How 350 Has Sparked Hope

In late 2008, James Hansen and nine colleagues published a paper designed to save the world. Years from now, when historians write the definitive history of the climate movement, they may well conclude that Hansen and his colleagues succeeded. For consider the remarkable impact to date of their paper, “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” On October 24, 2009, less than one year after its publication, it inspired hundreds of thousands of citizens from around the world to join over 5,100 “International Day of Climate Action” rallies in 181 countries.

On October 10, 2010, it’s likely that we will see an even larger and more vocal global groundswell of participation in the “Global Work Party,” designed to lay the foundation for a durable and just clean-energy future. CNN concluded that the first event was “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history”; who knows how large the second will be? And all of this brought on by a technical paper from 10 climate scientists! To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never have so few scientists inspired so many people in so short a time.

How did this happen, and how may it indicate that a more sustainable and desirable future is on its way? The brilliance of the Hansen paper is that it offers a clear, if startling, answer to those questions in its title: 350. Humanity, Hansen and his colleagues conclude, needs to aim for 350 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide in order “to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.” The paper presents several distinct arguments for a reduction to 350 ppm of atmospheric CO2, including the need to restore Earth’s energy balance; paleoclimate studies showing enhanced sensitivity of global temperature to CO2; potential sea-level rise if we persist at 385 ppm or above; ecosystem disruption already underway; and instability of major ice sheets. But very few who have held up 350 placards or worn a 350 sticker in the last two years have a real understanding of any of this. So why the unprecedented groundswell? Hundreds of academic papers have raised the alarm about anthropogenic climate change; it’s only in this paper that all of the complexities of climate science are boiled down to the most basic proposition: “We’re at 390, which is too high; we need to get to 350.” For years, climate activists have been trying to spark the climate movement. The introduction of a numerical target has proven to be the necessary catalyst.

There’s another reason for the paper’s success, and it’s the source of hope. 350 became a global rallying call because leaders of a great, swelling movement—what Paul Hawken calls our “Blessed Unrest”—were ready. Specifically,, led so ably by Bill McKibben and his cohorts, showed that there’s a new way to spark large-scale social change: disseminating a clear message via a network-based, open-source strategy. It wasn’t staffers who organized all of those rallies; it was citizens of all kinds in all corners of the globe, connecting with each other through their laptops and cell phones as well as in face-to-face trainings with fellow organizers. The same dynamic was on display at the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen in late 2009, where tens of thousands of civil-society leaders connected by passing out business cards and texting, instantly becoming effective allies. Hawken is right: this movement is “organizing from the bottom up, in every city, town, and culture, and it is emerging to be an extraordinary and creative expression of people’s needs worldwide.”

This special edition on “Getting to 350” can perhaps be best viewed as a gift from the Solutions team to the millions of people who comprise this grand movement. In the material that we have compiled here, we offer analyses, perspectives, and stories that are intended to underline the urgency of this great global challenge, to offer (somewhat sobering) pathways for getting to 350, and to share selected solutions—from investing in smart grids to organizing municipalities—that citizens everywhere can study and then help to apply. And recognizing that this battle must, in large part, be won in the political trenches, we highlight clean-energy policies that can make a big difference in a hurry. The good news is that some—like feed-in tariff policy in China and elsewhere—are underway; others, such as unprecedented public investments in research and development in the United States, need a more forceful coalition to push them over the top.

There is no definitive portfolio of “Getting to 350” solutions; there never will be. As technology advances and human ingenuity surprises yet again, what we understand to be solutions today will inevitably be transformed tomorrow. Indeed, it’s important to avoid getting trapped by the idea that, with enough analysis, we can know precisely what to do; we can’t, and we never will. But what we can do now, echoing a phrase that’s catching on, is get to work.