350: It’s A Nice Easy Number

WAMC Northeast Public Radio Audio for 350 It’s a Nice Number Sept 2009

For someone who has spent his entire adult life studying developments in East Asia, and of late closely monitoring Asia’s role in trying to get humanity’s carbon emissions under control before they wreak havoc on the entire climatic system we depend on for food, water and shelter.

You would think I’d be happy that Japan’s elections last week saw the Japan’s Conservative LDP fall from power, replaced by the opposition Democratic Party which has called for a much more ambitious Japanese effort to confront climate change by, let’s see if I can say this correctly, promising to reduce CO2 emissions by 25% below 1990 levels by the year 2020.

But frankly I am not. You see, and I hesitate to admit it but I have a problem with numbers. And to be frank, and all this talk about cutting such and such country’s emissions by such and such a percentage linked of course to base line years selected from some year in the past, say 1990 and dates in the future say 2020, or 2050 just leaves me glass eyed.

Now, it’s not that I don’t understand the climate change realities behind those numbers. It’s not that I don’t understand the potential impact of increasingly powerful storms of the sort that have hit the American Southeast & Asia of late. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the significance of the growing reality of drought that is currently hitting California’s Central Valley, north central China and north & eastern Africa. Not that I am not deeply worried about bigger and scarier forest fires of the sort that have devastated Los Angeles, Greece and Australia in recent months or the rise of everything from water to tropical diseases.

It’s just this little problem I have with those strings of abstract numbers. Which is why I was so pleased when climate change leaders Bill McKibben and James Hansen simplified the entire struggle against radical climate change by inspiring the movement known simply as “350”. A very clear and concise rethinking of the entire climate change challenge by simply focusing on 350 the number of parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere; a very simple number even I –one of those arithmetically challenged folks can hold in my head.

Or let me be more precise, the need to get the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere back down to 350 parts per million. To make sure that that famous green house belt of gases that CO2 is so important to that atmospheric belt that has long kept us reasonably protected from the harsh cold of space does not continue to retain more and more solar heat within the earth’s atmosphere pushing us beyond the climatic global temperature balance within which we have largely built our entire global civilization

Sure some might argue we’ve got to go even lower. After all before the industrial revolution’s wholehearted commitment to the burning of fossil fuels for energy those CO2 numbers floated around 280 parts per million for hundreds of thousands of years. But that was then and this is now. And we have already pushed past 350 long ago. In fact the last time I looked it was getting closer to 390 parts per million with the likelihood of much higher numbers and the accompanying rise of global temperatures that is already melting mountain glaciers across the planet.

Which is why having a very clear and concrete number to focus on, the goal of at least getting back down to 350 is such a useful tool in this complicated challenge so different from anything humanity has ever faced in the past. And why over the next few weeks we are going to see that 350 cropping up all over the world in over a hundred countries and counting.

And why within cities across America, educational and religious leaders are signing up at 350.0rg on the web. To make sure their communities take part in this very clear call to protect ourselves from the worst of the many looming threats of climate change.

About Steven Leibo

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