The Danger of Staring too Close at 350

The International Day of Climate Action last Saturday saw the power of grassroots activism leveraged by new media and social networking. Through an online and viral campaign, Bill Mckibben’s climate action group 350.org inspired an international response of more than 5,200 events in 181 countries. Hailed as the “most widespread day of environmental action in the planet’s history,” the action focused on a single number: 350. That’s the level in parts-per-million (ppm) many scientists now say is the safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

Focusing on that single number represents both the genius and the possible Achilles heal of the such a grassroots effort.

A message of 350

Across the globe, climate change activists and concerned citizens all found their own unique ways of displaying the number “350” in hopes of raising awareness of the urgency of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and “to hold our leaders accountable” ahead of the COP15 climate conference this December. And what better way to get that message across than to focus on one simple and clear number representing a world safe from dangerous climate change?

I’m no marketing expert, but I posit that the genius behind most effective marketing campaigns lies in their direct simplicity.

350 means solving global warming. Simple and direct.

When 350 becomes the new 450 – and 550 was the old 450

If only it were that simple. For starters, we shot past 350 ppm of atmospheric CO2 years ago, and our foot is still on the accelerator. Current measurements of CO2 are around 387 ppm and growing annually. Civilization emerged and, for all but barely the past couple hundred years, flourished with 280 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Precisely what the effects are on the climate between 450 ppm, the “safe” number used in the IPCC’s 2007 assessment report, versus the newer target of 350 ppm is difficult to say with any precision. In its 2007 report, the IPCC also considered a likely scenario, depending on global response to climate change, of 550 ppm or higher – levels where the risk of severe climate destabilization become truly hard to accept, even for those not ready to assume 350 as a reasonable goal.

It is clear that the growing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is already disrupting climate, but “picking a number” is a somewhat inexact endeavor. One perhaps better examined from an aspect of tolerance of risk and likelihood of achieving – at least for the short term.

And the the likelihood of pushing CO2 levels down to 350 anytime soon is, for some, slim. According to some scientists and economists,focusing too hard on that number is “so unrealistic that the campaign (risks) not being taken seriously – or could convey the wrong message,” writes Andrew Revkin in a recent New York Times article. Revkin cites Princeton scientist Michael Oppenheimer, formally with the Environmental Defense Fund, characterizing holding CO2 levels below 450 in the coming decades as a “Herculean” effort. M.I.T. economist John M. Reilly warned that “350 is so impossible to achieve that to make it the goal risks the reaction that if we are already over the cliff, then let’s just enjoy the ride until it’s over.” A recent study concludes that CO2 concentration is headed toward levels not seen in at least 15 million years.

This all may lend support to the idea that halting and then reducing CO2 levels to 350 is a mission set up to fail. Yet most reasonable people still acknowledge that the the longer we continue to pour CO2 into the atmosphere, the significantly greater the risk of catastrophic climate disruption. “The message needs to be that there are risks at the current level, and those risks increase the further we push the system,” said Reilly, the economist from M.I.T.

It’s a sticky wicket. If 550 means unacceptable risk, yet 450 is a herculean achievement, where does that leave 350? Let’s party.

D-day for the climate?

And that’s why Mkkibben defends his strategy, saying that setting a clearly defined goal expressed as a single number is the only way to build a “global community” in support of climate action. “We need to be thinking about reducing, not going up more slowly,” McKibben said. “Three-fifty is the number that says wartime footing, let’s see how fast we can possibly move, and let’s hope against hope that it’s fast enough.”

And Mckibben has support from academia for his tactics. Writing in his blog “Island of Doubt,” James Hrynshyn quotes an article by Tufts University economist Frank Ackerman, saying that, at least from an economic standpoint, it is entirely reasonable and practical to “cut emissions of fossil fuels dramatically without causing another global financial meltdown.”

One study Ackerman cites in his article specifically tackles the question of 350:

One group starts from the (realistic) assumption of high unemployment, and finds that long-run employment and economic growth would be increased by a program of public investment in green technology and emissions reduction that leads to 350 ppm. The other three groups adopt the common assumption that short-run unemployment can be ignored in long-run models. They generally find that the needed emissions reductions will cost an average of 1 to 3 percent of world economic output, for some years to come.

Just get moving already

350 is likely the best target for atmospheric CO2. But the reality is that we aren’t going to head immediately in that direction. And focusing on the target without a plan to get there is counterproductive.

“The situation is analogous to people trying to embark on a cross-country road trip to California, but they’ve started off heading to Maine instead,” said Dr. Gavin Schmidt, who manages the blog RealClimate. “But instead of working out ways to turn around, they have decided to argue about where they are going to park when they get to L.A. If you ask a scientist how much more CO2 do you think we should add to the atmosphere, the answer is going to be none”

No matter what number the global community settles on as the ultimate target, setting immediate plans for emissions reduction and quickly implementing them is key to reducing our risk of catastrophic climate change, according to recent reports.

We’ll likely have to accept upwards of 400 ppm before we’ll ever get headed in the right direction. But that’s no reason to abandon 350 as the goal. What’s most important now is not so much the number, but the swiftness of action, and if it takes a single number to get our collective butts moving, then so be it. That’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Or maybe Senator James Inhofe is right, and global warming is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on mankind.” Maybe, but I’m not taking that bet – are you?

350 it is then.


Image credit:Flickr/350.org under a creative commons license

One comment
  1. Enzo Bagnoli

    This is a very complicated subject. Some say it is real others say it is a hoax. I would just say look around. It doesn’t take a genius to see that smokestacks billowing out dirty smoke 24/7 is good for us. Just like if you see and smell the exhaust fumes from cars and trucks and trains and ships…you know that can’t be good for you or mother nature. We need to pursue clean energy..like solar, wind, etc,..and we need to persue recycling of waste products into energy. We also need to overcome the NIMBY mentality when these projects are proposed close to home. The government should be putting more money into funding research to attain many more clean energy sources. Americans have the brainpower to do this. Lets not waste billions on some bailouts when it should be sent to Tech Square. That will save our planet and create a lot of good jobs along the way

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