Bill McKibben spoke about 350.org recently at the Jamaica Plain Forum. Coming on the heels of recent talks by Ross Gelbspan, also at the JP Forum, and Jim Hansen, in Lexington, Mass., Bill’s talk completed a trifecta of area appearances by climate action patriots.

My friend Andrée, who attended all three events, said: “Hansen has the reserve of a scientist, and the certainty of someone who knows he is right. McKibben is just like his writing — philosophical, wry and funny, and Gelbspan …” she paused … “Gelbspan is a mensch.”

Like McKibben himself, 350.org may be tagged as too expansive, missing a sharp political point. I agree with Lorna Salzman’s concerns, but I do not think 350.org can or should try to be all things.

McKibben and the Step It Up crew have set out a tremendous undertaking, trying to do in very short order what U.S. environmental organizations and funders — with thousands of staff, millions of members, a billion+ in assets, and decades of lead time — never attempted. Those who believe it is high time we turn our institution to the purpose for which is was created have a great deal of heavy lifting to do, and those efforts will be strengthened by 350.org, for these reasons:

The 350 ppm bright line.

By advancing the 350 ppm bright line — in McKibben’s words, “the most important number in the world” — we simplify citizen demands on government. We also establish the benchmark by which corporations, candidates, and organizations that present themselves as climate advocates should be measured.

Only recently have U.S. environmental organizations begun to reference the just-superseded standard of 450 ppm, and no major organization has yet endorsed Jim Hansen’s call for 350 ppm.

The harsh difference between 350 and 450 ppm is that the latter left a decade or two of wiggle room in which it could be imagined that new technology would be invented, political gravity would shift, corporate leadership would emerge, or persuasive advocacy would prevail.

Major U.S. environmental organizations could support Lieberman-Warner because 450 ppm, in their view, left room to maneuver. Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp put it this way in a May, 2008 Grist interview:

We’d like to see the 2050 goal strengthened to 80 percent [cuts in CO2 emissions], but that’s not a live-or-die issue for us, because Congress is going to amend this goal 10 times between now and 2050. We’re more focused on the near-term reductions.

Yet, in the same interview, Krupp acknowledged:

We’re at 380 parts per million. We’re losing the polar ice caps. We’re losing the glaciers. We go to 450, we’re going to have lost every coral reef on earth. The idea that we should resign ourselves to that as a target is unacceptable. We’ve got to aim to stabilize greenhouse-gas emissions at today’s levels or lower than today’s levels, given the effects we’re seeing at today’s levels.

The two statements cannot be reconciled, for reasons not difficult to demonstrate, and Krupp doesn’t try.

If we take Jim Hansen’s most urgent recommendation — phase-out of coal by 2030 — as a baseline for measuring Lieberman-Warner, than the U.S. must achieve a reduction in coal emissions alone of 2840 mmt/annual in 22 years (via the U.S. EIA). To hit that target, coal emissions in 2020 must be on a steep downward trajectory, significantly cut from the 2459 mmt/annual now projected. The Lieberman-Warner 2020 target of 910 mmt/annual is clearly inadequate and, of course, does not target coal emissions, let alone seek a phase-out — nor does it include the massive ramp-up of renewables Hansen proposes.

We can’t possibly get there from here via Lieberman-Warner, and there is certainly no time to "amend the goal 10 times,” as Krupp suggests, because 2050 is too late.

U.S. emissions are but one part of the global problem, albeit a large part, and it may be that EDF is being a bit sly with domestic numbers to keep the ball in play for their primary interest, which is to pass any domestic measure, so that the U.S. — shortly to be led by a pro-climate action president, whoever wins in November — may re-enter the global stage.

“China and other developing countries also must cap their emissions,” writes Tony Kreindler, EDF Climate Campaign Communication Director, in a four part argument posted in Gristmill, “and they won’t do this until our own cap is in place.”

True enough, but if the U.S. adopts a demonstrably inadequate domestic law, how exactly does that help?

I’m inclined to the view that adopting any climate bill that can pass in present circumstances is the last thing we want to do. With hindsight, we will see U.S. refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and subsequent failure to adopt a weak domestic climate law as an unlooked-for godsend, a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for the world. When the U.S. does finally gear up, the deck will be clear to leapfrog the wishful thinking of Kyoto and Lieberman-Warner and move decisively on the fundamental structural solutions now required.

The only real argument for Lieberman-Warner is a distaste for the consequences of endorsing 350ppm. Adopting Hansen’s agenda, or any practical alternative, will force U.S. environmentalists to step outside the present political framework. The majority Senate vote for Lieberman-Warner demonstrates a new level of enthusiasm for emissions limits (so long as they are well remunerated and well in the future), but few, if any, of our champions would entertain a serious conversation on the phase-out of coal by 2030.

But the alternative — ignoring the timeline, scale, and global response necessary to return below the tipping point in exchange for keeping a seat at the table — imposes an even greater cost. If environmentalists do not support the precautionary position of climate science, what hope is there?

The fractured logic displayed by EDF cannot be sustained, and I’m sure that Krupp and others are fully aware of this. EDF was, after all, the first major environmental organization to take climate risks seriously. EDF proposed a 450ppm standard three years before Hansen, and EDF was the first organization to reorient its program around climate. Now that it is time for a new level of truth-telling, shouldn’t EDF again lead the way? That task will be made easier as the context is reshaped by 350.org.

Global action.

Bill talked about the ease with which 350 — the number — crosses language barriers. The simplicity of 350 extends beyond communications; it gives the world a rallying point that sidesteps factional bickering, ideological clashes, hidden agendas, and product-of-committee comprises that would surely plague any attempt to craft a global climate action agenda.

A non-ideological, non-aligned, global avenue of expression can raise the problem, define what humanity must accomplish, spark hope, and be the ecumenical voice for humanity.

Because 350.org is founded by Americans, it also fills the gaping hole of organizing global action to press our nation, government, and people to accept responsibility as the world’s sole superpower, without whose leadership no global climate solution will be devised.

Values of environmentalism.

Economists keep track of how happy Americans say they are, Bill told us, and the number expressing that they are “very happy” reached a peak in 1956. In the last half of the 20th century, Americans outstripped every other nation in wealth, mobility, average house size, television sets per household, and so on, but these achievements did not make us happy. Bill reminds us that the promise of environmentalism is more than a marketing dream of solar panels on every house and the political muscle to move a climate bill.

Environmental principles are the basis by which humanity will avoid catastrophe.

Environmental values are a way of living, cherishing things we believe are innate to being human or which we must learn to survive — a connection to wild things and wild places; bonds to neighbors and community; a sense of place; an appreciation for the simple, sturdy, and elegant; a preference for the natural and unadulterated; a guarded attitude toward the value of the material things; care in introducing new substances and technologies; and awareness of the earth as a whole, of the kinship of all humanity, our moral obligation to other species, and the fragility of our home.

The “optimism” in our current agenda is not an expression of the truly revolutionary promise of environmentalism, which is nothing short of realization of the American dream — a better life, liberty, and happiness. Where we ought to be loudly, proudly, and emphatically demanding an end to the old ways of doing things, which have brought us to the brink of disaster (as we have long predicted), we are hiding our light under the basket of old political ideologies.

Environmentalism can prevent what will otherwise be the greatest racial, economic, and class injustice ever perpetrated and, in the long run, harness technology, industry, and ingenuity to live within ecological limits, providing a comfortable life, free from want and numbing labor, for all. This once radical thought is now merely common sense, embraced by writers from Newt Gingrich to Gus Speth. Not so our organizations, which prefer to present climate action in classic left/progressive terms, such as “building green jobs.”

Where we have not caved under pressure to the left, we have been seduced by the quick-fix promise of techno-solutions and the blandishments of the corporate right. By imperceptible drift, we lost our grip on environmental values and principles that were rock solid guides.

Pop quiz. Which is better:

  1. nuclear power plants and injecting captured carbon emissions into salt cavern, or;
  2. mass transit, hyper energy efficiencies, wind, geothermal, and solar power?

If you picked 1, as many environmental organizations have done or are contemplating, under the logic that 2, while admittedly preferable, is unrealistic, you may have reached a reasoned decision, but you are no longer, sad to say, an environmentalist.

In sum, 350.org has the potential to break open the logjam of organizational myopia, cognitive dissonance and institutional inertia that keeps us plugging along on a U.S. climate agenda we know cannot work. By providing a platform for Bill’s eloquent enunciation of environmentalism, the effort also helps reassert values and traditions from which we have strayed or have misplaced.