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Lower the Heat to 350 -- Unless You Want to Broil

Kerry Trueman

You know how those amps in the 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap had a dial that went all the way to eleven? Twenty-four years later, we've become a nation of Nigel Tufnels, twiddling with the earth's thermostat and pushing it past its natural limits. This time, it's not so funny.

We're so busy worrying about $4-a-gallon gas -- or the prospect of $140-a-barrel oil-- that we've lost sight of a much more fundamental number: the amount of carbon dioxide, aka CO2, that's building up in our atmosphere. Right now, we're at about 385 parts per million, or ppm.

If we keep letting the C02 build up, we're heading for a Titanic catastrophe -- except that there won't be any 'iceberg, right ahead!' There won't be any icebergs left at all.

Yeah, yeah, you've heard it all before, all this clucking from the Chicken Little/Cassandra contingent. Except that you haven't. There's something new. Our foremost experts on global warming, faced with mounting evidence that our climate is changing much faster than anticipated, have recently concluded that the European Union's goal of capping our CO2 levels at 550 ppm is insufficient, assuming we want to preserve life as we know it.

James Hansen, NASA's chief climatologist, put it in his stark but scholarly way:

"...if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm."

Hansen's been trying to get us to pay attention to this stuff for decades, along with a few other folks I can think of. Neil Young's been warning us for THIRTY EIGHT YEARS, going back to "After The Goldrush," when he sang, "look at Mother Nature on the run in the nineteen seventies." Now, he's amended it to "look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st century."

And Marvin Gaye, were he only alive, could do a remake of his 1971 hit, "Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology)" without changing a word:

Oh, mercy mercy me Oh, things ain't what they used to be No, no Where did all the blue sky go? Poison is the wind that blows From the north, east, south, and sea Oh, mercy mercy me Oh, things ain't what they used to be No, no Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas Fish full of mercury Oh, mercy mercy me Oh, things ain't what they used to be No, no Radiation in the ground and in the sky Animals and birds who live nearby are dying Oh, mercy mercy me Oh, things ain't what they used to be What about this overcrowded land? How much more abuse from man can you stand?

How much, indeed? In 1989, Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature, the first book about global warming for us non-wonks. McKibben warned us that we were changing the planet irrevocably and would have to make some fundamental changes in the way we live if we want life as we know it to continue.

OK, so here we are, a couple decades later, and I am pleading with you all, will you for once please just LISTEN to this guy? He wants to have a word with you. Or rather, a number. The number is 350. As in, 350 parts per million. That is the number that James Hansen and his climate change colleagues have established as the CO2 level we need to aim for if we hope to avoid six irreversible tipping points, including a massive rise in sea levels and huge changes in rainfall patterns (hello, Cedar Rapids.)

So McKibben's launching a new campaign,, with the help of a wonderful, wordless video from the folks at Free Range Studios, who gave us The Story of Stuff and The Meatrix. Because The World Needs To Know is a universal call to arms -- or to legs, actually, as in, go ride a bike! Can we pedal our way to a CO2 level of 350 ppm? I don't know, but one thing's for sure: James Hansen's checked the coordinates, and this is one destination we can't get to by car. Kerry Trueman is Co-founder of, a netroots website & organization that advocates sustainable agriculture, progressive politics and a less-consumption driven way of life.

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