For the last several years, the world community has been meandering forward on a common goal for reducing the threat of global warming. The idea is that if we could avoid doubling the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, relative to preindustrial levels, we would avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
What if that goal is wrong? What if it's 30% too high?
That's the substance behind the message of a yearlong campaign, led by Bill McKibben that asks people to get familiar with the number 350.
That's 350 ppm, or parts per million. It's the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere circa 1988 (carbon dioxide equivalents, really, but don't sweat it). We're above 350 now, and still pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at ever increasing rates, as we burn fossil fuels like coal and oil.
The number 450 is the current goal. At 450 ppm, the atmosphere will be holding twice as much carbon as before the industrial revolution. Some scientists notably, NASA's James Hansen and advocates notably, McKibben have been arguing that 350 is the target we should be aiming for, based on the latest research.
Well, the campaign got a big endorsement this week from Rajendra Pachauri, the United Nation's top climate scientist, which has led to jubilation from McKibben and his supporters at 350.org. The scientist's statement was even credited to the famed "Colbert Bump," since McKibben had recently appeared on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report.
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"Pachauri joins Jim Hansen, Al Gore, and 94 of the world's poorest and most vulnerable nations in laying down the gauntlet for the Copenhagen negotiations," McKibben writes. "Physics and chemistry demand 350, which means that 'political realism' won't get us very far. It's got to be a difficult message for, say, the Obama Administration, which has relied on the outdated IPCC target of 450 ppm as the justification for its negotiating stance; even some environmental groups have hesitated to join the fight.
"But for the millions of people around the world who are pointing toward Oct. 25 and the 350.org day of action, it's just the push we need to make sure our organizing really goes straight over the top!"
As McKibben implies, this is no panacea, given that the United Nations and Pachauri act as advisers, not dictators. Until now, the U.S. and the world community have been unable to come to terms on a program to replace the Kyoto Protocol, let alone a goal 30% harder to achieve than the goal they hadn't yet been able to agree to. But it's a milestone, nonetheless, that the top negotiators will be dealing with reality -- to some degree -- when they meet in Copenhagen this December to, hopefully, come to a new agreement governing climate change.
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