350: The magic number
Next month, the most widespread climate change demonstrations in history will take place across the planet. On Oct 24, in almost every nation, people will rally around the most important number on earth: 350. They’ll be aiming their protest at the delegates soon to head for Copenhagen, and the message will be clear: we don’t need an agreement. We need a solution.
Consider a few numbers. Earlier this summer at the G-8 summit, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to forge a deal that would hold the increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius and the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to 450 parts per million. That roughly matches the position the Europeans have staked out, and meets the goals of at least some of the most moderate environmental groups.
Two years ago, that would have been an unthinkably progressive stance. Two years ago, the American president wanted to do essentially nothing about global warming. And because two years ago it seemed like those numbers might be good enough to tackle the problem.
But two years ago, almost to the week, scientists noticed that the Arctic was losing ice at an almost unbelievable pace, outstripping the climate models by decades. September 2007 saw 25% less ice than the year before — 25% less ice than had ever been measured in the Arctic. Clearly we’d passed a threshold, and global warming had gone from future threat to present crisis. It wasn’t just Arctic ice; at about the same time methane levels in the atmosphere began to spike, apparently as a result of thawing permafrost. Surveys of high altitude glaciers showed they were uniformly melting, and much faster than expected. Oceanographers reported — incredulously — that we’d managed to make the oceans 30% more acid.
Those observations changed everything — and they produced that most important of numbers I referred to earlier. A NASA team headed by James Hansen reported that the maximum amount of carbon the atmosphere can safely hold is 350 parts per million, at least if we want a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” Since we’re already at 390 ppm, the message was clear: we don’t need to buy an insurance policy to reduce the threat of future warming. We need a fire extinguisher, and we need it now.
Scientists have heard that message — in March they gathered by the thousands at an emergency conference to declare that the five-year-old findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were dangerously out of date.
But politicians haven’t caught up. As we head toward the crucial Copenhagen talks slated for December, Obama is still using the dated science and its now stale conclusions. It’s easy to understand why: reaching a deal that would meet even that 2 degree target is incredibly hard, given the recalcitrance of everyone from China’s Central Committee to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Indian environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has said his country won’t be making any cuts before 2020; only a few outliers, like the Maldivian president Mohammed Nasheed, are calling for action to get us back to 350. And so it’s hard to push for reality. About tougher targets, Obama said recently that they risked making “the best the enemy of the good.”
That’s a smart answer, for almost every other issue on earth. But global warming is different, the first truly timed test we’ve ever faced. If we don’t address it very dramatically and very soon, then we won’t ever fix it — each season that more ice melts and more carbon accumulates increases the chance that we’ll never get it under control, because those feedback loops are taking the outcome out of our hands. So far we’ve raised the temperature less than one degree Celsius, and that’s melted the Arctic. You really want to go for two?
It’s not fair to make Obama shoulder this burden alone. To meet the scientific challenge would require re-gearing the world’s whole economy far faster than any leader currently plans. The only analogy is the mobilization that won World War II — and right now that’s not politically possible. But if we want to extend the limits of political possibility, we need to build a real movement. A crew of us at 350.org have been working with environmental groups, churches, and others to do just that for the last two years, and our efforts will culminate with a huge day of global action on Oct 24 with events in most of the world’s nations.
We’re trying hard to help the scientists reboot this debate, changing the political climate enough so that leaders everywhere will be able to move more boldly. It’s going to be a striking day, with demonstrations at the top of the world’s highest mountains and underneath its seas, in every major city and in some of the planet’s remotest corners.
It’s a long shot, but not so long as hoping that we can muddle through. The planet is done negotiating, and we know its bottom line: 350 parts per million. It’s hard to get 180 nations to agree on a useful pact. It’s hard to get 60 senators to sign on to a powerful bill. But it’s even harder to amend the laws of nature.
Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, and a coordinator of 350.org. He is the New York Times bestselling author of several books, including “The End of Nature,” “The Age of Missing Information” and “Deep Economy.”