask? Here’s a hint. They’re not likely to be found within Democratic ranks—nor even amongst independents.

But they’re out there.


[i] Project 2025, Presidential Transition Project

[ii] I understand Tucker Carlson was told by Russian scientists that an aluminum foil hat prevents windmill-related cancers. He sells them on his website.

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