The number 350 seems so innocent, so small, so prime and human-scaled that you can picture it in your mind. It's not like those inconceivable numbers: the trillions that measure the national debt, billions that measure world population and millions that measure the carbon in the atmosphere.
Three hundred fifty parts per million is the "safe" level of carbon emissions in the atmosphere, according to NASA scientist James Hansen. We are currently at 385 ppm. In this case, "safe" means avoiding the most disastrous effects of climate change, such as having the sea level rise and swallow the world's coastlines and a radical redistribution of groundwater make farmlands into deserts. Basically, we are making our home inhospitable to humans and most other species on our planet.
In Hansen's words, "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." What Hansen is warning us about is that we have overshot the climate's ability to maintain the temperature range our species needs to thrive.
Saturday, Oct. 24, will be the most widespread day of environmental action in the planet's history. "The International Day of Climate Action will cover almost every country on earth. ... There will be big rallies in big cities, and incredible creative actions across the globe: mountain climbers on our highest peaks with banners, underwater demonstrations in island nations threatened by sea level rise, churches and mosques and synagogues and ashrams engaged in symbolic action, star athletes organizing mass bike rides -- and hundreds upon hundreds of community events to raise awareness of the need for urgent action," according to organizers.
These 3,700 actions in 162 countries will highlight the number 350 and the message that we must find creative ways to reduce carbon in the atmosphere now. "We're like the patient that goes to the doctor and learns he's overweight, or his cholesterol is too high," 350.org says. "He doesn't die immediately -- but until he changes his lifestyle and gets back down to the safe zone, he's at more risk for heart attack or stroke."
For a carbon-fat country, such as ours, to get back to the 350 safe zone means transforming ourselves. "It means building solar arrays instead of coal plants ... planting trees instead of clear-cutting rainforests ... increasing efficiency and decreasing our waste," the 350 organizers say.
Part of the impetus for the International Day of Climate Action is the global treaty currently being hashed out for signing at the United Nations climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December. Copenhagen may well be the pivotal moment that determines whether or not we get the planet out of the climate crisis, and many activists believe the current treaty to be too weak to reduce current emissions to the 350 safety zone.
"We need people to understand that 350 marks either success or failure for these climate negotiations," organizers note. "We think the voice of ordinary people will be heard, if it's loud enough." Want to find a 350 action near you or start one up? Visit 350.org.
Shawn Dell Joyce is an award-winning columnist and founder of the Wallkill River School in Orange County, N.Y. You can contact her at [email protected].