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What Difference Does 350 Make?


350 at BU's Marsh Plaza

This past Saturday (October 24th) was the International Day of Climate Action. The “Action” chosen this year was thousands of displays of the number “350” around the globe, including the above, at BU‘s Marsh Plaza. The number refers to the carbon dioxide atmospheric load in parts per million. This commonly used metric is the independent variable upon which policymakers base their reduction targets.

There has been quite a lot of press in the run-up to the event exclaiming how 350 ppm is the maximum load under which the climate would remain stable. The number comes from Jim Hansen, the NASA climate scientist, by way of environmentalist Bill McKibben. It is something of an arbitrary number (why not 365?), but more importantly, politically untenable. The IPCC barely recognizes 350 as a possible stabilization level in its latest synthesis report, and even pro-environment lawmakers do not see this target as attainable.

What, then, is the use of having over 4,000 displays of a quixotic number that has no real place in the policy debate leading up to Copenhagen and likely eludes the immediate understanding of onlookers? It is partially catharsis for environmentalists and is an easy totem for the faithful to rally around (and it’s not unimpressive that rallies took place in 170 countries). It’s also the case that if 450 ppm is possible in Copenhagen, it may become possible to get 350 ppm somewhere down the line.

But if the 350 campaign is ultimately an empty gesture, what would have been a more productive use of the International Day of Climate Action?

Photo by Kalman Zabarsky [BU Today]

2 Responses

  1. Though there is no doubt that the 350 ppm target is completely politically untenable I think the 350.org folks may be onto something. While there are many true believers in the movement (people who its realistic to stabilize at 350) I think Bill McKibben and the organizers are more wide-eyed.

    By publicizing the issue so widely and putting an arbitrary yet meaningful number in people’s minds, 350.org has shifted the debate – and expectations – from talk about meeting average and middle-of-the-road targets to achieving higher thresholds. By setting the bar high (or low, depending on your perspective), lesser goals such as 450 ppm are now viewed as almost must-dos to avert climate disaster. I don’t think the 305.org campaign will have a significant impact on COP15 but I do think it will play an important role in shifting future climate discourse, especially in the popular debate.

    Note: The author has no affiliation with 350.org!!!

  2. An additional note of interest that’s been sparked by the whole 350ppm issue is the big Boston Sleep-Out. Tons of environmentally-minded students, activists, and others are making a pledge to sleep outside on the Boston Common and BU students are even going to sleep out in Marsh Plaza too. The idea is to push the governor of Mass. to pass a clean energy bill. This determined group has made the commitment to ‘sleep-out’ every weekend until the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December. Talk about dedication! Although, this does sound like a really fun way to get to know other like-minded peers in the area. Schools from all over Boston are participating.

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