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.”

cleantechasiaonline.com

  • 0

    lunchmeat

    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.

    Looks the Greece and California fires put a crimp in those "best laid" plans.

  • 0

    jinjapan

    the problem is that people basically don't care. they say they do, but then do nothing about it. the only time it seems that the majority of people care is when it is directly affecting them. oh, my house is under water. i should cut back on my co2 emissions now.

  • 0

    bokudayo

    President Barack Obama pledged to forge a deal that would hold the increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius

    Wow... Obama can legislate the temperature of the earth! He's like...God!

  • 0

    lunchmeat

    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 all about controlling the masses, you see.

  • 0

    Beelzebub

    I demand that my government take immediate measures to get the earth out of this mess! Just don't ask me to eat less meat, drive a smaller car (or even better, walk), or compromise my cozy lifestyle in any way that matters.

  • 0

    tkoind2

    Human beings often don't do what is right for them until pushed to the edge. So let's push.

    1. Transportation: Build more public transportation and give incentives for people to park their cars and take the train.
    2. Tax Cars: If your only way to get around is by car, no new taxes. If you live where there is full public transporation and do not have a medical or other viable reason for driving (ie. workmen with equipment, people with very young kids etc...)then here is a massive driving tax on road, fuel and parking. We will make elective driving too expensive for you.
    3. Consumerism: Time to return to local economies which are more energy efficient. So higher taxes on non-essential imports excluding food (items unavailable locally only) and medical supplies. All other products that can be made or produced locally should be.
    4. Green Energy: Utilize whereever possible and offer grants to allow people to install solar systems for homes and other green heating/cooling solutions.

    We must act now and do so with much strong efforts.

  • 0

    aelieth

    The majority of people do not care, those that do are a minority. Most of us are stuck in the problem of simply trying to get by day to day dealing with our personal lives, our job / economic situation, or trying to do as little as possible to get by (lazy peoples!).

    One day the Earth will protest. I try to use as little as possible to do my daily routines. My family only has one car, it gets 35mpg. I walk to work and don't mind it. We have one TV and open the blinds to let the sunlight in over using the lights.

    Overall, we're in trouble. I often discuss with my friends about which will happen first, the next world war or natural disasters on a global scale?

  • 0

    lunchmeat

    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.“

    McKibben is active in the Methodist Church, and his writing sometimes has a spiritual bent. Al Gore wrote in 2007 that "when I was serving in the Senate, Bill McKibben’s descriptions of the planetary impacts... made such an impression on me that it led, among other things, to my receiving the honorific title ‘Ozone Man’ from the first president Bush.”

    I get it.

  • 0

    Mark_McCracken

    Wow... Obama can legislate the temperature of the earth! He's like...God!

    Yes, Obama will stop the volcanos from erupting. Obama will stop wildfires from burning. Obama will command the sun to produce a constant amount of energy. It's going to be great.

  • 0

    hollywood1

    When the Chinese and Indians take an interest in global warming, then the rest of the world will. The protest should be aimed at these two major polluters by demanding their serious reduction. Am I the only person who remembers the story about Alaskan Inuit mothers being told to not nurse because of the contaminants in their milk. The contaminants didn't come from Fayetteville, Texas. It amazes me that they can divert the possibility of reduction by claiming a need for economic growth. Consider the source, then consider the solution.

  • 0

    soothsayer

    Mass elimination of carefully chosen populations of humans (i.e. those not in the G20) should cut carbon emissions substantially. Then the powers that be can get those who are left to start planting trees and other high oxygen-yield vegetation to get rid of excess carbon.

    Zere is nuzzink wrong wiz zat plan. You vill comply.

  • 0

    SushiSake3

    hollywood1 - "When the Chinese and Indians take an interest in global warming, then the rest of the world will."

    Um..what about America, the nation that has been the world's biggest polluter for more than half a century?

    hollywood1 - "Consider the source, then consider the solution."

    You might benefit from doing this yourself. :-)

  • 0

    sf2k

    the main issue is really population. Control world population as a national security issue would then solve the pollution and food and oil problems. Reduced loads reduces CO2 etc.

    But even a simple topic like population when compared to the USA, falls flat. USA has a birthrate in excess to a 3rd world country and does nothing to stem the 4 million more births per year. No politician can even try due to the right-wingers. I wish the world well, but it's all quite meaningless until we really do things instead of holding meetings.

    If the least you can do, you can't even do, nature will decide for us and as one scientist put it: "Nature bats last"

  • 0

    sf2k

    If USA and China met before the meeting as a gesture to the world that they are serious, then the Copenhagen meetup might work. Without prior serious effort, people will just go on suffering for the Boomers' way of life. If Boomers gave a damn this would change. They don't, so it won't.

  • 0

    bamboohat

    Fools. the world will get warmer regardless of any politically motivated carbon emission taxes they dream up.

  • 0

    Shouganai20

    Its shameless how governments around the world and media are promoting the global warming issue. This is a science issue, yet arguments are being shifted and used by politicians and collectivists to achieve their political ends. There is no crisis, unless of course you are referring to the disturbing misuse of science for political ends. This is of course not the first time. In the 1970s it was asteroids striking earth, in the 1980s it was a 'Mini-Ice Age'. What this highlights is not simply the fact that media and government have some vested interest in some scare to create a new tax, to sell more newspapers, to placate the reader, but an underlying lack of critical thinking skills by all concerned. The greatest threat is that people will lose confidence in reason as a standard of value because it was wrong again on scientific assertions. Of course the problem is 'science is not a popularity contest'. The truth is destined to lie with the few scientists who challenge convention. That is historically how the world progresses. The Einstein's of the world, not typically science committees are what moves the world. Refer to http://paleoclimatechange.blogspot.com.

  • 0

    lostrune2

    The Earth will get warmer; it's just a matter of how much and how fast. Too much too fast could be calamitous.

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