As a young environmentalist, I fought global warming with words, writing what’s often called the first general-interest volume on climate change. It became an international bestseller, published in 24 languages. But it flopped as a piece of social activism, doing virtually nothing to slow the heating of the -planet. So, two decades later, I’m promoting something new: the number 350.
That’s the upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (measured in parts per million). Anything above it, say some NASA scientists, is incompatible with “the planet on which civilization developed.” When I first heard this, in 2008, I figured the idea of heat-trapping particles would be too obscure for most people—until I remembered my cholesterol number. I don’t need to understand the lipid system to know that if my cholesterol count gets too high, I’ve got to lay off the chocolate cake. Today our atmosphere is at 392, which helps explain the hottest summer in history, the fires in Russia, and the floods in Pakistan. Clearly, it’s time to change our habits.
But so far we’re not even trying. This summer Congress gave up on comprehensive climate reform, and I doubt we’ll see another legislative effort for at least two years, given the way the elections are projected to unfold in November. Without the U.S., international agreements are also probably entering an ice age. Yet I’m hopeful. Green-minded voters should use this fallow period to build a movement, a credible threat to elected officials who fail to act on global warming. Admittedly, this is a break from past strategy, which has emphasized the economic benefits of clean energy. Those remain, but if we’re ever to counterbalance the energy lobby’s financial advantage, we need more bodies.
I’ve been trying this tack since 2008, when seven Middlebury College students and I organized 350.org, a group aimed at rallying the world around a data point. Last fall we organized what Foreign Policy called the “largest-ever coordinated rally of any kind,” a global-warming protest featuring 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries and on all seven continents. Now we’re trying to expand that effort.
On Oct. 10 (10/10/10), 350.org is organizing a Global Work Party, a day when people from pole to pole will be putting up solar panels, digging community gardens, and creating new bike paths. At the end of the day, they’ll swap shovels for cell phones, calling their presidents or their politburos with the same message: “I’m getting to work, and I expect you to do the same.” If anyone wonders how much work is enough, we’ve got a number for them.
McKibben is author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.