350 degrees of inseparability

A word about that number, 350. For a long time, McKibben relates, the premise, or pretense, was that the parts per million of atmospheric carbon we needed to worry about was 550, double the historic concentration. As it turns out, it was also a random figure, easy to calculate, not too alarming. We weren’t anywhere near there yet, which is why we could frame global warming as some terrible thing that was going to happen way down the road — the grandchildren theory of climate change.

Then the scientists got more data and so more precision about where peril lay: in December of 2007, NASA climatologist James Hansen announced at the American Geophysical Union that 350 was about the upper limit at which life on Earth as we know and like it was likely to continue.

We’re now at about 390. We don’t get to go up dozens of more degrees before the peril strikes. We need to go down now, dramatically. Imagine that change of numbers as like shifting from worrying about whether the butter on your toast was going to clog your arteries way down the road to worrying about whether you’d just swallowed a dose of really creepy industrial sludge and should start puking. The crisis was, in fact, in the past, and the future was upon us.

“The day Jim Hansen announced that number was the day I knew we’d never again inhabit the planet I’d been born on, or anything close to it,” McKibben writes in Eaarth. So he co-founded a grassroots organization, 350.org, with a posse of younger activists he’d met through a climate-change campaign in Vermont.  

That small team proved something important: that we could respond to what’s happening on our planet with a speed nearly commensurate with the growing danger. The group’s numerical name, with its crystal-clear target, worked in every imaginable language on Eaarth as words would not have. 

A year after Hansen’s announcement, McKibben sent me an email:

What we need is a rallying cry, an idea around which to coalesce. That’s why we’re running 350.org, and why we’ll do a huge global day of action on Oct. 24. We need a measuring stick against which to critique Copenhagen, and 350 ppm co2 is the best one we’re going to get. It implies dramatic and urgent and apple-cart-upsetting action, but it comes at it from a position of strength, not defensiveness. Our hope is that a huge worldwide outpouring on Oct. 24 will set a bar to make any action in Copenhagen powerful.

It worked.

It happened one day

At this point, let Climate Change, the movie, zoom out from following our protagonist to pan the amazing Oct. 24 visual spectacle of groups of all sizes around the world pushing the number 350 — spelling it out (and into our consciousness) with their bodies for overhead photographs, holding signs in tribal villages, schoolyards, and urban plazas, everywhere from Madagascar to Slovakia. In one poignant case, a lone girl in Babylon, Iraq, who — you might think — had enough to worry about already, held up her hand-drawn 350 sign for a photographer who somehow managed to send the picture in to the organization. (I did my own little bit for the day, getting a few writers — Diane DiPrima, Ariel Dorfman, Barry Lopez — to contribute 350-word pieces they’d written to spur on the participants.) 

There were more than 5,000 actions in 181 countries, which is to say, in most parts of the world. I’ve asked some groups and it’s clear that quite a lot of people now know what the number 350 means. So did a lot of politicians and policy-makers by the time Copenhagen came around. The action mattered. Things changed. 

That day of actions added a key tool to a previously faltering dialogue: suddenly, ordinary people, organizers, and elected officials had a concrete goal to reach for and a point of entry into the complex science of climate change. By the time the Copenhagen conference rolled around, 112 of the participating countries had endorsed that 350 ppm goal, the majority of nations at the conference — if, alas, the poorer and less influential ones.

Still, this took place a mere two years after Hansen first proposed the number as a measure of our global health, an astonishing adaptation to new ideas. The list of 350 endorsers begins at “A” with Afghanistan, which on this issue at least proved a much saner country than the U.S., and on through a long list of most of the poor nations, island-nations, and African nations, to Vietnam, Yemen, and Zambia.

The list offers a new way of sorting out the world in which the United States finds itself on the wrong side of history, but also of science, nature, and survival. Of course, this country is always a mix: the nation of Jim Crow was also the nation of the Montgomery bus boycott and Freedom Summer, and the nation of the greatest climate emissions per capita is also the nation of Hansen, McKibben, and a host of innovative activists offering practical solutions to the problems climate change poses.

V for viable

The early part of Eaarth offers the grim news about the way one species, ours, remade our world — so radically that it has become a turbulent, surprisingly inhospitable new planet. And here’s the bad news: no matter what we do, it will continue to get worse, at least for a while, though how much worse depends on whether we act.

Fortunately, the second half of McKibben’s book offers a kind of redemption and a lot to do, and so gives the book the shape of a “V,” if not for victory, then for viability: you tumble into the pit of bad news, then clamber up the narrative of possibility — of what our responses should look like, could look like, must look like. This is where this particular book diverges from the mountains of recent publications on the facts around climate change: if the first half is a science jeremiad, the second half is a very practical handbook.

My friend Patrick Reinsborough of the Smart Meme Project likes to talk about the “battle of the story, rather than the story of the battle,” of the need for activists to pay attention to narratives, because at least half of any battle turns out to be over just what the story is, and who gets to tell it. If we’re ever going to get much of anything done about climate change we’re going to have to change the story — not the scientific story about parts per million of carbon, and black soot, and methane in the atmosphere, which we need to find ways to broadcast over the white noise of corporate-funded climate denial, but the story of what we might want to do about it.

Right now, the story that everyone tends to tell, no matter what their political positions on climate change, is about renunciation: we’ll have to give up cars, big houses, air travel, all our toys and pleasures. It’s a story where we get poorer. No one but saints and ascetics likes giving things up. What’s exhilarating about Eaarth is that McKibben has a surprisingly different tale to tell. His version of the solution would make most of us richer — even if not in the ways we are presently accustomed to counting as wealth.