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McKibben: To Spread the Word, Push a Number

350.org will put worldwide pressure on next climate summit

September 10, 2008 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Noted author and climate change expert Bill McKibben urged a large Traverse City audience to get involved in his new project, 350.org.

TRAVERSE CITY—One of the world’s foremost experts on climate change gave a quiet but inspiring speech to more than 700 people here on Sunday night, urging them to join a movement he’s launching to pressure international leaders to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) and other carbon emissions that are causing global warming.

Click Below to Hear Bill McKibben's Presentation

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Bill McKibben, who calls the new movement 350.org, told the crowd at Lars Hockstad Auditorium that reducing CO2 and other carbon-bearing greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere from their current, too-high levels is now mankind’s most critical challenge. Mr. McKibben said that if, at the next global summit on climate change, in December 2009, world leaders don’t commit to the huge reductions in carbon emissions, the future for human civilization as we know it will be dim.

"It is the biggest thing that human beings have ever done," Mr. McKibben said of how carbon emissions are now changing Earth’s climate. He added that scientists have "moved from consensus to panic" on how deeply and quickly elevated greenhouse gas levels are now changing the climate.

"People who I’ve been talking to and interviewing over a quarter century, who have been concerned about (the levels of carbon in the atmosphere) are now scared, very scared," he said. "It’s going to reach a point where, if we don’t cut back very quickly on the amount of carbon and our use of fossil fuel, these things will be out of our control."

Mr. McKibben urged the audience to join 350.org. He described it as a Web-based, truly worldwide movement to inform people that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere must quickly be reduced from its current level of 387 parts per million, which is playing havoc with the climate, to now more than 350 ppm as quickly as possible. He noted that, for many thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution started burning fossil fuels and pouring CO2 into the atmosphere, that number was well below 300 ppm.

Mr. McKibben said he wants individuals to organize many different events that build awareness of the number 350, use the media and Internet to spread it outward from their own communities, and establish an "an international branding" of 350 that is so widespread that it will pressure leaders to act at the 2009 summit, which happens in Denmark.

"We need to move people in the direction they need to go," he said.

Ahead of the Curve
Mr. McKibben is a prolific author who is widely recognized as one of the nation’s leading experts on climate change. His first book, The End of Nature, was published in 1989 after its serialization in The New Yorker. It is considered to be the first book about climate change for a general audience, according to the author’s biography.

His latest book, Deep Economy, urges a dramatic shift in the American lifestyle and how the country measures prosperity. Instead of considering growth as the sole gauge of economic prosperity, Mr. McKibben suggests developing a much more localized economy that produces its own local foods, energy, culture, and social networks.

That, he said, would not only reinstitute the kind of neighborliness and sense of community that once marked the nation’s way of life, but also lead to dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

He observed that Traverse City seems to be ahead of the curve in understanding that goal. He thanked the Michigan Land Use Institute for organized the event with a host of partners and sponsors, including Cherry Republic, Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, Northwest Michigan Council of Governments, and the Esperance Family Foundation.

He also praised the Institute for advocating for more local foods, fighting the rush to build eight new coal-fired power plants in the state, and aggressively promoting The Grand Vision—a citizen-based transportation and land use study that is developing a 50-year growth strategy for the Grand Traverse region.

"To be in a place where people are working hard on local food," he said, "where people are working hard to stop this new generation of coal-fired power plants, and where people have embarked on something as sweeping and unique as the Grand Vision: Clearly this part of the state is becoming a little bit like parts of Vermont and Oregon, places that are emerging as a leading edge for interesting things to happen."

Troubled Waters
To emphasize the urgency of 350.org’s message, Mr. McKibben listed recent, alarming signs that climate change is advancing at a much faster pace than scientists had expected.

"Hurricane Katrina came through, and everybody saw what happens when you soup up nature," he said. "Last summer the Arctic melted in a way it had never melted before. By summer’s end it had 25 percent less ice than ever before."

McKibben said other dramatic events, like the accelerating decline in Greenland’s ice cover, threaten to raise sea levels by as much as seven feet by the end of the century.

"Seven feet is an almost inconceivable amount for the world to try to cope with," he said. "Raise that sea level a couple of feet and there’s no defending not only New Orleans, but thousands of other coastal cities around the world, where most people live."

Mr. McKibben said every individual could contribute to solving the problem by joining 350.org. He pointed to the powerful impact that a grassroots project he led in April of last year, called Step It Up, had on spreading awareness about global warming. He noted that last year’s project started when he and six students started emailing their friends, asking them to organize rallies, all on the same day, in their own communities.

The result: Citizens participated in Step It Up in 1,400 events across America and attracted significant local and national media attention.

He said he is seeking that same kind of success on an international scale for 350.org, and he’s convinced it can be done largely through the Internet and email networks.

"We need you to think of all kinds of interesting, clever ways, through art, through music, through sports, through churches, to take this number and help us," Mr. McKibben said. "The other thing we need is your networks and contacts around the world. Go to 350.org and sign up.

"We are going to test whether this World Wide Web connecting everyone is really as real as we’ve said," he said. "If there is a reason for its existence, for a reason that God wanted it on Earth, it was not so that people could stay up and play poker in their pajamas until the wee hours. It was so we could take this number, 350, and spread it all around the world. That’s what we are going to have to do."

Glenn Puit is a veteran journalist and a policy specialist with the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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