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350 :: The Most Important Number in the World

From Mt. Everest to the Maldives, people worldwide are turning an arcane number into a movement for a stable climate. Bill McKibben asks: Will you join them?
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Let’s say you occasionally despair for the future of the planet. In that case, the place you need to be this week is the website for 350.org.

McKibben snow

Bill McKibben has been sounding the alarm on climate change since his 1989 book, The End of Nature

First, Step Up :: McKibben explains why this crisis is bigger than any other we've faced.

Photo by Channing Johnson for YES! Magazine

Every few minutes, something new arrives at our headquarters, where young people hunched over laptops do their best to keep up with the pace. News that activists in Afghanistan—Afghanistan—have organized a rally for our big day of action on October 24. They’ll assemble on a hillside 20 kilometers from Kabul to write a huge message in the sand: “Let Us Live: 350.”

Or news that there’s all of a sudden a 350 website in Farsi to help organize the rallies taking shape across Iran. Or maybe a short story exactly 350 words long from the great writer Barry Lopez. Or the news flash that the World Council of Churches has endorsed the 350 target, and is urging its 650 million members to ring their bells 350 times on October 24. Or…

But wait—what’s 350? It’s the most important number in the world, though no one knew it even 20 months ago. When Arctic ice melted so dramatically in the summer of 2007, scientists realized that global warming was no longer a future threat but a very present crisis. Within months our leading climatologists—especially the NASA team led by James Hansen—were giving us a stark new reality check. Above 350 parts per million carbon dioxide, they wrote, the atmosphere would begin to heat too much for us to have a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.”

350 capitol

During PowerShift 2009, activists rally behind limiting carbon in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million.

Photo by Focus the Nation.

That was terrible news. We’re already at 390 parts per million, and rising two parts per million per year. That’s why the Arctic is melting, why deserts are spreading, why the Himalayas are melting. And it’s why we need much faster action than most big governments are currently planning. They’re focused on old, out-of-date targets: 450 ppm, say, which would allow a slower and easier transition to a post fossil-fuel society. But the research is clear that it’s suicidal. Earlier this month, for instance, the journal Science reported on a landmark new study, which showed that when carbon levels got that high in the past, sea levels rose 75 to 120 feet.

So here’s the good news. The planet’s immune system is finally kicking in. When we started organizing 350.org 18 months ago, the task seemed a little ludicrous—we were a small band, mostly recent college graduates, with little money. How were we going to get the world behind an arcane piece of scientific data?

350 beach

A gathering at Te Henga (Bethells Beach) in North Island, New Zealand, on October 4, 2009,  to encourage involvement in the International Day of Action on Climate Change on October 24.

Photo by Mark Smith.

But it turns out that everywhere around the world there are people deeply worried about the planet’s fate, and given even a small platform to stand, on they’re willing to shout their loudest. At this writing, activists have scheduled events in about 170 nations, which is pretty much all the nations there are. (Nothing in North Korea yet). There will be thousands and thousands of rallies: bike rides that cover 350 kilometers, climbers high on the melting slopes of Mount Everest, even the cabinet of the government of the Maldives holding an official underwater meeting to send a 350 resolution to the upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen.

Some of these actions are so beautiful they make you weep: around the dwindling Dead Sea, Israeli activists will form a giant human 3 on their shore, and Palestinians a 5 on their beach, and in Jordan a huge 0. The message: even in places with deep divisions, people understand that the crisis that faces us now calls for real unity.

You’re a part of this planet. Feel good about the rippling message now going out around the earth: if we shout it loud enough, even our leaders will hear. Already 92 nations have endorsed a 350 target (albeit the poorest countries on Earth). But we need you involved, too. Right now: figure out an action to join on October 24, or start one of your own. And use your email address book to send out an alert—in a wired age, you can be a useful Paul Revere. Or, to go back to my earlier metaphor, if the earth has an immune system, then you’re an antibody. Get to work!


Bill McKibben author

Bill McKibben wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a nonprofit national media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Bill is the founder of 350.org and a scholar in residence at Middlebury College. His most recent books are Deep Economy, Fight Global Warming Now, and The Bill McKibben Reader.

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