Why 350 is the most important number (and campaign?) on earth


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 blair@350.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.

10 thoughts on “Why 350 is the most important number (and campaign?) on earth

  1. Thank you Paul. I have been hoping for a unified movement to develop, and soon, because all these fragmented efforts by individual scientists, bloggers, and ecological groups, praiseworthy though they are, aren’t enough to challenge the huge oil and gas lobbies. effectively. 350 is a simple concept and thus it is strong.

  2. Tim Bass

    Paul, What is your view of the nuclear energy option, currently in the news with Garrat’s approval of the new SA mine?

  3. Bill

    I agree 350 is important but so too is 2.1 – the amount of global hectares that each Australian has to produce the resources they need to survive and absorb their waste and – 7.7 – the actual number of hectares each Australian currently requires. We need to stop consuming stuff – including those things that directly or indirectly emit CO2.

  4. Hi Paul, we corresponded before you went to Sweden re the AMPLIFY Innovation & Thought Leadership event that I curate. I’d like to invite you to participate in a Conversation Cafe at my organisaton in October to come and talk about the significance of 350. We will live tweet on Twitter and live blog it on the AMPLIFY website, audio-cast the talk, share the audio podcast on our blog and invite all attending employees with social media accounts to spread it to all their network, friends and family if they feel so inspired. I am with you- let’s do everything necessary….I’m here to help.

  5. Dear Paul
    Again thanks for taking me beyond current thinking. One element of these debates that frustrates me terribly (and that I would appreciate your take on) is the mainstream dialgoue on the ‘demographic timebomb. Now when you and I were simple young lads cvorting around Melboutne together we knew this timebomb to mean the impact of uncontrolle population growth. Now conventional wisdom tells us the opposite. I have been irritated by the analyis for ages but the recent Economist feature on the subject made me furious. Not once was there reference, not even a sardonic throw away line, to the good that might flow from a declining world population. Not once did they take into account the potential positive impact on the environment, potential corrections to the mutant food chain, on water supplies etc if/when the shrinkage of the human race really gains momentum. I understand the economic issues of aging populations but there are counter arguments to this that I never ever hear discussed including the incredible potential in realigning infrastructure as well as natural and human assets to smaller populations. Then I started to wonder who had a stake in not bringing the potential positives to the surface and I decided that it might be both the optimists and the naysayers. Perhaps all the current thinking has a vested interest in a paradigm that is based on unending growth because those are the arguments we are most comfortable with – a little like our reasons for us accepting the ‘wrong’ PPM figure because that is what we allowed to capture the debate. I’d be interested in your past or new thinking about the stupidiy of the current mainstream media’s musings on the demographic disaster we face (in terms of a decline in the human race).
    Thanks as always

  6. Bill is traveling all around the world to support local activists and organizers to inspire days of action on October 24th, when the UN meets to discuss climate change. What’s also brilliant about 350 is that it works in just about every language.



  7. Mike Ives

    Certainly this must be our ultimate goal Paul but as we are already way past the 350 parts per million CO2 mark this will come at a considerable cost and we need to figure out the most cost beneficial way and how to safely sequester the end product. Your reference to the US expenditure on WW2 efforts on ABC RN recently come to mind and we need to ask ourselves why we are not viewing this climate change issue as a ‘WW3’ scenario as similar monetary sacrifices will be required.
    Certainly I for one have grave doubts in the success of the current studies in Australia and elsewhere being funded at billions of tax payer’s dollars to separate and extract CO2 from fossil fired power station flumes, cool, compress to super critical pressures, pump into voids in the ground then pray that Gaia will never again suffer from flatulence in the feint hope it will stay put indefinitely. I would be far more at ease if we were storing carbon or calcium carbonate.

    Rough figures on cost in extracting CO2 from the atmosphere using say the Zeman & Lackner spay sodium hydroxide method (Environ. Sci. Technol., 2008, 42 (8), pp 2728–2735) look to be somewhere between US$1 and US$4 Trillion pa globally just to keep up with current discharges (not to mention the backlog of plus 350 ppm CO2 and methane currently escaping from the permafrost of Siberia)
    Hence I feel expenditure 25% of US GDP or 10% of Global GDP pa is ball park annual outlay and not beyond credibility.

    Yes Paul we do need Churchill’s fighting philosophy or perhaps a J F Kennedy’s ‘Man on the Moon’ commitment to stir us homo sapiens into action. Is there anyone out there?

  8. I’d like to recommend the 2006/2007 movie ‘Amazing Grace’ about William WIlberforce whose campaign abolished slavery.. but only after years of effort and failure… lateral thinking saved the day.. inspirational for the climate movement, an apt metaphor for the climate movement. Video Ezy should have it.

  9. Shakt, ‘Amazing Grace’ WAS Amazing, and the parallels to today’s environmental and economic arguments are astonishing. Does anything here sound familiar? (Just substitute either slaves for coal and see if it works).

    “But slaves are too important economically, we’d be devastated.”

    “How many businesses here depend on slaves?”

    “What are we meant to do WITHOUT slaves? There’s no real alternative that can do the same job!”

    “Slaves are THERE to be USED!”

    “It’s our right to use slaves!”

    “Maybe we could slowly ease out of using slaves, and stop using only 10% of them over the next decade to ease businesses off slaves…”

    The reality is that businesses innovated after slaves were freed, economies adjusted, technologies evolved, some areas of the economy thrived while others went under, and the old cycle of the “destructive economy” of one dying industry being devoured by a younger, newer, more innovative industry continued.

    One thing I would do (if I had the power) is guarantee every coal, gas, and oil worker a place in the wind, waves, and solar thermal and geothermal markets that are coming. Let’s get them from ‘hell’ underground up to more ‘heavenly’ above ground, clear sky renewable technologies.

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