Monday, 23 June 2008

350 ppm: "the most important number in the world" - Bill McKibben

Click on 350 to see animation

Earth climate map: US DOE

Last December, while industrial nations dithered and ducked the issue at Bali, chief NASA scientist James Hansen declared that the planet's air already contained 385 ppm of CO2, increasing by 2 ppm yearly, and that anything above a 350 ppm "tipping point" invites catastrophe.(1)

Tufts University researchers have just put a price tag on delay; by 2100 global warming will cost the US economy $3.8 trillion a year! This bombshell news is the equivalent of the Stern Report in the UK.(2)

Significantly, the corporate elite of Davos (the World Economic Forum) and the WBCSD (World Business Council on Sustainable Development) are now in Japan at the G8 meeting, demanding action on climate change.(3)

By the standards of the market itself, "business as usual" is a dangerous and losing proposition. President Bush, Prime Minister Harper, the Wall Street Journal, the oil and coal lobbies, and a host of well-paid deniers have painted themselves into a corner.

The last six months have seen an unprecedented coming-together of environmental groups in the USA and around the world. For example: in McKibben's Step It Up has partnered with the new 1sky coalition, Al Gore's ACP and We campaigns, Peter Barnes, the Rainforest Action Network, Vandana Shiva and the India Youth Climate Network, Quaker Earthcare Witness, Van Jones and his "green jobs" following among black Americans, to name only a few. Their allies include Greenpeace, Sierra, Friends of the Earth,, Paul Hawken's Wiser Earth (itself a network of over 100,000 organizations), the Suzuki Foundation, Pembina Institute, Natural Resources Defense Council, FCNL, NAE's CreationCare, COEJL, the Union of Concerned Scientists, SOS-Live Earth, Earth Charter and many others.(4)

McKibben says we no longer have 10 years to decide. The window is closing -- the post-Kyoto framework, to be decided by heads of state at CSD-17 in December 2009 in Copenhagen, is "our last chance at a low-carbon future".'s petition to the US Congress, calling for an 80% reduction of CO2 by 2050, may have helped defeat the "greenwash" Lieberman-Warner bill by focusing mass political protest on its billions of dollars in porkbarrel subsidies to fossil fuel and nuclear interests. Now the protest is becoming an organized political movement.

Also new is environmentalists' use of social networking aka Web 2.0 or ASN: MySpace, Facebook, Changents, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Google Groups and Yahoo Groups are bringing local and global youth, artists, musicians, green businessmen, preachers and housewives (as well as innumerable private donations) into the campaign. See by way of example Agent350. It is likely that GlobalVoicesOnline, as well as this summer's international youth conference of TakingITGlobal and and the upcoming World Social Forums will bring even more energy and contributions. We have just seen this phenomenon playing out in the Barack Obama campaign.

At the beginning of 2007, McKibben led a march across New England that turned into a living witness for earthcare (see our previous blog about interfaith action). Step It Up expected hundreds of scattered demonstrations for action on climate change during the year. It got thousands. Simultaneously, young leaders across North America were clamoring to become community organizers for Al Gore's climate action project.

The Bush administration and its fossil fuel allies overplayed their hand for six years -- gutting the EPA, refusing cap-and-trade, deregulating futures markets (cf. the Enron and commercial paper collapses, and recent oil price speculation), allowing corporate lobbyists to write new laws and regulations, building massive perverse subsidies into the Clean Air Act, and starting a $3 trillion war for oil in Iraq.

Their very success has caused a backlash. Faced with flat refusal by the Bush administration, cities and groups of states began their own initiatives to reduce emissions and set up carbon trading exchanges.(5) In a recent Pew survey 74% of the American public call global warming a serious issue, but only 35% say it should be a top priority for the next president. A UK survey shows a majority of voters influenced by skeptics. The battle for public opinion is not over. It must be noted that just when the environmental movement surged, so did the well-funded network of climate change deniers and their fellow travellers.

[Omitted from this article are other less-politicized groups such as
  • the NASCA alliance of city, regional, state and national (US-Canada) initiatives to reduce their carbon footprint, with help from William Rees' One Earth Initiative, GUSSE and CIRS; with their counterparts on other continents in
  • the UN Marrakech Process aka SCP and 10YFP; see also Wikipedia on Marrakech and SCP
  • scientific networks involved in data-exchange, eco-system modelling and governance.
We will try to cover these in future reports. -- Ed.]
(1) Hansen et al., "Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?", submitted 7 Apr 08 to Open Atmospheric Science Journal, available pre-publication on arXiv:0804.1126v2. "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm." Also Hansen and others in Chesapeake Climate Action Network . Recent evidence suggests major recalculation may be necessary: Arctic and Antarctic ice melt, methane release from thawing permafrost, pine beetle damage, ocean acidification and sea level rise, species loss, drought, wildfires, hurricanes, seasonal and eco-zone disruption, body burdens of toxics, spread of diseases like SARS and asthma, suggest the tipping point may be even lower. See the scientific debate in RealClimate. and
This does not prevent climate change deniers, quibblers, lobbyists and fellow travelers from urging, in the name of "economic stability" a much higher threshold than 350 ppm: e.g. Joseph Romm , Cato Institute blog. Alex Steffen offers a "green capitalist" perspective on these folk in

(2) See the Canadian equivalent of the Stern report; the Harper government refused to act on it.

(3) See lists of affiliated organizations here and here. WWF Canada's The Good Life, and WWF-IUCN Connect2Earth are also using social networks.

(4) But the WBCSD and UNDP call for a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, compared to the goal of 80% -- a major difference. For a detailed study of what a post-Kyoto framework must do, see Oliver Tickell's Kyoto2: How to Manage the Global Greenhouse (to be published July 2008, summarized on his website).

(5) See NYT 6 May 2007, Brookings Institution report Oct 2007. A meaningful framework must include real caps on emissions with successive stepdowns or "wedges", and a worldwide carbon trading system to bid up the price of pollution. As the EU's experience shows, such a "cap and trade" system will require close watching at every stage to keep it honest. Even if CO2 is stabilized, its level will persist for at least a century: New Scientist 12 Oct 2006

Further reading
  • Bill McKibben's original call to action, "Remember This: 350 ppm," Washington Post 27 Dec 07
  • James Kunstler "Driving towards Disaster," Washington Post 25 May o8 reprinted in this blog
  • Mark Lynas, "Climate chaos is inevitable" The Guardian 12 June 2008, his blog and books High Tide: News from a Warming World and Fragile Earth: Views of a Changing World.
  • George Monbiot, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, summarized previously in this blog.
  • James Hansen's recent presentations on the 350 ppm threshold.

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