After 35 years involved in social change campaigns, I don’t easily get excited about new ideas and campaign approaches. Not that we lack good campaigns mind you. With millions of people now out there pushing the boundaries and creatively exploring new ways to cut through our busy lives, there’s some really good stuff going on. Examples include the 1millionwomen campaign that I’ll be writing about in a future column and the amazing explosion of youth campaigning around the world.
Recently though one idea struck me as having the potential to be a real game changer, not to mention a damn clever idea. I’m writing to you about it because I want you to get involved and lend your support. If this campaign is successful it has the potential to shift the global climate debate in a really important way. Here’s why.
Sometimes in life and in society more broadly, we end up at a certain point that we realise doesn’t make sense but we kind of just slipped into it. Such is the case with the much talked about target of 2 degrees and 450ppm for climate policy. There is no logic to this position and no scientific body has ever argued this is a “safe and stable climate” goal. We just arrived at this goal as being “realistic” and the “best we could do” because after all, even that seems hard enough.
The science on this topic however is very straightforward. Achieving 450ppm gives us an almost certain outcome of very serious damage to the global ecosystem and economy and a reasonable chance, some argue around 50%, of going past 2 degrees and into tipping point territory – where system wide breakdown and self reinforcing feedbacks take over and we then risk civilisation’s collapse.
But nevertheless, we’ve slipped into accepting this 450ppm / 2 degrees as the “strong end” of the range of possible outcomes of global agreements on climate change. If we stay with this goal, in 20 years our children will ask us “what were you thinking?” They will say something like:
“The question was whether or not you should risk the collapse of civilisation and your response was to be “realistic” and “do your best”? What did the scientists say was necessary to save humanity and why didn’t you just do that? Was it impossible or just difficult?”
To quote my favourite climate commentator, Winston Churchill, (yeah sure, he thought he was talking about WWII but we know what he really meant) “It is no use saying, “We are doing our best.” You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”
So what is necessary?
I recently attended the Tallberg Forum in Sweden and was presenting in a workshop on mobilising communities, along with Bill McKibben and Jeremy Osborn from 350.org. Bill McKibben had a few years ago wondered the same question so he asked some scientists what they thought the science said was necessary (as opposed to “politically realistic”). The answer was simple : 350ppm. OK then thought Bill, let’s make that the target. Simple.
First I should say I think the number is right, based on current scientific knowledge, which I understand very well. You can see this summarised well by 350.org here. I know for sure that I don’t accept a 50% change of runaway climate change, I want the risk to be as close as possible to zero and certainly down below 10%. I want to look my kids in the eye and say we did “what was necessary”. Yes, difficult, uncomfortable and challenging….but necessary.
So Bill McKibben and his very impressive bunch of young campaigners are now going out to the world with a beautifully simple but fiendishly clever campaign. They say “350 is the most important number on earth”. They are not being hoodwinked into debates about what’s realistic, or what the Copenhagen conference can achieve. They aren’t debating what levels of property rights the coal industry should have, or what the relative commitments of different countries are. They know those arguments are being well discussed already and picking them would lose the public and diffuse their efforts. They are simply saying “the science says we need 350ppm to have a safe climate, so if you plan on anything else you’re risking my future”. Period. Nothing else to discuss right now. Just 350. That’s the number.
It’s beautifully simple, but far from simplistic. We have been hoodwinked by the debate and slipped into a very dangerous place, where we have come to accept a dangerous, civilisation-threatening plan for failure. We must not allow this to stand. We must be the generation that puts science at the centre of policy not politics, self-interest and shareholder value.
While we hope our modern Churchill emerges, and it will be great if she does, we must accept that right now, it is we who must set the framework for the debate, we who must educate the world that 350 is the number and that anything less than that is just not good enough.
So go to www.350.org and lend them your support (in Australia email the local CEO firstname.lastname@example.org), get involved on Oct 24th, donate money and do whatever you can to show your kids that you don’t want to plan for failure. You’re going to do what is necessary. So 350 really is the most important number on earth. Let’s make it ring around the world, all the way to Copenhagen and beyond.