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Monadnock Ledger-Transcript (New Hampshire)

McKibben: 350 The Most Important Number

Dave Eisenstadter

PETERBOROUGH, New Hampshire - The most important number on the planet is 350, according to writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben.0723 09

At a Monadnock Summer Lyceum lecture at the Peterborough Unitarian Universalist Church Sunday, McKibben said research has shown 350 parts per million is the amount of carbon dioxide scientists agree is safe to have in our atmosphere. Beyond 350, the human race is in trouble.

As of 2008, we're already over the line at 387, he said.

"Over the past 20 years, global warming has gone from a hypothesis to a consensus among scientists and into a kind of panic," he said.

McKibben, whose first book, "The End of Nature," appeared in 1989, has been writing about global warming and climate change for those same 20 years.

Crunching the numbers

Numbers made up a theme of McKibben's talk. America's population -- 4 percent of the world population -- is producing 25 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, he said.

On a recent trip to Bangladesh, McKibben contracted dengue fever, a mosquito-borne illness on the rise as a result of an increase in the mosquito population in the warmer global climate. While in his hospital bed among others suffering from the epidemic, it was sobering for him to realize that in some way Americans were responsible for one in four of the people in the beds beside him, he said

Thirty is the number of years the polar ice caps have been slowly melting away, until last summer when California-sized chunks were melting each week. According to McKibben, four is the number of weeks a northwest passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans opened during that summer, a route blocked to explorers by ice for hundreds of years.

Among all the others, however, the number McKibben asked the audience to remember is 350 parts per million in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide. In this number is safety, he said, but with continually increasing carbon dioxide emissions around the world, it will be difficult to reach.

"Reaching 350 parts per million involves ceasing to pour carbon into the air, which means ceasing to burn oil and coal," McKibben said. "We must move away from fossil fuels faster than is comfortable or easy."

McKibben likened the situation to a patient in a doctor's office who had just learned his cholesterol level is too high, and without a change in lifestyle a heart attack or stroke could be imminent.

Even for the very optimistic, McKibben said, sustaining the current energy system seems difficult to imagine, a system that involves defending thousands of miles of pipeline through the Middle East.

Hope through community

According to McKibben, rising gas prices over the past six months have done what environmentalists have attempted to do over the past several decades: revitalize an interest in local community.

Americans are driving less and are flying less. McKibben said that by next year, business experts project there will be 20 percent fewer airline seats available because of a decreasing demand.

Americans are also buying more local food. According to McKibben, the business at farmers' markets has been growing at a rate faster than Wal-Mart over the past few years. "Though they're not caught up yet," McKibben added humorously.

Food generally travels 2,000 miles before reaching the mouth of the person who eats it, destroying its nutrition and flavor, he said. "It has been effectively marinated in crude oil."

McKibben said these changes are having the effect of strengthening the community. Studies show shoppers have an average of 10 times more conversations at a farmer's market than at a supermarket, he said.

"Cheap fossil fuels have made us too self-reliant," McKibben said. "They have allowed us to have no practical need for our neighbors."

The number of Americans who said they led happy lives peaked in 1956 and has gone down steadily since, even though the standard of living has become three times as expensive, he said.

The American Dream since then has been to have bigger houses farther apart, McKibben said. As a result, statistics show Americans now have half as many close friends as Americans did in 1956. "That is a fact no amount of iPods in the world can make up for," he said.

There is a great deal to be said for relocalizing and becoming more community oriented, he said, noting the changes he has witnessed over the past six months have made him optimistic.

The symbolic over the practical

The problem, as McKibben sees it, is that there is extremely little time to correct the problem before the planet takes over warming itself without our help.

"It turns the practical response upside-down," he said.

The usual method of starting small and building will not be sufficient. Rather than employ practical solutions to the energy issue, such as replacing light bulbs, Mc-Kibben advocates for symbolic action.

"We need rapid change at the top," McKibben said. "We need to set an appropriate price for carbon emission at the government level and hope the markets work the way they are supposed to work."

McKibben said the $1 change in gas prices had the effect of turning SUVs from a status symbol among Americans to something nobody wants.

Along with five Middlebury students and faculty, McKibben started a march to Burlington through Vermont which came to include 1,000 people. When they arrived, politicians from both parties met them and signed a petition pledging to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

Following a speech given by former Vice President Al Gore earlier this year, both democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama pledged to the same goal or 80 percent carbon reduction.

Spreading the word (or number)

McKibben's goal is to make the number 350 ubiquitous around the world, and he has begun by getting involved with a Web site called He asked audience members to visit the Web site and also to take action.

James Hansen, who works for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and as Gore's science advisor, published the paper stating 350 is the safe number of parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Hansen is also known for his testimony on climate change he delivered to congressional committees in the 1980s, which helped raise awareness of the global warming issue.

Projects involving the number 350 have included 350 bicycles circling capital buildings, 350 trees being planted, and in Massachusetts, 350 churches ringing bells 350 times throughout the year.

"In a democracy, you don't need 51 percent to make change," Mc-Kibben said. "You need 5 percent to become active."

Coincidentally, one of the organizers of the Monadnock Summer Lyceum lecture series reported the attendance for the day's lecture was 350.

During the question-and-answer period following the speech, an audience member asked Mc-Kibben if he is worried that he was only preaching to the choir about climate change.

McKibben said 70 percent of Americans agree climate change is an issue.

"I'm not worried about preaching to the choir because the choir is large enough," McKibben said. "I worry about the choir not singing loudly enough."

2008 © Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

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